Much More Than a Phone

Much More Than a Phone

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Flat or declining sales projections are getting a lot of attention in ‘09 CE industry projections, but here’s a sweet exception: IDC analysts predict that demand for smartphones is expected to grow 8.9 percent over the next 12 months.

Connected handsets seem to be the one purchase that consumers have no problem justifying, even in tight times, and with American carriers offering new deals like a refurbished $99 iPhone 3G at AT&T and Best Buy Mobile, the choice to upgrade is getting even easier.

It was not an Apple or a Blackberry model that stole the mobility show at CES 2009, however. Palm, the creator of one of modern history’s most successful smartphones, the Treo, tried to put itself back among the top-handset contenders with the Pre, a combo touch-screen/QWERTY keyboard smartphone.

The Pre is notable more for its original feature set and software than its design. The phone is using a new operating system Palm designers are calling webOS. The system allows the handset to run several different programs at once so users can multi-task both business and social apps at once.

Original to webOS is a feature called “Palm Synergy,” which keeps track of a user’s contacts and messages across all sorts of programs. So, if you talk with a person in e-mails, text messages, Facebook messages and via IM, the Pre will display all of those as one chronological conversation. The Pre has other bells and whistles too: 8GB of internal memory, WiFi, Bluetooth, GPS, a 3 megapixel camera, and an accelerometer which changes the 3.1-inch screen orientation from portrait to landscape mode much like the iPhone. Palm’s offering will be made available in the first half of the year, carried exclusively by Sprint.

Each major cellphone manufacturer had its own answer to the Pre, with most now pushing handsets with multi-touch screens. The displays, called capacitive screens, respond to a finger’s natural energy field (heat/electricity). Manufacturers, however, have received some complaints from users who can’t control the phones while wearing gloves.

Nokia was showing an older form of touch technology in its premiere handsets, which respond to pressure. Features include an internal compass (in the N85 smartphone), which can help a user find true North at disorienting moments, like when the user first emerges out of a subway to a city street.

But fancy feature sets on multi-purpose handsets were only half of the CES cell phone story. As Carrie Cox, a Motorola phone marketing rep put it, “People still want call quality and long battery life. They want to get the basics right.”

To that end, both Motorola and LG were demonstrating new noise-cancellation methods (Motorola’s is branded CrystalTalk), which boost the voices of the sender and receiver only and, produce a dramatically improved sense of reception, even when carrier networks fall short.

Another strategy for improving basic usage seen across wireless vendors was the one-emphasis phone, handsets that are marketed for their expertise at a particular feature set. PDC, formerly UTStarcomm, employed this plan with its boxy, messaging-oriented phone, the Blitz.

Roughly the size of half a graham cracker, this shiny, youth-oriented handset slides open to reveal a full QWERTY keypad (actual numbers seem an afterthought). With the Gartner Group predicting that cell phone owners will collectively send 3.3 trillion text messages in 2009 (up from 2.5 trillion last year), it’s an understandable strategy.

Other one-emphasis phones are the LG Chocolate 3, marketed as a music phone, as well as the Dare, marketed primarily as a camera phone. Sony-Ericsson had one of each too, introducing the W508, the latest Walkman phone, and the C510, a more affordable Cybershot phone with a dual LED flash, auto-focus, face-detection and video capture. LG and Sony-Ericsson reps said gaming phones, handsets that can do things like use accellerometers to imitate a Wii controller experience, are likely to begin garnering attention this year as well, though no “gaming phone” was launched quite yet.

The most retro-chic cell phone concept at CES was the advent of actual wrist phones, devices that seem straight out of Dick Tracy and James Bond adventures. The display of LG’s wearable mobile communicator, called the “watch phone,” was mobbed by the curious, who were enthused by the touch screen, the MP3 player, and the video cam (for conferencing) all on board. LG has no firm plans to release its wrist phone in the U.S.

Meanwhile, a small company out of Canada called Nutec was showing its own “ultimate wrist gadget,” a $299 watch phone developed by the company’s president, Gary Rotman. “This is spy tech,” said Rotman. “It’s a phone, a camera, a media player, FM radio and a storage device. Cool, huh?” Rotman is currently looking for a U.S. carrier for his GSM-ready device.

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