SAN JOSE, California -- New York. San Francisco. Chicago. Boston. Pick any major city in the United States and most likely you'll spot dozens of yammering passersby with cell phones glued to their ears.
But you're not likely to see teens, much less men and women in business suits, peering at their phones' screens punching buttons madly as they play mobile games
It's a different story in major cities in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Japan -- the biggest mobile wireless markets in the world, with the greatest percentages of cell-phone users. Not only do school-age children play mobile games, but businesspeople also admit they play them on the sly during board meetings. "The Game Boy is really for boys," said Takeshi Natsuno, architect of the i-mode mobile Internet service for NTT DoCoMo, Japan's No. 1 cell-phone service provider at this week's Game Developers Conference. "You can't play with a Game Boy in a board meeting. But no one can see me playing a game on a phone."
Natsuno's audience roared.
But his listeners -- at least a few hundred of them -- didn't seem to think the scenario of grown business professionals playing video games on their mobile phones was unrealistic.
"Mobile games are for everybody who has a handset," said Kym Seligman, senior manager of publishing and content for Nokia. "We are looking at a much broader audience."
A flurry of development is happening in U.S. mobile game technology, which has the potential to become the fifth major platform for games after PCs, consoles, handheld computers and the Internet, according to Mike Goodman, an analyst with market research firm Yankee Group.
The mobile portion of the Game Developers Conference is proof: Hundreds of traditional game developers from all over the world came to hobnob with cell-phone carriers like DoCoMo.
The developers want in on a market that could be worth up to $3.5 billion a year in Europe alone, according to Danish consulting firm Strand Consult. Even though new devices with large color screens and support for Java software are just emerging, the European mobile gaming market was worth $49 million last year. Java appears to have become a universal platform for mobile games.
Some games are free, while others cost anywhere from $1 to $5 in Japan, Natsuno said. DoCoMo includes the charges on users' cell-phone bills. Some European and U.S. carriers, including AT&T Wireless, tack similar fees onto customers' wireless bills.
By all indications, games seem poised to become a gateway service that will lead people to think of their cellular handset as more than just a telephone.
"All of the evidence we have seen is that the number of (game) downloads on Java handsets in the market is going up," said John Chasey, managing director for Iomo, a mobile games developer in Cambridge, England. "There have been major increases in (carrier) revenue."
"People are playing (mobile) games at home," said Frederic Condolo, senior software engineer at In-Fusio, a games service provider in France.
Engineers eagerly attended technical sessions held by Nokia and Motorola to learn how to format their games to operate on wireless handsets and networks. Much talk surrounded Nokia's new N-Gage, a device that resembles a Game Boy more than it does a phone and could potentially turn more people on to mobile gaming.
The user holds the N-Gage phone horizontally. The screen is in the middle, flanked by the game controls and number keypad.
Thanks to an embedded Bluetooth chip, N-Gage users can play with opponents who are standing in front of them -- wirelessly. Bluetooth is a short-range radio technology that lets devices communicate within 30 feet of each other. The phone also lets gamers across the globe play against one another over the cellular network.
While Nokia wouldn't release any pricing for N-Gage, it said the phone would be available worldwide by the end of 2003.
"We believe there is room for a new device," said Ilkka Raiskinen, senior vice president for the media and entertainment division at Nokia. "Some of the phones are not optimized for game playing."
However, not everyone at the conference shared Nokia's enthusiasm about the new phone's form factor.
In-Fusio's Condolo said similar devices have been introduced in France, but they have not been as popular as the sleeker mobile phones.
"People don't want a game console," Condolo said. "They want a nice phone to play games on."
When he was asked what he thought of N-Gage, DoCoMo's Natsuno said it could prove distracting, particularly for older, professional users, if it were large and loud like a Game Boy.
"The beauty of the cellular phone is you always have your cellular phone with you," he said.
If mobile games are to take off in the United States, cell-phone service providers will have to understand gamers' needs, Natsuno said. He also thought it wise for the cell-phone carriers to leave game development up to professional programmers.
DoCoMo's i-mode mobile Internet, which has 36.9 million subscribers, has been so successful that Natsuno was introduced here as the head of the second-largest Internet service provider in the world after America Online. The main reason for DoCoMo's success with i-mode, Natsuno said, is that the company built its business around the developers of i-mode websites. DoCoMo fostered business for the independent content providers by handling the billing for the content and taking only a 9 percent commission from the fee-based websites, he said.
About 3.7 million i-mode customers are paying mobile game subscribers. Even more i-mode users tap into the free games, Natsuno said.
"DoCoMo is a telecom company," Natsuno said. "My company should not make content because we are stupid in that area."
Also at the conference, cell-phone maker Sony-Ericsson announced two new phones that can download mobile versions of popular PC games.
The T310, a sleek handset that tips the scale at 3.4 ounces, has a full-color screen, the capability to send and receive pictures with text, and polyphonic ring tones that play entire songs as well as sound effects for games -- but unlike Nokia's N-Gage, it looks like a typical cell phone.
The Sony-Ericsson T606, which weighs 3.5 ounces, also boasts a full-color screen, multimedia messaging and polyphonic ring tones. But it works on the cellular systems of Verizon Wireless and Sprint PCS. The T310 is compatible with competing networks built by AT&T Wireless and T-Mobile.
The T310 is expected to hit the market later this month. The T606 won't be available until the second quarter of this year, a Sony-Ericsson spokeswoman said. The service providers will determine the phones' retail price.