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Why I'm excited about smart-phones

You'll have to excuse me, but I'm pretty excited these days. All the compelling developments with smart-phones have me as buzzed about technology as I've been since probably the early days of the World Wide Web.

You'll have to excuse me, but I'm pretty excited these days. All the compelling developments with smart-phones have me as buzzed about technology as I've been since probably the early days of the World Wide Web.

As an iPhone owner, I'm of course anticipating what Apple will say next Monday at its developers conference - there's a new version of the operating system in the works and plenty of buzz about new iPhones.

But that's just the start. In coming weeks and months we're going to see a whole lot of innovations in the smart-phone world. Among them: Palm's new Pre phone running the company's new webOS, of course; 18 new phones running an updated version of Google's Android operating system; a long-awaited update to Microsoft's Windows Mobile software; new application stores from Palm, Microsoft, Research In Motion and Nokia; and faster network speeds from AT&T.

All of these developments remind me of the early days of the PC industry or the Web, when no one knew where the innovation would lead and each new advance encouraged others to copy it, or make it better.

Is it any wonder I'm a little jazzed?

For the uninitiated, smart-phones are essentially handheld computers disguised as cell phones. They can make simple phone calls, of course, but, because they include a full-fledged operating system like a PC, they can do a lot more, including download e-mail, surf the Web or keep track of your expenses.

If you haven't jumped onto the smart-phone train yet, don't feel alone. Analysts estimate that while sales of such devices are growing rapidly, smart-phone shipments still make up just 12 percent of the overall global market for cell phones.

Even though I'd been itching for one for years, I didn't get my first smart-phone until August - an iPhone 3G.

Since I bought it, the device has become almost another appendage. I use it all the time: to read online news, check sports scores or play games. To listen to music or news. To check my work e-mail when I'm away from the office to help clear out my inbox and stay up to speed with the latest goings-on.

Because it's become such a big part of my life, it's awesome to think that it's only going to get better. First, there's the new OS, which will be available for free to current owners later this year.

Among the new additions: a new universal search feature, the ability to copy and paste from one application to another - finally! - and a background notification system that will alert you when you get an instant message, say, or when someone is inviting you to play a multiplayer game with them.

But, more important, my iPhone's likely to get better because competition in the smart-phone market is going to spur even more innovation.

Saturday, for example, Palm's new Pre phone will hit store shelves. The Pre is the first phone to feature Palm's innovative new operating system, webOS, which does a number of things that the iPhone OS doesn't.

It will allow users to run multiple applications at once and easily switch between them, for instance, something you generally can't do on current iPhones. And the operating system allows programs to bring together data stored in different places, including multiple places on the Internet. This allows users to do things like create address-book entries that include information from their corporate Exchange e-mail server, their friends' Facebook pages and their instant-messaging accounts.

But the Pre isn't the only new thing on tap in the smart-phone world. Late last month, Google rolled out an update to its own smart-phone operating system, Android, adding features such as a virtual on-screen keyboard, video recording and support for stereo Bluetooth headsets. Google also reportedly announced that by the end of the year, some 18 new Android phones will be on the market worldwide.

Microsoft, meanwhile, is expected to introduce Windows Mobile 7 later this year, a significant update to its own phone operating system. And on the carrier side of things, AT&T just announced that it's upgrading its data network, doubling the potential speed with which customers will be able to surf the Web and do other Internet-related tasks.

In other words, there's lots going on in the smart-phone world. And each new advance by a particular company encourages competitors to match or better it.

After seeing the success of the iPhone, rival phone makers soon came out with their own touch-screen devices. Taking another page from Apple, Nokia, Microsoft, Research In Motion and Palm are now launching application stores, one-stop shops where smart-phone users can find and download new programs directly to their gadgets.

And it's not just a one-way street. Those rivals are influencing Apple as well, encouraging it to frequently upgrade its phones and add significant new features.

In addition to the announced iPhone updates, there are already rumors swirling that Apple will soon get up to speed with rivals by allowing future iPhones to run multiple applications at once and record video. Similarly, Palm's combined address book feature is such a great idea that I'd be surprised if Apple and other phone makers don't soon duplicate it.

So, it's a great time to be a smart-phone owner or in the smart-phone market. Now, you'll have to excuse me while I wait on pins and needles to test out the Pre, to play with my souped-up iPhone - and to see what else is in store for these great gadgets.

Troy Wolverton:

(c) 2009, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.