They've found their way into the hands of half of America. And starting next week, the other half will want to pay close attention.
Those handy cellphones are about to get handier.
The immediate change: Consumers will be able to hold onto their phone number even if they switch wireless carriers or move to mobile service from a traditional land-line phone. The change, set to begin next Monday, will give consumers new flexibility and unprecedented clout as they shop around for the best wireless deal. In the long term, as the phones themselves become more versatile, they could replace your calendar, your CD player, and even your Social Security card, experts say.
After all, if you can keep one mobile phone number for life, it could become an electronic ID.
"What may well happen is that the cellphone number may replace the Social Security number as the most universally given numerical identification" for people, says Paul Levinson, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York and author of the coming book "Cellphone: The World's Most Mobile Medium and How It's Transformed Everything."
Just as a Social Security number is used in ways that have nothing to do with the retirement system, a cellphone number may become the way you are identified at school or in the workplace. "People feel that their cellphone number is part of their personal identity ... in a very profound way," Levinson says.
Starting Nov. 24, wireless customers will be able to switch to another carrier and keep the same phone number. Some 9 million of them are so disgruntled with their current service that they will try to change carriers the very first day, one study estimates. Within a year, 30 million will have made the swap, at least 18 million of them because they can keep their number.
Converting that many customers is hard enough. But the numbers are likely to swell because land-line customers will also be able to keep their numbers if they switch to wireless. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission approved the measure.
"It's not going to be pretty," warns Jeff Kagan, an independent telecom analyst. "This is the biggest operational challenge the industry has ever faced."
Already, some 5.8 million Americans have dropped their wired home-phone service to go strictly wireless, according to one recent report. The ability to keep the same wireless phone number is expected to encourage a few million more to do the same. Such moves could prove profound.
"For 100 years, we called places when usually we wanted to speak with specific people," says Andrew Finn, associate director of the Center for Media Research and Telecommunications at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "We didn't have a one-to-one match between the person and the number." With cellphones, "we're now reaching people, not places."
Making a wireless handset people's primary phone "is central to the strategy of the wireless phonemakers," adds Stephen Tang, president and CEO of Millennium Cell, which is developing longer-lasting hydrogen fuel cells to power future handsets.
Even if a flood of conversions causes initial glitches, wireless number portability should prove a boon to consumers in the long run, analysts agree. The already white-hot competition among carriers will only intensify. "It's really going to turn the market on its head and give the consumer a lot more power," says Edward Rerisi, director of research at ABI Research in Oyster Bay, N.Y. Customers will be able to switch carriers easily, rewarding the ones that offer the best price, service, features, or customer support, he says.
At the same time, wireless phones themselves are evolving, becoming ever more useful multipurpose handsets that do much more than make and receive calls. Today's phones can be equipped with color viewing screens; they can send and receive text, play interactive games, shoot and transmit digital photos, act as an FM radio, play MP3 music files, and tell you where you are and show a route to where you want to go using GPS, the Global Positioning System.
On the horizon are "smart" phones, which ABI Research says will gain a 24 percent market share by 2008. They include features of a personal digital assistant, such as a calendar and Internet access - essentially a Palm Pilot with a cellphone in it. These handsets are likely to contain more computing power than today's PCs. Intel's chief executive, Paul Otellini, predicted last month that powerful 3-gigahertz Pentium 4 chips would be in wireless phones within the next seven years.
"The handset is really becoming a new platform for the consumer," Mr. Rerisi says, a necessity that people will take with them along with their watch, keys, and wallet - all of which it is beginning to replace. "It's going to do a lot more than place phone calls." He expects cellphone carriers to carve out niche markets: The 14-to-18-year-olds may want camera phones and game players, while a businessman or contractor may want GPS capability.
The industry will see much more than just a price war between carriers, says Mr. Kagan. Companies will employ a lot of creativity in the way they "bundle" their services as they "fall all over themselves" to lure or keep customers, he says.
They'll also be on the lookout to provide new features unthought of now. After all, "nobody saw instant messaging coming," Professor Finn adds.
Thinking about changing wireless phone companies now that you can keep the same phone number? Here are some points to keep in mind:
• You are likely to lose your cellphone number if you cancel your old wireless plan on your own. First, contact the new carrier. Bring along your phone and a copy of your current bill, which contains your account number, billing address, and other important information. (The person who requests the transfer must be the same person who originated the account.) Once you've struck a deal with the new carrier, it will notify your old carrier and arrange the transfer. According to the FCC, the switch should take only a few hours. Land-line companies have four days to transfer a number.
• Consider waiting until your current wireless contract ends before switching. If you break a contract with your current provider, you may owe a hefty cancellation fee. But owing this money cannot prevent you from switching carriers.
• Keeping your phone number works only if you stay in the same metropolitan area. For example, if you move from Boston to Seattle, you will have to get a new number. In addition, customers wishing to transfer a number from a cellphone to a land line can do so only if the three digits following the area code falls within the same geographic area.
• Only the 100 largest metro areas are eligible for "local number portability" (LNP) on Nov. 24. The rest of the country will follow six months later.
• Ask about the fee for changing, or "porting," as it is called. Phone companies are allowed to charge for the transfer, though your new carrier may offer to pick up part or all of the cost. Some wireless carriers already have tacked a fee onto monthly bills to cover the costs of installing the equipment to enable numbers to be transferred. These fees range from a few cents to more than $1.
• You probably will have to buy a new phone that is compatible with your new carrier's wireless network. But the new carrier may offer to provide you a phone at low or no cost as an incentive to switch.
• No one can be certain that LNP will launch smoothly. As many as 40 percent of those making transfer requests in the first few weeks could encounter delays or other problems, some estimates. If you're reasonably content with your current wireless phone, you may want to wait a couple of months to let the dust settle.