Convergence may be the theme in networks, but it's the opposite in the ever-evolving world of subscriber units.
I was recently asked to participate in a survey of industry analysts on the subject of handset trends over the next five years. I'm always amazed at the convoluted wording I find in these – all too often, I get the impression that "yes" means "no" and that the metrics being used (I once encountered "on a scale of 0 to 7, please rate," believe it or not) were designed by a statistician with a substance-abuse problem. Nonetheless, within a standard deviation or so, such data can in fact be quite useful, if for no other purpose than to juice one's thought processes.
And I've been thinking about -- and working on -- a wide variety of mobile devices for a very long time. Cell phone handsets, as you may recall, have evolved from car phones to practically PCs for the pocket or purse. This isn't quite fair, in that the PC (most often a notebook today) runs an operating environment -- and thus a set of applications -- very different from that of the cell phone. And yet the degree of functionality in modern handsets is nonetheless quite remarkable. I'm amazed at what I can get done with the basic productivity applications and scaled-down browser found even in very inexpensive handsets today.
And even more interesting, while we continue to see functional and cross-technology convergence in both wired and wireless networks, we are in fact seeing increasing diversity and even divergence in subscriber units. Perhaps we shouldn't be terribly surprised at this, since -- whereas a network really just moves bits -- handsets are everything from basic voice and text communications to Web access, from my-life-in-my-pocket to fashion statements and beyond. Given the remarkable diversity of our species, we should expect our choices in personal communicators to reflect that diversity, with quite literally something for everyone. Innovation in handset design continues at a remarkable pace, with the shelf life of current designs remaining frustratingly brief for manufacturers and resellers alike.
For example, consider these recent entrants (in no particular order):
- Nokia N95 -- Is this the iPhone killer? No. But it's pretty nice, albeit pricey.
- Samsung IP-830W -- CDMA (Sprint) and GSM/GPRS when traveling overseas.
- FIC Neo 1973 -- Open source in a handset? You bet. This very cool LINUX-based handset needs major distribution, but it will be a hit with many when that happens.
- Samsung SCH-u740 -- Cool dual-hinge form factor.
- LG enV -- Keypad on the outside and a full keyboard on the inside.
- LG VX9400 -- Very TV-oriented, with a rotating screen.
- Helio Ocean -- This is a terrific design with a great form factor and browser for Web access. But Helio is an MVNO with a limited retail footprint, and therefore lacks the marketing bulk and muscle of the leaders. One of the saddest things I ever saw was standing outside the Apple store on University Avenue in Palo Alto, California, on the day the iPhone became available, and seeing the Helio store across the street so empty that the salespeople wandered outside to look at the lines in front of their new competitor.
I'm going to explore the core drivers for all this diversity in an upcoming column. Part of it relates to a fundamental dichotomy in consumer vs. business products. And even within these two broad categories, diversity abounds. Let me close here with the best example of all. Check out Vertu's custom line of Nokia phones. Bring money -- lots of it.