Fast Track: This is the future calling

Roger Trapp on plans to make a mobile phone for every lifestyle
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The Independent Culture
When the latest James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, opened late last year, it provided - alongside the usual fun and frolics - a glimpse of the future of telecommunications.

The Swedish company Ericsson used the film as a vehicle for promoting its products by showing off the sorts of things that, according to Mats Lindoff, the company's research and development director, are normally screened out during the development process.

But the market is developing so fast and in so many ways that it is likely that before long many of those features will be available to the public - albeit not all at the same time. Half a billion people are expected to be using mobile phones worldwide by the turn of the century, and Ericsson was one of the first to realise the value of segmenting the market.

Rather than attempting to come up with products it hopes will suit everybody, it has begun to target particular sorts of users - from teenagers to busy executives - with different features, sizes and colours. One product enables the user - with a flick of the finger - to change the look of the phone and its colour to suit the occasion, whether that is lying on the beach or attending a formal banquet. Another allows people on the road to use their mobile phones to connect with a personal computer at home, to send and collect e-mail as well as work on documents.

According to Mr Lindoff, who is in charge of the 100,000-strong company's development teams spread around the world, the future will see even more customisation. Advances in technology - particularly in voice recognition - will mean that the handsets will probably get smaller, while an increasing range of functions will be possible. But it is unlikely that everybody will want every feature, so there will, he says, be "products for different kinds of person", and they will choose them "based on their lifestyle".

But it is not just in terms of technology that the market is being broken up in this way. New entrants to the market, such as Colt, Esprit and even Cable & Wireless Communications, are changing the whole complexion of the business by focusing less on the technical expertise of their people and more on their ability to react quickly to both customer needs and the constantly developing potential of technology.

Hitherto, this kind of capability has been the province of the distributors and other service providers, such as European Telecom, a company that in just a few years has grown into a significant international player that topped last year's Independent 100 listing of Britain's fastest-growing private companies.

As chairman and chief executive Warren Hardy explains, working closely with customers has been a guiding principle for the organisation since it was set up in Slough at the turn of the decade. Indeed, with sales in 60 countries, the company has gone out of its way to build a multi- lingual salesforce and has even sought to hire foreign nationals so that they bring an understanding of different cultures as well as linguistic abilities.

The sheer diversity of the marketplace is indicated when Mr Hardy points out that, while the big names - such as Nokia, Motorola and Ericsson - account for the bulk of its sales, there are in fact about 40 manufacturers.

But though the emphasis on marketing is growing - as a natural response to all this competition - there is obviously still an important role for the engineer in telecommunications.

BT, which has an extensive research and development centre at Martlesham Heath in Suffolk, takes on about 600 graduates with technical, engineering and commercial degrees.