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Home phones get hip, high-tech

Cordless-phone makers are pulling out all the stops to hold on to their customers as an increasing number of people are turning to cell phones.

Ben Charny Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Ben Charny
covers Net telephony and the cellular industry.
Ben Charny
5 min read
Cordless-phone makers are pulling out all the stops to hold on to their customers.

An increasing number of people with both a cell phone and a home phone are choosing to junk their landline. In response, the makers of cordless phones are going on the offensive, making their phones look and feel more like cell phones--or even act like them.

"Many people in this industry are very, very worried," said Howard Gutowitz, founder of Eatoni Ergonomics, which makes software used to enter text into cordless phones.

With so much revenue at stake--the companies have become used to customers having multiple lines and are not interested in a trend toward fewer lines--cordless phone makers are going to keep adding features and keep making technology upgrades, industry observers say.

Already, some phone makers have added features such as games and directories, and they're dumping the traditional blocky design for a sleeker, hipper cell phone look. One British company has created a hybrid phone that uses cordless technology in the house, then jumps to a cellular network when it gets too far from the base unit.

"The test bed for innovation is going to be there; these phones are cheap, and you can justify the purchase because of these other functions, which are pretty damn interesting," Gutowitz said.

While only between 3 percent and 6 percent of all Americans have chosen to exclusively use cell phones, analysts say that number is likely to go as high as 10 percent. Aurica Yen, an analyst with The Yankee Group, said that means that in 2006, there will be as many long-distance calls made on cellular telephones as there are on home phones. Currently, the two totals are billions of minutes apart.

"That's pretty frightening" for the landline phone industry, she said.

Some wireless carriers have picked up on the trend and are looking to press their advantage. In Minnesota, Qwest Communications International has introduced "Q by Qwest," offering a cell phone plan with unlimited minutes for $39.99, a heavily discounted price designed to lure people away from their cordless phone.

To be sure, there likely will always be a certain market for landline phones, as these phones still have one big advantage: They have an unending power source--the wall electrical socket. Cell phones have batteries that can die at the most inopportune times.

"Why do you have a home phone? Always been there, sense of security. What if your battery goes out on your wireless and you need to call 911?" Yen said. "Wireline is almost like a security blanket."

Forget about memory
But cordless phones that try to mimic cell phones have a design disadvantage. Cordless phones have about 128 kilobits of memory available to power the entire phone. The least expensive cell phones typically have about 10 times more than that.

The limited amount of memory has already proven to be a roadblock for Eatoni Ergonomics, which makes software to enter text into cell phones by predicting the next letter. Its software is inside Panasonic's messaging phone.

On a cell phone, the software can work with 24 languages. But on cordless phones there is only enough memory for six languages' worth of guessed words, Gutowitz said.

Still, software makers have been able to cram a lot into cordless phones. The latest cordless phone from Siemens comes with a 33-minute digital answering machine and a 200-name phone directory, and it can display information in English, French, Spanish or Portuguese. Others are developing games that can be played between cordless phone handsets.

The phone by U.K. phone maker Sagem contains some of the most dramatic features. It's a hybrid cellular-cordless phone that can hop between the two networks. Within 55 yards of a base station, it works on a cordless network. It can then switch to a cell network when the caller travels greater distances.

There are inconveniences: Customers need to press a button on the phone to make the switch, which means ending the call and redialing. In the product manual, the company says the phone can also switch automatically, but it doesn't provide further details on whether an existing call would be cut off during the switch.

In addition, the phone works on wireless telephone networks that use only GSM (Global Systems for Communications) equipment and a new way for cordless handsets to communicate with base stations that isn't available yet in the United States. However, most in the industry expect this new type of cordless phone standard to come to the United States in the next two years.

Cordless-phone makers are also tackling the issue of making their calls clearer. Manufacturers have embraced a new way for cordless phones to be cordless--a wireless networking standard called DECT, or Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications.

Most cordless phones operate using eight different routes through a portion of spectrum. DECT sends its signals through 120 channels. With more channels to work with, the signals have more routes to travel, which helps cut down on interference from things like garage-door openers.

DECT can also be used to communicate with other devices, opening up the cordless phone so it can interoperate with devices such as fax machines. It's enough to give Gutowitz dreams of the cordless phone becoming, against the odds, a new home-networking king.

"It'll just build and build and build and build, and suddenly it's there," he said.

Makeover central
Already, many companies are selling far more handsets per phone. Panasonic sells up to seven more handsets per phone, to place at different locations throughout a home or office. The extra handsets don't need to be wired into a base station and come with their own charger.

Panasonic product manager Wayne Borg says the extra phones, due in stores in May, will allow customers to use them to "multi-task." For example, one handset could be set up as a baby monitor, but the phone could still send and receive calls on another handset, he said.

And the latest cordless phones are looking a lot more like cell phones. In addition to being smaller, they have screens and fewer buttons. Maneuvering around older cordless phones meant pushing buttons labeled for one task. The more tasks, the more buttons.

Newer cordless phones have borrowed the "menu" button idea from cell phones, which prompt options such as "check voice mail" or "dial new number" on the screen. After scrolling to the right choice, press another button and you're off.

"Cordless phones are starting to mimic cellular stylings," Borg said.