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Consumers' touchy relationship with cell phones

Figuring out what people really want in a cell phone is like trying to hit a moving target. And the proliferation of available features and services isn't making it easier.

Editor's note: Tell us what you look for in a cell phone--vote in any or all of the four polls below, and elaborate in the TalkBack section at the end of this story.

Choosing a cell phone has become a lot like buying a car. Poll

What type of design do you prefer?

Candy bar
Swivel phone

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No matter what model or brand you buy, they all have some of the basic features and functionality. Cars come with a steering wheel, an engine, brakes, and four wheels. And all cell phones come with some mechanism for dialing and a small speaker and microphone for making calls. But beyond that, appearance, premium features, reliability, and cost become a huge part of what draw consumers to one phone--or car--or another.

Over the past few years it seems like the choice in cell phones has exploded. I know it may not feel like that in the carrier-subsidized phone market of the United States, but if you look globally and in the design centers of major cell phone manufacturers, you'll see hundreds of models of different phones that consumers can choose from.

And as cell phone penetration nears the saturation point in most developed markets, like the U.S., manufacturers are challenged now more than ever to come up with cool designs and features that consumers really want. All at prices that people can afford.

Cell phone manufacturers talk about turning cell phones into TVs and music players. They see phones as navigation devices and mini computers that can be used to surf the Internet or check e-mail. Phones today have cameras and video recorders that allow people to photograph and document their lives. Of course they also let you talk to your heart's content.

But what features do people really want on their phones? Which styles are they most attracted to? These are questions that phone manufacturers are increasingly asking themselves. Poll

What matters most?

QWERTY keyboard
Screen size/resolution
Battery life
Simple user interface
Specific offerings like gaming, e-mail, GPS, music player, etc.

View results

The New York Times published a story on Friday that said cell phone industry executives need to "understand the psyche of consumers and why they pick one phone over another." Their mission, the story pointed out, is to be a kind of Dr. Phil for cell phones.

Korean cell phone maker LG Electronics supposedly asks focus groups to keep a journal about how they feel about the design of certain cell phones, the article says. LG executives also regularly attend home and design shows "looking for broader trends in popular culture." Nokia's executives recently spent time on a retreat trying to figure out what consumers will want not just next year, but for the next three to seven years.

On some level, I think consumers are attracted to design and coolness whether they realize it or not. Motorola's Razr was a good example of this. The ultrathin phone came on the market in 2004 and was quickly deemed a hit. But it didn't really do anything different from all the other cell phones on the market. What made it unique was its slim, new design. Not only did it look cool, but it was also functional from a design perspective. As cell phones became an item no one left home without, people loved the idea of a carrying a device that could easily slip into a pocket or a small purse.

But the Razr became passe as the phone became ubiquitous and other companies copied its design.

Then along came the iPhone. I have to admit I had never before seen such a frenzy for any kind of consumer-electronics device. Even before the iPhone went on sale people were buzzing about it. Apple, which had hit home runs in terms of design and functionality with the iPod music player, was expected to come up with something cool. And it did. But unlike the Razr that simply packaged a standard cell phone into a different form, Apple combined both cool design with innovative features and functionality.

And now it's clear that Apple has set the bar in terms of what people expect in a cell phone. Cool design is a must, but functionality and services are also important. Poll

What about the cool/hip factor. Does it matter?


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This leads me back to the issue mentioned at the beginning of this blog post. Which features do people really want on a cell phone? Simply putting anything and everything an engineer can think of into a tiny device doesn't make much sense. But it seems that is what some manufacturers are trying to do. At the same time, devices that focus on a few high-end features to the exclusion of others make it difficult for consumers to choose a device that fits their needs and wants.

Take two of Nokia's latest phones. At the GSMA Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month, the company introduced the 6210 Navigator, a phone developed specifically for navigation, with a built-in compass and easy access to Nokia's map and navigation service. It also introduced the 6220 Classic that comes with a 5-megapixel camera with geotagging that links easily to Flikr.

I think each of these phones is great. They offer very cool features and functionality. But as a consumer, which one do I buy? To be honest, I thought the 6210 Navigator was a great phone for people who like to travel. You can use it to access maps and city guides for destinations around the world, making it the device to have on trips. It basically eliminates the need to carry around a Lonely Planet guide book and a map, two things I always travel with when I'm in a foreign city.

The 6220 Classic also is a very cool phone. It takes very good-quality pictures and, with a couple of quick clicks, will upload your photos to a Flickr account--features that might make it a good replacement for the small digital camera I often travel with. Poll

Are you loyal to a particular brand?


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My initial thought when I saw these phones was that it would be great if I could get this excellent camera with geotagging and an embedded Flickr link in the 6220 Classic combined with the full lineup of the cool navigation features of the 6210 Navigator. The reason is simple: I usually take pictures when I am on vacation in a place I don't know. That also happens to be when and where I need a map. And if there was a really good camera built into my phone, I wouldn't have to carry around my little digital camera too.

When I mentioned this to a Nokia marketing executive at the GSMA trade show, he cocked his head, squinted his eyes, and looked at me like I was from another planet. I tried to explain to him that it makes more sense to bundle certain features based on the type of consumer you are targeting. For example, a navigation phone with an awesome camera and a built-in link to Flickr appeals to me as a frequent traveler. But when those two main functions are put on two different phones, I might have a harder time deciding which one to get.

He argued that these phones were designed for two different kinds of consumers, one interested in navigation, the other in photography.

So yes, there's a degree of exasperation on both sides of this equation. I recognize that phone manufacturers may be faced with an impossible task. No two people are alike. Features that are important to me might not be important to someone else, and vice versa. So I don't expect perfection. But if cell phone makers could get as close to my dream as possible, I'd be happy.