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Ericsson answers the call for MP3

New Ericsson cell phones offer some of the hottest new consumer trends--by means of add-on cartridges--although there are still some issues to iron out.

LAS VEGAS--It's not your daddy's cell phone anymore.

New Ericsson cell phones will offer some of the hottest new consumer trends by means of add-on cartridges with MP3 and Bluetooth technology, although there are still some issues to iron out.

The Swedish phone company is using the Comdex computer trade show here to show off sleek new phones that offer wireless Internet access and limited Web surfing, as are rival digital handset makers including Nokia and Sony. But while others are loading phones with bells and whistles, Ericsson is offering a range of add-on cartridges including a digital music player, FM radio and a keyboard for messaging.

The company also Comdex: Closing the millennium has developed a module with Bluetooth technology that works with a wireless headset. Backed by a wide range of high-tech companies, Bluetooth radio technology is designed to link mobile phones, portable PCs and digital organizers, among other devices.

The company faces some potential stumbling blocks, however. Each module works with a separate phone model, so the devices are not really interchangeable. The lack of interoperability may add to the hassle of picking out a cell phone and a compatible service plan, a headache most phone users know well.

In addition, the company says it eventually may end up integrating all the functionality back into the phone.

"The phone technology keeps changing," Chris Farrell, senior product marketing manager for Ericsson, said in explaining that because of the fast pace of technology advances, it is difficult to ensure that all Ericsson phones will be compatible with the add-on cards.

But if the cartridges are somewhat of a temporary measure as the company works to integrate the technology into the phone itself, the strategy may be a smart one. Although cell phone makers are feverishly working to cram all different types of functionality into very small phones, another school of thought--advocated primarily by Palm Computing--says to keep these devices as simple and easy to use as possible.

Just because it is technically possible to design a phone with a calendar, organizer, address book and wireless email and Web surfing capabilities, doesn't necessarily mean that you should, the thinking goes.

"It's not what you put into the devices, but what you leave out," said Alan Kessler, president of Palm, during a discussion of digital devices here. "The key is keeping it simple."

Ericsson's efforts are similar to those employed by Palm licensee Handspring. The start-up company recently released its much-anticipated Visor, an inexpensive palm-sized organizer designed to be upgraded with similar add-ons such as MP3 players, global positioning systems and e-books. Early demand for the product has been strong, and the small company has struggled to fill early orders.

The Ericsson add-ons also provide another benefit: minimizing the number of devices being schlepped around, analysts say.

"I think the MP3 module is a very smart product--it's right on target for young trendsetter types who already have phones, and want to play digital audio, but are not about to carry around another device," said Will Nelson, editor of Smaller.com, an online resource and shopping site for mobile computers and devices.

"It also shows that moving forward, it will be the phone around which the consumer user will organize their mobile computing, not the PDA [personal digital assistant]. The phone is not a peripheral, but the hub," he added.

Set to be available in mid-2000, Ericsson's MP3 player offers 32MB of memory and uses the phone keypad as function keys. The music player is designed to turn off automatically when the phone rings, and it connects to a PC via a docking station. The keyboard attachment is designed to improve the messaging and email capabilities offered along with wireless Internet access.

Pricing has not yet been set.

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