On Call: Does cell phone design still matter?
Cell phone manufacturers increasingly are using software to distinguish their phones. But do customers care?
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
The shift really hit home in September when we met with Motorola following the introduction of its Android-powered
From a company that developed some of the most iconic cell phones in history (hello, Moto
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
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.
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
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
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?