On Call: Does cell phone design still matter?

Cell phone manufacturers increasingly are using software to distinguish their phones. But do customers care?

With the Moto Cliq, it matters what's inside. Motorola Cliq

On Call runs every two weeks, alternating between answering reader questions and discussing hot topics in the cell phone world.

In the age of iPhone, Google Android, and Palm WebOS, a funny thing has happened on the way to the cell phone store. Though handset design has long been the focus of cell phone development, hardware manufacturers appear to be shifting their attention. Software is now taking center stage as companies struggle to distinguish their touch-screen devices from their competitors, and companies aren't being shy about this new focus.

The shift really hit home in September when we met with Motorola following the introduction of its Android-powered Cliq. As my colleague Tom Krazit wrote at the time, Moto CEO Sanjay Jha was clear that his company is resting its comeback attempt on its signature MotoBlur software. Jha characterized MotoBlur as more than software, but also as "emblematic of the shift towards software and the Internet as the main features in a modern mobile phone."

From a company that developed some of the most iconic cell phones in history (hello, Moto Razr and Startac), Jha's words were surprising. Software has always been a part of phones, but it has rarely defined them. Unless you were a smartphone buyer deciding between Windows Mobile and BlackBerry, most customers bought a phone and used the manufacturer's standard operating system without a thought. Sure, more savvy users had their strong preferences, and Verizon tried an abysmal standardized interface on its handsets, but elements like thin designs, colored faceplates, and messaging keyboards got the most attention.

And Motorola is not alone. While talking with an HTC rep earlier this week about the HTC Sense, he told me that his company is also distinguishing itself through software. As he put it, there are so only many combinations of cameras, displays, and keyboards, so software is the only real area where manufacturer can best their rivals.

Charles Golvin, a wireless analyst with Forrester Research agrees. "[Software] will be the most important element for manufacturers going forward," he said. "In the past, the phones that changed the market, like the Razr and the iPhone, had big industrial designs. But those opportunities are decreasing."

Indeed, as touch-screen handsets continue to surge in popularity, their designs are growing more alike. Some have slide-out physical keyboards, and others do not, but in either case you typically wind up with a rectangular candy bar device with a large display and a few physical controls. Of course, there are exceptions, but you have to admit that the HTC Hero, the Samsung Moment, and the Cliq don't look that different.

Golvin says the move toward software started with the Nokia Series 60 interface, which offered easier ways to complete standard phone functions. Meanwhile, other manufacturers attempted to make existing operating systems a bit more palatable. Sony Ericsson's Xperia X1, Samsung's Omnia, and HTC's Touch all put a new spin on the increasingly clunky Windows Mobile.

Though reviewers and users largely approved of the changes, Golvin said that in the end HTC's TouchFLO, Samsung's TouchWiz, and Sony Ericsson's interfaces were only skin deep. "Once you got past the surface and into the UI, they were still Windows Mobile devices," he said. It was only after the iPhone introduced a completely new cell phone UI did did the software trend really kick into high gear. Android and Palm's WebOS later came along to bolster the trend even further.

But if software is the future, do customers really care? Golvin says not quite yet. "Most consumers don't really understand what software is and what it means," he said. "They know what's easier to use...but most consumers base their decisions on operator and then on price and design." Golvin said this dynamic is changing, particularly on the smartphone side, but it will take time for software to get more attention from basic phone buyers.

If anything has the power to reshuffle customer priorities, I agree that Android could be it. Even with an OS that is supposed to be the same across all supported devices, manufacturers are making their marks and appealing to different user segments. The T-Mobile MyTouch 3G cast a wider audience than the T-Mobile G1, and HTC added its Sense UI to the Hero and the upcoming Droid Eris. Moto developed MotoBlur, and it beat its rivals to Android 2.0 with the Droid. These differences, Golvin said, will make the consumer smarter. "As people get exposed to more devices, they understand that things work differently," he said. "It's happening already."

Despite the new focus, design will never fade as a buying concern. Consumers will continue to seek handsets with vibrant displays, easy-to-use controls, and sturdy designs, and CNET will continue to analyze those aspects in our reviews. And if something is ugly or just a bit too weird, I doubt that it will sell.

It's still too early to tell if manufacturers are playing the right card. I do think that the era of "It's hot because it's thin" is beginning to fade, but as manufacturers shift their focus, I wonder if they've placed too much faith in their customers.

What do you think? Will software trump cell phone design?

 

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