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Commentary: Cell phones pack too many features

Stuffing the cell phone with enough features and functions to choke a Thanksgiving turkey is the path to financial indigestion.

By Michael McGuire and Bryan Prohm, Gartner Analysts

Stuffing the cell phone with enough features and functions to choke a Thanksgiving turkey is the path to financial indigestion.

That's what we at Gartner are telling handset companies and service providers.

In their (understandable) race to find incremental revenue in economically trying times, cell phone makers and wireless service providers are savoring the profit potential of rich-media applications.

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Yet when it comes to consumer interest in so-called beyond-voice applications--and in wireless data accessed via a Web-enabled phone or wireless personal digital assistant--most consumers say "no thanks." A notable departure from this reality is in Japan, where consumers have happily embraced NTT DoCoMo's feature-rich I-mode service.

Our surveys of U.S. consumers show they're hot on receiving mapping information and directions plus e-mail notification, and not much else. These applications, of course, don't need any more power or technology than what's found in the average low-end WAP (Wireless Application Protocol) phone, which carries a modest $100 price tag. Moreover, most North American mobile phone users don't regularly use all the gizmos and features already festooning their voice-only phones.

Consumers won't soon suffer any cell phone feature fatigue. That's because with the industry having done a poor job of articulating the value of beyond-voice applications, consumers will likely take a pass on premium-priced products that deliver functions that meet no perceived need. Wireless phones have already attained commodity status. So it's likely that the mobile phone industry has reached a plateau in the functions that consumers expect and are willing to pay for in their mobile phones.

This puts the onus on manufacturers and service providers to cultivate the need among consumers for a whole suite of mobile data services and applications. First sow, then reap.

Phone manufacturers would be better off focusing their design teams on improving the text-based interface of the average gray-scale screen on the average WAP phone. They could, for starters, reduce the number of screens that a caller has to click through. That would provide a better service than packing in high-end capabilities such as color screens that use OLED (organic light-emitting diode) technology.

Layering on features (for feature's sake) nets only the small catch of eager early-adopters.

(For tips on maximizing the battery life of cell phones, see TechRepublic.com--free registration required.)

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