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Rediff.com  » Business » A strong flavour of Apple

A strong flavour of Apple

February 16, 2008 13:13 IST

The iPhone was not the first touch-driven handset when it launched last year, or even the fastest for Internet browsing over standard cell­ular networks but the impact of Apple's consumer smartphone on the world's handset business still reverberates through the telecom industry.

This week in Barcelona, at the World Mobile Congress, leading handset makers unveiled new models -- many with big touch-sensitive displays -- implicitly designed to compete with the iPhone.

The star of the geekfest was undoubtedly Sony Ericsson's new flagship Xperia X1. The X1 was among three handsets launched by the mobile phone maker in Barcelona, and the one that drew most attention. The Xperia X1 -- the first of several Xperia-branded devices -- is packed with advanced features, but what first catches the eye is the nearly full-length 3in touchscreen display that slides smoothly aside using slightly curved "rails" (dubbed "arc slider") to reveal a full mini qwerty keyboard.

The widescreen VGA-quality display can show DVD-quality video yet respond quickly to the lightest touch in navigation mode, when nine separate panels can be displayed at once and flipped through like a stack of mini-playing cards. In spite of the bright, big screen, keyboard and a stack of features, the X1 is not at all brick-like. When closed it is the ideal size and weight to fit into a jacket pocket.

Inside, the X1 has all the requisite attributes of a next-generation smartphone, such as Bluetooth and WiFi (802.11) wireless networking support, and it has another built-in surprise. It is the first handset from Sony Ericsson to feature Microsoft's Windows Mobile operating system, Windows Mobile 6.

For Microsoft, the X1 represents an important endorsement. The US software company can now claim that four of the top five global handset makers include Windows Mobile-powered phones in their line-up (the exception being Nokia), and most are high-end devices designed for business users and sophisticated consumers.

The X1 aims to be a do-it-all premium handset or, as Microsoft and Sony Ericsson put it, the "one phone for your life". A tough mission, but oneit might just pull off.

Samsung and LG Electronics, the leading Korean handset makers, were also showing off high-end multimedia-capable touchscreen handsets. LG's KF-700 and KG-600 phones are its first handsets featuring a more user-friendly interface with multiple navigation paths that help users find their way round the handset without screen upon screen of drop-down menus.

Both build on the success of LG's Prada phone (the first with a full LCD touchscreen) and feature LG's "InteractPad" navigation aid designed to replace physical navigation keys and buttons with context-sensitive virtual keys. They also feature "haptic" sensory feedback technology that provides subtle but precise confirmation that a virtual key has been "pressed". This mostly feels like a fingertip tingle or push-back.

The KF-700 provides three input methods - a 3in touchscreen, short­cut dial and slide-down classic alpha-numeric keypad. Size and weight is similar to the X1, with a 3Mp (megapixel) camera, built-in FM radio, MP3 and MPEG4 video-clip player, and it supports the latest high-speed 3G wireless networks. But it lacks WiFi support, an odd omission in such a handset.

Samsung's headliner was the Samsung Soul, the new standard-bearer for Samsung's Ultra Edition series. In both design and features the Soul looks like a riposte to the iPhone. With a brushed stainless steel casing, it will appeal to style-conscious consumers. Its built-in 5Mp digital camera sensor places it instantly in the stand­alone point-and-shoot market. This camera phone is also the first I have seen with "face detection" technology, to ensure that faces are sharp and in focus.

Its smartest feature is probably the "Magic Touch" navigation indicators on the keypad that change according to users' needs and are designed to mask the complexity of the device. At 2.2in, the display is a little smaller than some others, but the Soul does support 3G and feels extremely solid.

There were some surprising absences. The glaring "no-show" was any touchscreen handset from Nokia, the world's leading mobile maker, though the Finnish company said it would feature touch-driven devices in due course.

However, Nokia did unveil four handsets, including the N96, an up­grade to its flagship N95. More interestingly, it rolled out two new designs, the 6220 classic, a stylish "candy-bar" phone with a 5Mp camera and the 6210 Navigator. The latter is Nokia's first combined slider phone and GPS-enabled personal navigation device providing road turn-by-turn navigation on a 2.4in colour screen.

The 6210 is among a num­ber of GSM-based handsets now featuring GPS satellite navigation features - something already fairly stan­dard on high-end handsets operating on rival CDMA networks in the US, Korea, Japan and elsewhere.Personal navigation device makers are already indicating they will not sit back and watch mobile phone makers eat their lunch.

In one of the clearest signs of the looming battle for consumers' minds and wallets, Garmin (NASDAQ: GRMN - News) , the leading US personal satellitenavigation device maker, unveiled a hybrid satnav mobile phone called the Nuviphone. At first sight, the Nuviphone resembles Garmin's acclaimed pocket-sized Nuvi range of satellite navigation aids, but it also features a high-performance touchscreen phone with Bluetooth, WiFi and most other accoutrements of a high-end smartphone.

At the other end of the spectrum, several makers, including India's Spice group, launched ultra-low priced handsets. Spice's People's Phone is a no-frills device costing less than $20. Spice, run by entrepreneur BK Modi, has also developed a version with a Braille keypad for the same price, and the Movie phone, capable of playing full-length movies using a proprietary mini-optical disc forma.

Phone transformed by a jacket

Modu, an Israel-based start-up (www.modumobile.com) has developed a miniature modular mobile phone, right, that can slip into a variety of cases or "jackets", changing both its features and functionality. The core of Modu's system is a 1.5oz mobile that works on2.5G Edge networks and fits in the palm, making it perhaps the world's smallest and lightest handset.

What really makes the Modu concept interesting is the notion that simply by slotting the phone module into a new jacket -- for example, a fashion phone jacket, camera phone case or smartphone jacket complete with BlackBerry-style keyboard -- it is easily and cheaply transformed.

Modu says a jacket could cost about $40 and Modu could also be used to "phone-enable" other consumer electronics products such as car stereo or home alarm systems. The company, set up by Dov Moran, who formerly founded Msystems, has signed deals with Telecom Italia, OAO Vimpel Communications in Russia and Cellcom Israel. 

Paul Taylor, FT