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Skype, Garmin Steal Google's Thunder

BARCELONA -- Greetings from the 2008 Mobile World Congress!

This year's show is the first under the new Mobile World Congress name. It used to be called 3GSM -- but now it's a whole lot more than just cell phones.

This year there are a number of new items to tell you about -- up to and including word of what the upcoming Google (GOOG) Android phone will look like -- and our first glimpse of the one and only working mock-up of the Garmin (GRMN) nuvifone.

But those aren't the only big deals being introduced here. How about a Skype cell phone?

Computer cellular expert Skype, a division of eBay (EBAY) was showing its first Skype phone.

I got to see a real working model in action. It was a GSM model that contains new software allowing you to make Skype calls over regular cell phone networks (not over Wi-Fi or via computers).

As with current Skype appliances, Skype-to-Skype calls are free -- and current rates prevail for Skype to other types of phone calls. I was told that the audio quality of Skype calls made on the phone were indistinguishable from GSM cell phone calls via the same phone.

The cell phone hardware I saw works only on overseas GSM cellular networks -- but Skype says it is in talks with U.S. providers to have its software incorporated into phones made for the U.S. marketplace. Stay tuned.

Speaking of software, Sweden's Opera was proudly introducing version 9.5 of its Opera Mobile Web browser. What I got to see was described as a "very, very early pre-pre Alpha version...not even near the beta stage," but I can report that what I saw was very impressive.

Opera Mobile 9.5 can do a lot of things that Apple (AAPL)'s Safari browser in the iPhone can do (the way you navigate in and around a Web site) -- as well as a number of new tricks of its own. Think in terms of much faster Web browsing and the ability to download and save pages when you're connected to a fast network -- and read those pages at any time -- even when you've disconnected.

Opera is hoping for the beta to be ready in the second quarter of 2008 and for full release shortly thereafter.

The people from Boingo are also at the show boasting that the company has the world's largest network of Wi-Fi hotspots -- and it continues to grow.

For $7.95 per month you get unlimited data connections over your mobile device at one of its 100,000 hotspots in 85 countries. If you're unimpressed, you've never used your cell phone to download tons of data without having some sort of monthly data plan. That's especially true when you're travelling overseas. No one I know really wants to get a bill for $400 to $800 just for browsing Web sites plus reading and answering emails while you're on the road.

Boingo also announced a new software client for dual-mode smartphones that run on Microsoft's Windows Mobile 6 operating system.

Finally, there's Zeemote. It has created a wireless remote gaming controller for your cell phone.

I'm not kidding folks.

Instead of having to press your fingers on those tiny cell phone keys, the Zeemote lets you play your games with aplomb. Actually it's with a remote and not a plum!)

Two gamers can each use their Zeemote to compete against each other playing a game on a cell phone. I'm told this is the wave of the future. Zeemote was showing a video of two grown men competing against each other while playing a game on a cell phone with a three-inch screen.

This device almost qualified as the dumbest thing I saw at the show -- but since cell phones are becoming the way we'll make calls, browse the Web, listen to music and radio, watch TV and even do our banking and shopping, I figure why not competitive gaming too?

The Zeemote should be available in the next few weeks. Prices haven't been set yet but each device should be in the $30 to $50 range.

Gary Krakow is's senior technology correspondent.

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