The South African mobile data market is likely to enjoy strong growth in 2007 as more subscribers get their hands on smartphones that support data applications and as high-speed cellular networks become more prevalent and offer a better quality of experience.

That's according to Mark Taylor, MD director of cellular service provider, Nashua Mobile. He says that growing penetration of smartphones into the South African market, coupled with rapid rollout of high-speed cellular services (such as 3G and HSDPA) are helping to spur the growth of mobile data across the country.

Taylor notes that the adoption of cellular data services continues to grow in leaps and bounds. Aggressive marketing of data services (like GPRS, 3G, HSDPA, etc) by all three networks as well as affordable tariffs (including attractive data bundles and contract packages) have encouraged the growth of the market. Increasing market penetration of 3G- and GPRS-enabled phones as well as 3G and HSDPA network cards for notebooks has also spurred adoption.

South African corporates are enjoying mobile data services ranging from personal productivity tools such as remote access to calendars and e-mail, through to specialised vertical industry solutions such as vehicle tracking systems and GPRS-enabled point-of-sale devices.

Consumers are also starting to make more use of the data features on their phones. Multimedia messaging has started to take off thanks to rapid penetration of camera phones in the consumer market, while consumers are also starting to switch onto mobile data applications such as e-mail, online banking and Web browsing.

"One reason that users are making more extensive use of cellphones that offer rich, converged functionality is that the user-friendliness, battery life and ergonomics of these devices has improved in leaps and bounds over the past two users,” says Taylor.

High-speed cellular data services such as 3G and HSDPA are more prevalent, with coverage in most major centres and even many smaller towns, while the user experience and performance of these services has also improved.

A number of technologies and features have already converged in handsets that offer support for 3G networks, Bluetooth, global positioning system (GPS), MPEG-4 encoders/decoders, video telephony and streaming, Wi-Fi support, music players and push-to-talk applications.

"Up until now most of these phones have lacked the power of standalone devices that were designed to meet one or two specific needs," says Taylor.

"Newer phones may be a way off from comparing to the power of a standalone device such as an IPod or a digital camera, but their functionality is now good enough for the needs of most users. More innovation is on the way."

The Apple iPhone has stolen the headlines, but other cellphone manufacturers are already bringing products to market that rival the Apple device for usability, design, and functionality. One example is LG Electronics, which has partnered with fashion designer Prada to bring the world's first completely touch-screen mobile phone to market.

This phone, which will arrive in Europe and Asia in the first quarter, will feature an advanced touch interface as well as a 2-megapixel camera, MP3 player, video player, document viewer, music/messaging multitasking capability, Bluetooth and USB 2.0 port. The slim phone will have a thickness of only 12mm.