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Mixing things up in phones

Are cell phones smart enough for new generations of wireless downloads? Most can't even multitask--but that may be changing before too long.

SAN FRANCISCO--Cell phones can't do too many things at once.

Most of today's handhelds perform one task at a time, like looking up a calendar item, finding the contact's information in another listing, then dialing out. Only very few have the processing prowess and memory large enough to compress the three steps into something like one-tap dialing from a contact list.

But multitasking is coming to cell phones, with some of the software needed to perform simultaneous tasks being shown off at this week's JavaOne trade show. Chipmakers are also developing memory chips capable of storing more than a laptop's worth of data. And handset makers plan to soon add more processing power to cell phones.

The new devices, which should debut sometime in October, are expected to make it easier for users to use the downloadable games, business applications or streaming music that wireless carriers now sell. But whether these devices help improve the popularity of these services remains to be seen, especially because America's 141 million wireless dialers have yet to take to some of the oldest data services, such as text messaging.

Most of the earliest advanced services have also met grimaces instead of smiles because of the complexity involved, perhaps leaving a bad first impression that no multitasking whiz of a handheld could overcome.

"Have you ever tried to take a picture with a camera phone and send it to somebody? Oh no," said Katherine Barnes, a vice president at wireless software developer SavaJe Technologies.

"Everybody's pushing for a 'three-step process,'" instead of the minefield of steps and cell phone button pushes now needed, Barnes said.

Indeed, handset manufacturers are still trying to get these advanced phones to perform basic functions, let alone multitask. Mobile operators in Europe attending the UMTS 2003 Deployment Congress this week were reportedly bitter about the performance of the first wave of phones to hit the market. The phones use the standard UMTS, which most of the world's carriers will eventually use in order to sell downloadable videos and other products designed to generate more revenue.

Research In Motion, which makes the popular BlackBerry pager, has the only products that act like the personal computers that they are starting to resemble. A portion of the operating system that the company developed allows the pagers to display more than one window, a key piece of the multitasking puzzle.

Sun Microsystems, RIM and others are now lobbying to have the RIM software that's responsible for creating multiple portion windows become part of a standard version of Sun's Java programming language, which is used by hundreds of millions of cell phones to download games, music and other digital sundries.