Forget About French Classes, Use A Cell Phone

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Lists of recent callers, messages and stored personal phone numbers are just the tip of the iceberg with cell phone features. Just when it seemed cell phones had everything users needed, U.S. Cellular has come up with new amenities that are educational.

Now phones such as the LG VX 4400, the Motorola T731 and the LG VX 6000 allow users to learn languages, including German, Italian, Spanish
and French, while in transit. These phones also allow students the option of quizzing themselves on problems found on tests such as the Standardized Achievement Test.

And just in case there is a need for a dictionary, thesaurus, calculator or converter for such questions, all these resources are available too, said Kathy Volpi, director of marketing and product management at the Chicago-based cellular company. "U.S. Cellular comes out with new applications every two weeks," she said. "We're always looking at interests of our customers, what they need and what they want.

"We thought applications such as these would add value to our customers' lives. So we did a seven-month trial, saw what they liked, talked to them about suggestions for pricing and what kind of customer support they would need." The results yielded the three products with nearly all the new applications on them.

Other applications include: XAP Words, Analogies and Math -- applications for studying vocabulary words, math and analogies that work the mind on standardized tests; American Sign Language finger spelling, which runs through the specifics of the alphabet; TranslaTodo Spanish/English, which has 5,000 words cataloged and more than 1,000 commonly used phrases in Spanish that are translated to English.

Other languages such as Italian and French are elementary basics with more than 800 commonly used words in 39 categories and 25 survival phrases. There is also the Iphone and Idatebook, which utilize the Microsoft Outlook e-mail system. The products allow users to find phone numbers and dates from their own e-mail addresses on their cell phones.

Away from academics, U.S. Cellular also has "Auction Away for e-Bay," which Volpi said allows e-Bay enthusiasts to bid, re-bid and track all their e-Bay business on their handset.

The variety of applications can either be downloaded locally or refreshed continuously from the cellular network, Volpi said. "Other carriers have been out with some of these applications, but we waited until our applications were tried and true," she said. "We wanted to make sure we could deliver the best service to our customers, and we think we did with these."

In U.S. Cellular's research, it was found that gray, black and white screens on the handset were not conducive to making these applications easy or fun to read. It was also discovered that the different screen sizes of handsets did not give a satisfactory feel to users. So it had to be decided which phones have the capability to deliver customer satisfaction before the company made these applications available.

"On our phones, you won't see an application you can't use," Volpi said. "You'll only see the ones that your phone can deliver." She said the technology allows children to learn a new word while in the car, high school students to study flash cards while waiting for the bus and others to check their e-mail or have access to language translations. "It's just starting to pick up," Volpi said of the additions. "Now consumers can see we offer some form of data -- news, information, and education."

The chips that make such features accessible were developed by San Diego-based Qualcomm, which used to develop handsets. Volpi said Qualcomm developed a chip that allows users to download games, translations or other products similarly to make it easier for customers. Application developers such as Mobile Mind got together with publishers, including XAP, and came to U.S. Cellular with their products.
The rest is history. U.S. Cellular allows one free month of service so consumers can see what applications they used and how much they used it, before signing onto a monthly plan, Volpi said. A user can delete or disable those applications he or she does not want in order to make room on the handsets for more applications that U.S. Cellular continues to develop.

Volpi said there are always new applications in the pipeline that will bring new languages or enhanced versions of existing applications to users. "We know that most of our users are using cell phones instead of hard lines at home, and we know that people aren't sitting around at their home using our applications when they can look something up on their computer,"  she said. "When we first launched in September of last year we had only 50
applications. Now we have 260 in our catalog."

Chicago-based writer Ms. Rockett reports for the Star Newspaper.


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