Americans racked up 500 billion minutes on their cell phones in the first half of 2004 -- and of their total cell-phone bills, 97 percent of the charges were for time spent talking.
In the not-too-distant future, talking may be the last priority of a cell phone.
"Two years from now, I don't think they're even going to be called phones, but I don't know what they're going to be called," said Jeff Belk, senior vice president of marketing for San Diego-based Qualcomm, developer of cell-phone technology and the world's second-largest maker of cell-phone chips.
Already, a small but growing number of U.S. wireless subscribers use their cell phones to play games, e-mail photographs and send text messages. But experts say that within the next few years, an array of new services may revolutionize the way we use our cell phones.
We'll be able to tune in to as many as 100 channels of TV, find the nearest coffee shop, get directions or even pay for purchases.
Far-fetched? Not at all.
That's the case already in Asia, which has some of the fastest wireless networks in the world. There, wireless subscribers can find everything from English-Japanese translation dictionaries to dating services on their cell phones.
"A good rule of thumb is that anything you see commercially available in Japan or Korea usually takes between 12 and 24 months before it finds its way to our shores," Belk said.
For anyone who wants a glimpse of the future of cell phones, Belk pulls out two black suede bags full of dozens of handsets from Japan and Korea. They're a long way from the first mobile phones of 27 years ago that were the shape of a brick and good only for making calls.
In those bags are a video-camera phone that can play back video on a television, a phone with surround sound, and a phone that can go into Disney mode, complete with Mickey Mouse's laugh and a Goofy icon on the screen.
Hanging from a key chain is a round phone for playing games of early PlayStation quality.
"There's nothing like this in the U.S.," Belk said. "This blows people away."
Here are some services that wireless experts say may be on the way for U.S. cell phones:
• Television: Wireless experts predict that the next "killer app" for American cell phones will be television, or at least a small-screen version of it. It won't be TV as we know it.
"You have to think a little bit about what sort of content can be done better in a mobile environment," said Rob Chandhok, vice president of engineering for Qualcomm. "Content providers think of the cell phone as the third screen. It's a new distribution channel for their products."
It's likely that there will be as many as 100 channels from which to choose. Shows probably will come from familiar TV networks, but they'll be shorter versions, produced especially for cell phones.
Recently, 20th Century Fox said it would create a series of one-minute dramas based on its hit show "24" exclusively for Vodafone in the United Kingdom. It plans to introduce the "mobisodes," as they are called (for "mobile episodes"), in the United States next year.
And instead of a show starting at a particular time, it will start whenever you happen to tune in.
While some cellular networks in the United States already stream live video and clips, the future of TV over cell phones is a far cry from the current picture.
Think four-times-higher resolution, three times as many frames per second and bigger cell-phone screens than are available today.
"If you're watching sports, it's the difference between being able to read the scoreboard and not read the scoreboard," Chandhok said.
Qualcomm recently announced that it will build a nationwide network for delivering video on cell phones. The company plans to use technology it has developed that will make it easier and less expensive to deliver TV to cell phones.
• Music: Tunes on cell phones will go beyond ring tones.
Qualcomm's Belk shows off a Japanese phone with a built-in FM stereo radio. The screen displays the name of the song that's playing, and the user has the option of downloading the song as a ring tone or playing up to 40 minutes of the radio broadcast.
Cell phones also will be able to download full songs instead of just snippets of tunes.
"Basically, you're going to turn your phone on, go to a Web site, select the songs you want, hit 'purchase,' and then they'd be downloaded onto your phone instantly," said Brad Akyuz, a San Diego mobile wireless analyst with the research firm Current Analysis.
Toward that end, Motorola said in July that it is working with Apple to make phones that can store and play iTunes music tracks.
• Location services: In the future, your cell phone will know where you are.
Depending on the carrier, your location will be calculated based on either the nearest cell towers or on global positioning satellites.
First and foremost, police will use the service to find a cell-phone user who calls 911 in an emergency, an option that is not available in two-thirds of the United States.
Experts predict the technology will be used to help motorists or pedestrians find their way to a destination, similar to what GPS devices in many vehicles do.
"You want to find your way to a restaurant? You want to find your way to a friend? This sends the map and navigates you all the way," said Belk, describing the navigational feature of a Japanese model that was among his stash of phones.
• Payment services: Cell phones will double as credit cards and be like "an electronic wallet," Akyuz said.
Instead of plunking down cash for a purchase, or swiping a credit card, a shopper would hold the cell phone up to a terminal that has an electronic sensor. The cell-phone user would put in a personal ID number, and the user's credit card would be instantly charged for the purchase.
"Using a cell phone to pay for purchases is a very growing market, especially in Japan and several Scandinavian countries," Akyuz said.
• Photo and video: The quality of still and video cameras on cell phones will continue to improve.
"You're going to see cameras in phones becoming better and better quality, producing better and better pictures," said Rene Link, vice president of marketing for Incode, a San Diego-based wireless technology consultant.
While 1-megapixel camera phones are on sale in the United States already, phones of up to 5 megapixels are just down the road. Recently, Samsung unveiled the world's first 5-megapixel camera phone.
Camera phones increasingly have more megapixels, which means they are capable of taking higher-quality pictures for printing. But they also are beginning to boast features found on stand-alone cameras: red-eye reduction, auto-focus, automatic flashes.
"You'll be able to go to the Wild Animal Park with your family and leave your camera at home," Belk said. "Your camera phone will be all you need."
And to print the photos, the phone will be able to wirelessly transmit the photos to a printer.
Video cameras on today's U.S. phones are able to produce about 15 seconds of 10 frames per second. Phones of the future will shoot video at four times the resolution, with 30 frames per second. And they'll be capable of recording hours of video.
To view both photos and video shot with a cell phone, users will one day simply plug the phone into a television to display the images on a larger screen.
• Form and features: Cell phones will sport a new look, more memory and more power.
One new design concept is called "metaphoring." For example, a phone that's also an MP3 player will look more like an MP3 player. A phone that's also a camera will look more like a camera than a cell phone, Chier said.
Last fall, Kyocera introduced such a phone, the Koi, a 1.2-megapixel camera phone that sports a sleek swivel design intended to be held like a camera. Belk envisions more of what he calls "organic" shapes -- more rounded phones instead of rectangular.
And, after decades of shrinking cell phones, experts believe phones are going to begin growing, just a tad, to accommodate larger screens.
"I think we went too far toward miniaturizing handsets," Incode's Link said. "People are wanting a little bit of a larger screen and form factor."
Removable storage devices are in the offing for cell phones. So are hard drives.
Link said he expects to see hard drives as large as 80 gigabytes in cell phones, "no different than what I have at home on my DVD recorder." He said the hard drives will allow users to record hours of video or audio.
Stereo audio, faster processors, higher-resolution screens and, of course, the longer-life batteries needed to power these hungry digital devices are also on their way, the experts say.
Wireless carriers hope all these features and functions will generate more revenue.
They're counting on the "thumb generation" of 18- to 30-year-olds who grew up using cell phones and playing video games to keep the revenue from games, e-mail, video, photos and other data flowing.
Still, no matter how many tasks cell phones are able to do, there will always be consumers who simply want them for their original purpose -- to talk.