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Will screen phones ring up sales?

Are people really going to want to receive email, multimedia, and phone calls on the same device? Depends on whom you ask.

Depending on who's talking, the announcement that three major telephone technology providers have licensed Sun Microsystems' Java programming language to make Internet-enabled phones is either the latest milestone in a soon-to-explode convergence of voice and data communication or just another announcement.

The difference of opinion seems to hinge on how one comes down on the basic question of existence for these devices: Are people going to want to receive email, the Web's multimedia, and phone calls on the same device or are they not?

In any event, it is clear that screen phones (or Web phones) are coming out. Samsung, Alcatel and Northern Telecom have all signed licensing agreements to use Personal Java software in their Internet phones, according to Sun. Earlier this year, Uniden and others released screen phone devices, which allow users to take phone calls, use email, and receive limited information from the Internet.

To Sean Kaldor, director of consumer device research at International Data Corporation, the all-in-one communication devices, even with their limited surfing capacity, will be a hit.

"In a recent survey we did, we found that 41 percent of the U.S. population found it attractive to very attractive and of those, 25 percent said they were likely to purchase in the next 12 months," he said.

Another key to success will be the ancillary services that develop around screen phones, such as those which enable users both to make calls and connect to the Internet cheaply. So far, providers are responding to the challenge by providing cut-rate Internet connections for under $7 for screen phones.

Users can't surf the web, Kaldor said, but they gain by only paying half the price. One company that could be a winner in this new industry is Spyglass, he added, which makes server software that allows providers to deliver different types of information--text-only, or text and graphics information--to different devices on the same Internet account.

More devices will likely crop up in the future as Sun and Microsoft continue their respective licensing efforts. The devices will likely stay under the $400 price point, which is the current standard for screen phones.

Kaldor's optimism aside, others see the product as an evolutionary backwater. "You've got to wonder if people won't pay $250 for Web TV why would you buy a phone," Dataquest analyst Kimball Brown asked rhetorically.