Imagine a battery-operated computer that was so small that it would fit in the tiniest of pockets. What is more, this dinky device has a colour screen, built-in music and video players, a high-resolution digital camera, can access the internet, send and receive emails, as well as run word processor and spreadsheet packages. It can even transfer files and data between a desktop PC.
Well, you don't have to imagine, because such devices are on the high street today and in a few years, they'll be in the pockets of many students and teachers. It's called a smart phone, a device that leaves you wondering where a mobile phone ends and a personal digital assistant (PDA) begins.
Such is the speed at which smart phones are selling, that industry observers see their sales overtaking that of dedicated PDAs in a few years.
After all, why settle for a PDA when you can have a phone as well?
Not all smart phones are the same, as they come in a variety of shapes, sizes and prices. Some even look like PDAs while others are cunningly disguised as ordinary mobile phones. Some, like those from Nokia and Sony Ericsson use an operating system called Symbian while others use Microsoft's Windows Mobile.
But rightly, most people are not interested in the technology beneath the skin, but rather what a smart phone can do for them. The answer is: rather a lot. Take one of the latest smart phones to hit the market, for example, Motorola's MPx (which uses Microsoft's operating system). Open it one way and you get a rather nice mobile phone. But open it another way and you get something that looks and acts like a PDA, with a QWERTY keyboard, touch screen and stylus, and cut-down versions of Word and Excel and Internet Explorer. It's also got a camera and wi-fi built in. The latter means you could access the internet or email in any of the growing number of wi-fi spots that are springing up in public places like coffee shops, railway stations and airports.
Research in Motion's (RIM) Blackberry has been a big hit in the US and now UK mobile companies such as O2 and Vodafone are offering it over here. The Blackberry is a combined mobile phone and wireless data handheld device that can be used for accessing email on the move.
But as exciting as all these developments are, a recent trip to Japan revealed that the mobile phone is rapidly becoming a very smart phone.
Sharp, for example, has a mobile phone with a built-in television tuner, while the telecoms giant NTT DoCoMO has launched a range of mobile phones that can be used for a variety of tasks. The handsets contain a tiny smart card called FeliCa, which has been developed by Sony. The FeliCa card means that a mobile phone can be used like an electronic wallet and store e-cash, which can be used for purchasing a variety of items. For example, Japanese consumers armed with a FeliCa-enabled handset can buy drinks from special vending machines by simply waving their mobile phone over a reader. The reader electronically extracts the cash for the drink and the can is dispatched. Some grocers and cinemas also use the system.
With a FeliCa phone, you can order cinema tickets online and your ticket is stored electronically in the handset. When you arrive at the cinema, just place your phone near an electronic turnstile and you gain entrance. The handsets can even be used in place of rail tickets at stations and the Japanese airline ANA, even offers a system that lets you book your plane ticket over the internet. When you arrive at the airport, you go to a special ticket machine and run your phone over a scanner. The machine then automatically prints your boarding pass. Closer to home, next year, Nokia is testing an electronic ticketing system in Frankfurt, which will involve passengers running their mobile phone past scanners as they enter a bus. It doesn't take a massive leap in imagine to see how in the future, mobile phones could be used by students to pay for school lunch or access a school building.
But even more exciting is how smart phones could be used for teaching and learning. Stephen Heppell, director of the learning technologies centre Ultralab at Anglia Polytechnic University, has been a keen advocate for using mobile phones for learning for some time now and so is Nesta Futurelab. Most students at secondary age now have a mobile phone and many primary school pupils do too. The challenge for education is to tap into the potential of smart phones. Mobile phones are great for talking and texting and some of them are not for playing games and listening to music too. Now is the time to explore how they can be used a portable digital learning devices as well.