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Move over, iPhone: here comes 3G

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The cellphone, as we know it, may be about to enter an entirely new era. No, it's not Apple's new iPhone. While it may be cool in the way that only Apple can make things cool, the iPhone already lags behind some Asian counterparts.

The truly new era involves a technology known as 3G, and it will transform your cellphone into a wallet, bank card, mini-entertainment center, computer, TV, or a ticket for a bus, train, or airline – just to name a few functions.

Yet industry experts say that a cellphone's main calling (pardon the pun) will remain making phone calls, regardless of how many bells and whistles are added.

3G is the cellphone equivalent of high-speed Internet access. It has been used in Japan for several years and is spreading across Europe.

In the United States, some carriers have recently added several 3G offerings. But Americans still primarily use cellphones to make phone calls. True, the devices are also increasingly used to take pictures, play music, and send text messages (a national texting championship in New York later this year features a top prize of $25,000).

In the end, though, "It is first and foremost about being a good phone," says Michael Gartenberg, vice president and research director at Jupiter Research, a market research firm in New York. "Phones that offer lots of other functions, but aren't good phones, never do well in the market."

When 3G finally arrives, the cellphone will become a device designed as much (or more) to entertain its owner as to serve as a communication device. (One British company estimates that, in a few years, 125 million people around the world will use cellphones to watch TV.) International travelers will also be able to use their cellphones in any country with a 3G network.

Adoption of high-speed cellphone networks has been slow in the US for a number of reasons: Our land-line phone system, for instance, has always been much better than that of many other countries, so Americans don't have the same needs for mobile communications as those who are less well served. Also, early mobile phone services were prohibitively expensive, which set the industry back.

But 2007 and 2008 should see several US carriers offering 3G service. And some experts predict a global battle between 3G and other wireless high-speed networks such as Wi-Fi and WiMAX.

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