i-0171e69176fc193f1ac07482d8553920-iPhone in hand.jpg
The cell phone industry in the United States is at a crossroads. Verizon announced it would open up its networks to other devices, AT&T opened its already-open network and Google has been pushing the carriers to adopt its more open Android platform. Whether any of this makes any sense to you, there’s an obvious trend towards openness by cell phone companies who have been criticized for being so closed.

While all that doesn’t mean much at the moment, it could mean a lot down the road. Imagine being able to buy any phone — including Apple’s vaunted iPhone — and then choosing whichever service provider you like the most. In the past, the carriers held all the power and the phone-makers had to cater to their whims. Now things are changing, and a more open approach could mean that you have more choice of phones and services — and that you don’t get locked into long-term contracts with huge fees to break out of them.

But this inflection point for cell phones is not just about open networks and choice. It’s also about the oft-touted idea that cell phones will rival personal computers in web browsing. While that’s happening in countries such as Japan and India, the U.S. still lags behind, with most people using cell phones for calls and text messaging only. A recent Jupiter report found that only 16% of cell phone users are using them for web browsing.

And there’s a bit of push and pull on this issue. Every time I’ve posed a question to MediaShift readers about what content they might want on cell phones, the responses are pretty heavy toward “nothing more than just making calls.” When I was talking to a friend of mine recently about what features he might want on his cell phone, he became animated: “Why don’t they first make the service work when I’m on the road so I can make calls! Then they can work on adding other things to the phone.”

Over at Idea Lab, Paul Lamb has been pondering why the mobile web has been so slow on the uptake here. “Carriers have not helped the situation by sticking with a ‘walled garden’ approach to new features and content access,” he wrote. Lamb thinks the iPhone and Google’s Android platform could change that for the better.

I’ve had my smartphone, the UTStarcom 6700, for the past year and a half, and I’ve rarely used it for web browsing even though it’s touted as having a mobile broadband connection through Sprint. Why not? The connection speed always seems slower than dial-up in my experience, and most web pages just don’t look good using the Internet Explorer browser through Windows Mobile. The experience is, in a word, painful. And I’m not the only one who feels this way.

In its report, Jupiter recommended that cell phones break out of the “desktop browser” mode and start offering widgets or mini-applications that give people “glanceable” information quickly, similar to what the iPhone does. So what type of information or services would we want on a truly smart smartphone? Which ones would actually be useful (like mapping and directions) vs. something that just sounds cool (like watching movies)? Here’s a list of features I would want on my smartphone, from most important to least important, at least to me:

> High-quality, clear voice calls that don’t get dropped on every hill in San Francisco.

> A usable QWERTY keyboard for typing text or email messages. Something big enough for my fingers but that won’t make the phone too bulky. The sliding keyboard on my 6700 is perfect. One of my major knocks on the iPhone is using the touch-screen for typing, because I always seem to need to retype things over and over again.

> Excellent camera and videocamera with a flash that starts quickly and doesn’t have a huge lag time between the moment I push the “capture” button and the photo capture.

> Easy, quick access to email that lives outside of the mobile browser experience.

> A well-lit, large, high-resolution screen for viewing photos, video or information without straining my eyes.

> Breaking news updates that are tailored specifically to my locality, my work and my interests (e.g. religion, NBA basketball, international politics). These updates would not interrupt my use of the phone in any way, but could be called up at the push of a button.

> Simple mapping software that does three things well: Shows me where I am on a map based on automatic GPS (global positioning system); gives me simple and straighforward directions on a map and with a voice system (where the phone actually directs me by computer voice); and shows me services that are near me. For instance, I might want to know where the nearest ATM machine is, or the nearest high-rated restaurant, or the nearest UPS drop-off location. This will require a mapping feature that is customizable but doesn’t try to do too much.

> Addendum to mapping feature: A way to map the current location of friends and family. So, for instance, if I’m meeting someone at a restaurant, I can see their GPS locale on a map to know how far they are from me. However, this might raise serious privacy issues if it’s not implemented well.

> Huge storage capacity for video and music, and music-playing capabilities that rival the iPod. When the iPhone hits 40 gigabytes of storage, it’ll be nirvana.

> Persistent weather information on the startup screen. I could choose my locale and see what the weather will be, or have it show up every time I power up my phone.

> One-touch updated sports scores. Another customizable feature where I pick the sports I follow and I could see the scores quickly with the push of a button.

> Easy access to RSS feeds for my favorite blogs and news sites. This could be beyond what I would get in the breaking news, for the times when I want to learn more and go deeper.

> Local movie showtimes and theater locations. For those times when you’re out and about and need a quick primer on what’s playing when and where. It could easily tie into the mapping software.

> Short video clips that are pushed to my phone in categories that I would choose: news, politics, music videos, video blogs, user-generated funnies (YouTube), etc.

Obviously this list could go on and on, and it’s only what I would want at the top of my list. I’m curious what other people want to make their smartphone smarter, too.

What would you add or subtract from this list? What smartphone features do you use regularly, and which would you not need? Or do you think your phone should just be for phone calls and nothing else? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

iPhone photo by Kit Cowan via Flickr.