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Nokia Pushing Convergent Technologies

Finnish wireless phone maker Nokia is extending its reach to devices that don't involve a PC with the development of next-generation products using Flash and Visual Basic, officials announced Wednesday.

The introduction this week of Flash technology in its cable TV set-top boxes and a Visual Basic platform for one of its digital wireless telephones marks the company's first baby steps into the world of converging technologies. It's expected that consumer demand will expand the products and services worldwide.

So far, converging technologies, like those used in set-top boxes and wireless phones, have met with little demand. Cahner's In-Stat/MDR, an Arizona-based research firm, predicts that trend will change in the coming years as more and more consumers become aware of the advantages the new technology will bring.

In-Stat predicts a 41 percent annual growth in Internet access devices between 2000 and 2005, even though PC's and wireless phones will continue to dominate that growth.

Cindy Wolf, In-Stat analyst, said the industry's ability to grow at its current pace will be undercut by the many devices coming out in the near future.

"Despite our optimistic forecast for this market, there are still several factors affecting all of its individual segments," she said. "In the coming years many of these product segments will face increased competition from each other as device functionality converges."

To answer that challenge, Nokia has set its operations on bringing a wide variety of its own branded products into the converging technology arena.

The Nokia Mediaterminal, a digital cable set-top box used for interactive TV, now includes Flash programming so users and marketers can take advantage of services like interactive advertising, electronic programming guides and personalized settings.

Peter Meechan, Macromedia vice president, said Flash's existence on 98 percent of the world's PCs makes its migration to Internet devices a natural extension.

"What's exciting about Flash in Nokia's first digital convergence product is that in addition to applications like digital recording and gaming, you have a home entertainment system that provides a compelling reason for the 1.2 million Flash developers out there to make more applications on these devices," he said.

Meechan said Flash development for set-top boxes brings its own challenges, given less-powerful CPUs, the memory constraints, less display resolution and lack of navigation devices (like mouses and keyboards) when compared to the PC.

Macromedia also has Flash supporting deals with set-top makers OpenTV, Liberate Technologies and Microsoft TV.

Flash technology also lets home users surf Web sites heavy in Flash programming, one of the main developer languages used in advanced Web site design (the other is Java). With the Nokia media terminal, users can also play back downloaded MP3 audio files.

Response to set-top services has so far been tepid, with companies like AOL Time Warner and Microsoft Corp. seeing lukewarm response to their AOL TV and Ultimate TV products.

But some industry analysts expect the technology train to pick up steam as consumers become more comfortable with new technologies.

Michelle Abraham, an In-Stat multimedia services senior analyst, said although only about seven million set-top boxes have been sold by September 2001, a boom in interactive TV is down the road, with annual shipments to reach as much as 26 million in 2005.

"Recently the question of whether the digital TV set market has been a boom or bust has arisen. The answer to this question depends both on the region, the definition of a digital TV set, and the original expectations of those asking the question," she said. "In our opinion, hitting 26 million units seven years after introduction qualifies DTV sets as a boom market, not a bust."

Mobile enterprise is a market Nokia has long courted to expand its wireless phone product line.

On Tuesday, officials announced VB developers would be able to create applications for their Nokia 9200 Communicator series of mobile phones, although the term phone is a misnomer. In addition to making phone calls, it's innards open up to give users a personal digital assistant (PDA)-like environment with applications like

The company penned a deal with AppForge to create a toolkit for programmers of the object-oriented language, which is now available. AppForge has plenty of experience in creating toolkits for Internet-enable devices, having worked with Palm in the past to create a VB toolkit for their personal digital assistant (PDA) line.