On new cellphones, QWERTY eases out 1-2-3

Goodbye, numeric cellphone keypads. You're going the way of the rotary dial. Touch screens and QWERTY keyboards will take over from here, thank you.

At North America's largest cellphone trade show, running this week in Las Vegas, there were few new phones for the U.S. market that had a numerical keypad instead of an alphabetic keyboard. Touch screens also were out in force.

These changes are a recognition of the popularity of text messaging and wireless Internet use. Industry organization CTIA Wireless, which hosts the show, said U.S. subscribers sent 1 trillion text messages last year, three times the 2007 volume. Meanwhile, the same people used 2.2 trillion minutes of voice calls, an increase of less than 5%.

This shift in how people use their mobile devices has overturned cellphone design. According to NPD Group, 31% of phones sold in U.S. stores in the fourth quarter of 2008 had full-alphabet keyboards, up from 5% two years earlier.

AT&T, the second-largest wireless carrier after Verizon Wireless, introduced six phones this week, all of which had either a touch screen, a typewriter-style keyboard, or both. At the booth of Samsung Electronics, the largest seller of phones in the U.S., there were no new keypad phones.

Motorola, the largest domestic maker of phones, was showing off one low-end handset with a keypad. It went on sale through AT&T two weeks ago. But Motorola's big news was a model called the Evoke, which has a touch screen. It's designed for the U.S. market, though it doesn't have a carrier distribution agreement yet.

LG Electronics displayed a new handset, the GD900, that seemed to both emphasize a numeric keypad and make it vanish. A pad slides out from the GD900's body, but it's made of transparent plastic, so you can see right through it. You don't need to use keypad at all, since the screen is touch-sensitive. Other new LG phones were also dominated by touch screens.

Even at the low end of the market, keyboards for text messaging are becoming common and affordable. AT&T expects to sell two of the keyboard-equipped phones it introduced, the Samsung Magnet and LG Neon, for about $20 to $30.

Old-fashioned numeric keypads still will have a prominent place — but largely overseas. In a twist of market dynamics, the demand for QWERTY phones is mainly a North American phenomenon, said Ross Rubin, an analyst at NPD.

Although touch screens are gaining in popularity all over the world, people in other countries got into text messaging much earlier and "became acclimated to texting with a keypad," Rubin said. Meanwhile, the U.S. market has been influenced by high-end smart phones like the Treo and the BlackBerry that pioneered small versions of typewriter-style keyboards.

As a result, numeric keypads were still dominant at the CTIA booth of Nokia Corp., the world's largest maker of cellphones, which has a relatively minor presence in the U.S. The same was the case at the booth of Japanese-Swedish manufacturer Sony Ericsson.

Other notable wireless devices at the show (prices are with two-year contracts):

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