Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:
Last week's fake iPhone delay memo may have served as a rare marketplace laboratory. When Apple announced that Leopard was slipping four months, the investors mostly shrugged, but news that the iPhone was being delayed sent Cupertino's Apple tumbling faster than the one that fell on Newton's head. (However, of course there are no perfect lab conditions in the market, and the reaction may have been compounded by this being a second delay for Apple's OS.)
Yes, Apple is a latecomer to the handset market, but the iPhone is early to market in some ways. Had Apple not announced it back in January, it might not have stood out as much from an increasing wave of touchscreen handsets from LG, Samsung and others. But the most ostensible reason for Apple to launch the iPhone is to strike back against a rash of music phones that enjoy the luxury of prime pocket real estate and carrier subsidization. Although the distribution of such phones is growing every quarter, they haven't yet seemed to slow the sales of iPods.
Over-the-air wireless services offer promising capabilities such as song identification and the untethered building of playlists on the fly. Handset manufacturers, though, are still several years behind in terms of Apple's technology -- or at least marketing -- if last week's official unveiling of Motorola's handsets was any indication. Motorola touted the superiority of its ROKR Z8 "media monster" over other music phones due to its use of USB 2.0; Moto also spoke of the benefits of being able to swap out multiple microSD cards without having to remove the Z8's battery in order to provide users with nearly infinite storage.
Sony found little marketplace sympathy for a similar removable media pitch with MiniDisc, and while SanDisk has risen to second in the digital audio player marketplace while feeding its flash agenda with a line of players supporting removable memory, that feature has likely not been a primary purchase motivator. However, one area where the cell phones are ahead of most standalone music players, or at least the iPod, is in support of wireless stereo Bluetooth headsets, which now more fashionably pause polyphony for telephony.
As clarified at last week's presentation, media is one of the three main thrusts of Motorola moving forward, another being the productivity sector often encompassing smartphones. Among these products, Motorola spoke of its "yin and yang" strategy, continuing with the touchscreen Ming in Eastern markets while officially (re)introducing a Q9 with a revamped keyboard. But even as the handset giant spoke of diversification and different demographics, of how new modes of functionality would infiltrate familiar form factors, the newest entry in its "basic" featurephone stole the show.
The RAZR 2's list of improvements over its juggernaut predecessor goes on longer than a teen's texting log. These include an even thinner profile with an angled edge that indeed better resembles its more vowel-inclusive namesake, a 2-inch external chemically-hardened glass screen that can be used for reading and sending canned replies to text messages, a 2 megapixel camera, up to 2GB of internal flash that can be filled with songs via Windows Media Player 11, text-to-speech and volumes that change in response to background noise, a full HTML browser, and Google mobile search.
The handset even goes beyond sight and sound with springy haptic feedback when using its touch-sensitive media playback controls. Unfortunately, while at least some RAZR 2s will include Motorola's Linux / Java platform (JUIX), the basic navigation and text entry paradigms share most of the limitations of their predecessors.
Nonetheless, this phone will be a tour de force. While it may, like the original RAZR, debut for hundreds of dollars, Motorola's volume, multiple carrier partnerships, and broad wireless channel support should have the likes of Amazon.com paying consumers to take it before too long. This svelte featurephone, and others like it, will crush sales of any chunky competition regardless of how good its music playback features are.
So, you can chalk the iPhone's break with tradition to Apple's maverick product approach, competitive necessity, or even relatively low stakes; the company has nothing to lose in the cell phone market today. But while consumers will ultimately express their level of interest in optimized media monsters, such devices face challenging competition from handsets that most stylishly address their broad mobile needs. It's easy to understand why handset companies want to diversify targeted product portfolios, but being a jack-of-all-trades may ultimately be what cell phones should aspire to master.
Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group,. His blog can be read at http://www.rossrubin.com/outofthebox. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.