Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The coming Mobile Phone Wars!

Sounds ominous, right? Well, it should. Most tech shootouts do more harm than good to the consumer. Anybody remember Blu-ray vs. HD-DVD? Lasting for over two years, this Hi-Def DVD format face-off split the entertainment content community and left consumers standing on the sidelines scratching their heads. And Blu-ray's eventual victory earlier this year surely tasted of ashes. They were left with either angry customers who had spent hundreds on HD-DVD boxes and its respective media, or hopelessly confused customers who still didn't know that simply owning a Play Station 3 had put them in the winners' circle.

What does that mean for the looming Mobile Phone slug-fest? More of the same consumer confusion. Perhaps I should explain. Recently, in a test market, smart-phone owners were asked about the capabilities of their phones and how they used them. It was determined that, although the smart-phone owners confidently claimed to use 100% of their phones' features such as texting and pictures, on average the group was *really* only using 40% of their phone's true capabilities. Advanced features like email, web-browsing, calendaring, instant messaging and mp3's were largely unused. In fact, some of these consumers carried multiple devices to accomplish the other tasks, completely oblivious to the fact that their phones could do all of these things and more!

So, what's the big deal? Who cares if you've got a Blackberry Curve that you only use for texting??? Well, I contend that YOU should care. Really good convergent devices do a couple of things to improve your life. If you live a mobile lifestyle (real estate agent, pharma sales, home office, small business, etc.) the smart-phone allows you to turn downtime into productive time, ultimately making you more efficient. It also allows you to (if you're smart) get closer to that holy grail that we all call work/life balance. Picture this: While you were standing in line at the bathroom for the Brewer game for 10 minutes, you could have read and responded to four emails, updated a meeting in your calendar, edited that staffing spreadsheet, streamed a youtube video of the Sausage Race you missed while you were waiting in line, and sent an IM to your wife telling her you're running late because your boss told you to finish those TPS reports TONIGHT! By the time you get home, your work is done, and family time is REALLY family time.

That should be enough to whet any gadget-consumer's appetite. But what about this war? Even if you're on-board to squeeze more stuff out of your smart-phone, the market is about to change soooooo dramatically, that you'll need a ringside announcer just to keep up.

In one corner, we've got the iPhone. Pretty, sleek, thin, intuitive, and feature rich. In a market run by the carriers (Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, et al), this was the first major push to market by a handset manufacturer (Apple) where THEY actually dictated the terms to a carrier. Apple *pwned* AT&T for every penny, charging full price for the phone as well as demanding kickbacks from every 2-year contract. AT&T was left to salvage scraps from the table. Although Apple is widely criticized for their restrictive design and barriers to 3rd party developers, everyone can clearly agree that the iPhone is an 11 on a usability scale of 1-10. In fact, one can say that Apple has set a new bar for smart-phone usability.

On the other side of phone design is Google. Yes, the same Google that is a search engine. As software developers and handset manufacturers look to push the carriers firmly into the backseat, non-traditional companies like Google are looking for a piece of the action. They envision an "open" phone where everyone is free to develop applications, and online content is ad-supported. The problem is that as far as anyone can tell, only a few prototypes exist. Check the video below. If you can get past the ridiculous level of excitement (you'll see) from the narrators, there are some really cool phone demos.



The final player is represented by the handset manufacturers themselves. Motorola, Samsung, and a few others got together one day and called themselves a foundation. The LiMo Foundation, to be exact. Similar to Google, their goal is to create an industry-standard open phone design, so that application developers can "write once, and run anywhere," as opposed to supporting many different versions of the same program. Unlike Google, LiMo's got some product in the market. Not much in the way of smart-phones yet, but it's still a good start.

Over my next few blog entries, I'll be doing an in-depth review of each of the three major players in this market. This will include a comparison of some of their handsets, as well as their market strategies and what it means to us as consumers. For those who are new to my blog, these won't be traditional reviews. Want a teaser? Watch this iPhone usability video...


Man, I love this video. Something about a puree'd iPhone that makes my toes tingle...
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