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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

By most measures, iPhone owners should have been pleased this year. Apple sped up the phone, slashed its price and introduced a revolutionary App Store. But ask iPhone users how they would improve the device and most will have suggestions at the ready, including a longer-lasting battery, a higher-quality camera and cut-and-paste functionality.

The same is true of every phone on the market. No matter how many features manufacturers manage to pack into their pocket-sized devices, consumers inevitably want more — or less — or something just a bit different. Some phone fanatics even dream up concept designs and post them online, hoping that manufacturers and operators will take note.

Mark Donovan, senior vice-president of mobile products at comScore M:Metrics, calls it the "Goldilocks situation."

"We can look at a phone that does a lot of things really well and still think, 'I wish it had a better camera or GPS, or [it] were smaller,'" he says. "Something will always be too cold or too hot."

It's a quandary that affects many consumer gadgets. But wireless experts say people often hold cellphones to a higher standard because they are such personal devices and so frequently used. "We have very strong feelings of attachment to our phones," Donovan says. "We really do want them to be perfect."
Building the perfect smart phone

Some people know exactly how they would craft the perfect smart phone. Trevor Healy, chief executive of Internet telephony company Jajah, says he would combine the iPhone's entertainment, Web surfing and music capabilities with a BlackBerry's office automation features, a Nokia antenna and Windows Mobile's voice recognition software. Healy says that combination fuses best-of-breed features from across the wireless industry. "Put it all into a gene pool and wait a few years for something to emerge," he jokes.

Telecom veteran Christian Lindholm has an equally specific vision. The ideal smart phone, Lindholm says, should have four main capabilities: a large screen, a full Qwerty keyboard, great battery life and powerful software. While no one handset perfectly fulfills that "quad-fecta," Lindholm, a director at European design agency Fjord, says he is a fan of the iPhone, Nokia's E71 and the BlackBerry Bold.

Others shy away from mentioning specific devices at all. "There is no best phone, there is just the best phone for you," says Avi Greengart, research director of mobile devices for Current Analysis. In choosing a cellphone, he notes, each consumer has different priorities, such as carrier, brand, phone model, software and services.

Greengart personally carries at least two phones, usually representing different operators and operating systems. "You might think a phone is close to perfect, but if it's only available on a carrier that doesn't have good reception where you live, it's like candy that's slightly out of reach," Donovan says.

Market realities keep phone features in check. The recent trend toward pricing smart phones as low as $99 US has spurred manufacturers to focus their efforts on one to two exceptional features per handset. Manufacturers like Nokia only issue new phones after undertaking lengthy consumer research.

"The days of building cool devices just because [manufacturers] can is long over," Donovan says. "Handsets are now aimed at enhancing people's lives in ways that will increase revenue for mobile operators."

So, how does the current crop of smart phones measure up? The iPhone continues to win raves for its software, Web browsing and seamless iTunes connection. But its touchscreen keyboard and MobileMe e-mail service still frustrate some.

People are snapping up more BlackBerrys than ever, but some complain about the phones' somewhat conventional software and lack of a full-fledged application store. Fans of Nokia's high-end N- and E-series devices rave about their handsets' superior reception and cameras, but must pay higher prices in the U.S. because operators don't subsidize the handsets. Google's Android-based G1 phone is innovative and open, but users can't easily connect to corporate e-mail.

Windows Mobile, which powers smart phones for a constellation of manufacturers, including HTC, LG, Motorola, Palm, Samsung and Sony Ericsson, is often characterized as clunky and cluttered. But it also has top-notch voice-recognition features and partners say it is relatively easy to layer a different user interface on top of the Windows platform. "You can make [a Windows Mobile phone] look like anything, including an iPhone," Greengart says.

Numbers point to some clear winners, like the iPhone, BlackBerry Curve and BlackBerry Pearl. They were the country's top three smart phones by number of subscribers as of October 2008, according to M:Metrics.

The wireless industry's rapid pace of innovation means the very definition of a perfect smart phone is a moving target. "With every small improvement, the bar is moved higher," Lindholm says.
New models to be launched in spring

The flip side is that those dissatisfied with current phones need only wait for more options. Manufacturers are scheduled to launch a raft of new handsets throughout the spring.

Phone makers are also giving consumers more leeway than ever over their phones. Nokia allows European shoppers to decorate their handsets from its Supernova line with images of their choice. The rise of applications stores and the shift toward offering features as downloadable software is also helping consumers tweak their phones. Palm recently unveiled a new applications storefront. Next year, Google is expected to add premium, paid applications to its App Market. Microsoft is believed to be preparing something similar as well.

Says Donovan, "Just wait another six months and see what comes out the door. There's never been a better time to buy a phone."


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