Dial a mobile phone subscriber in Japan and your call could set off a display of onscreen fireworks. When signal strength is low, clouds rolls into the picture. A missed call might cause a hot-air balloon to fly across the screen. And when the sun sets, an image of the city skyline changes from daytime to night.
Cellphone screens that transform themselves according to your location or the weather -- or serve up images of friends' faces when they call, or let you launch video content in one easy step -- are becoming fashionable must-haves for mobile users in Asia and Europe.
It's all a part of a new wave of presentation technology that allows users to access applications on their phones in an easier way. And it's fun to boot.
These innovations are driven by a new version of Flash programming that produces rich graphics, simple interfaces and customizable features. It will eventually revolutionize the mobile phone experience, experts say.
Most of us know Flash as that program that sits on our PCs and goes to work when we start navigating a website. Although Flash has been relegated to the desktop for most of its 10-year life, about three years ago Adobe Systems and other companies started to look at adding the Flash experience to the mobile world with innovations such as Flash Lite.
Incorporating Flash into cellphones could mean no more mining through layers of menus. Scroll over an icon and it magnifies in size and menus pop up; push a button and you're in. No more complicated downloads or ho-hum graphics. Instead, users get an animated 3D experience that's as user-friendly as navigating the Web on your PC.
One might call it art in the making, says Gary Kovacs, vice-president of product management and marketing for Adobe. "Flash is a great channel to apply one's creative spirits," he says. "It allows art to be let loose on mobile and creates a delicious user experience."
The consensus among industry observers, however, is that it will take 18 to 24 months for Flash to be adopted significantly on mobile phones in North America, because neither compatible phones nor Flash-developed applications are yet in place.
"Adoption in North America is slow at this point," says Allen Lau, chief technology officer and co-founder of Toronto-based Tira Wireless Inc., which specializes in deployment of mobile content. "The ecosystem is not there yet."
While North American users have yet to see the beauty of the Flash experience, a handful of die-hard software developers in Canada say it's the way of the future.
"Much like Flash changed the face of browsing the Web, it's going to change the face of our cellphones," says James Eberhardt, director of interactive technologies for Marblemedia Inc. in Toronto.
Dave Yang, president of Toronto-based Quantumwave Interactive Inc., has been devoting his energies to developing Flash Lite for the mobile space even though there is little demand in Canada so far.
"Why do I do it for mobile? Because it's a new market that is exploding, and there are more people with mobile phones than PCs," he says. "Besides, I'm a gadgets fan."
Some developers are working outside North America for the time being. Bluestreak Technology Inc. of Montreal recently developed a Flash-based application for France Telecom that helped customers access TV programs on its Orange World TV mobile service.
Before, Orange users had go through multiple steps to get to the program they wanted. With the Flash-compatible alternative, users click on an icon on the main menu, says John McCalla, chief technology officer for Bluestreak. "One user interface instantly gives you all you need to access the TV service, including program guides and channel selection," he says.
This simple change made a big difference to customers. The revamped TV portal delivered a 700-per-cent increase in data consumption for light users and a whopping 1,000-per-cent increase for heavy users. And that, he says, is pure revenue for Orange.
According to Adobe Systems' Mr. Kovacs, when NTT DoCoMo Inc., Japan's biggest mobile-phone operator, launched a new premium Flash Lite-based service, it projected that 1 million subscribers would sign on. Today, the service has more than 5 million users, he says. In Japan, more than 70 per cent of new phones sold are Flash-enabled, and 25 per cent of the population owns such a phone.
These success stories are catching the interest of North American operators. U.S.-based Verizon is the first to come out of the gate, with a selection of four Flash-enabled phones, and more are expected in the coming months.
That's why Canadian software developers are placing their bets on Flash.
As Mr. Eberhardt says, "It's going to make cellphones more visually stunning than ever before."
Who's got Flash?
18 to 24: Number of months until Flash capability is adopted significantly on mobile phones in North America
70%: Number of cellphones in Japan that are Flash-enabled