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Sonar hopes to power social featurephones, we get a demo

Chris Ziegler

As with any trade show, flashy, high-end products have a tendency to steal the lion's share of the spotlight at MWC -- but the fact is, featurephones still outsell traditional smartphones by an order of magnitude. Companies like INQ are betting the farm on the belief that today's ultra-connected generation of Twitter, Myspace, and Facebook users are ultimately going to pick fashionable, cheap, easy-to-use handsets over the complexity of an iPhone, G1, or Omnia. There's something to be said for that -- most people don't know the model of their own phone, after all, and have no interest in learning how to download and install an app, let alone learn an entire mobile operating system. Plus, for the youngest members of this profitable group, there's a lot of price sensitivity -- smartphones are typically out of reach.

If startup Sonar has its way, that's where its new platform comes in. The idea was to fundamentally rethink the way average consumers -- you know, the ones who are plugged into three, four, or fourteen social networks and don't know a G1 from a P1i -- use a phone to communicate, and they're ready to show off their efforts for the first time here at MWC. We had an opportunity to sit down with Sonar's founders this week for a tour of the system, and we're pretty stoked about what we saw. Read on.

Gallery: Sonar hopes to power social featurephones, we get a demo | 23 Photos

Behind the scenes, there's a boatload of magic keeping everything humming along, but on the front end, the user's presented with a ridiculously simple phone interface paired with a web portal accessed by any computer. From the portal, you configure the email accounts and social networks you're using, the Sonar apps (they call them widgets) you want on your phone, your contacts, your photos, and device settings like ringtones (in a production environment, the portal would likely be carrier- or manufacturer-branded, but for now, it's simply Sonar).

Sonar takes care of reconciling contacts and photos from all of your social networks and presenting them as a unified contact list, and that's the "oh, I get it" moment -- you can almost think of it as Palm's Synergy for dumbphones (in fact, Sonar has a ton of respect for what Palm's doing right now). You can manage and see statuses from Facebook, see latest tweets, populate your contact's caller ID photos automagically, send emails to addresses that have been added for you, and more. The phone's interface is optimized to allow easy access to all of this using a d-pad like you'd find on a lower-end device, and it works really well: dedicated Calls, Contacts, and Messages icons along the bottom of the screen can either be pulled up in half-height (so the home screen's still visible) or full-height modes depending on the button you press, and everything else gets shuffled into the Widgets icon on the far right. As the company explains, the kinds of customers they're targeting are spending the overwhelming majority of their phone time communicating with friends and keeping tabs on their updates through a jungle of social networks, so Sonar breaks them out.

So, what about those widgets? Like Palm's webOS, Sonar's architecture is extended through web standards -- HTML, CSS, and so on -- to create applications, which run in a WebKit-based environment shared by the browser. Yes, that limits the capabilities of the applications, but when you consider Sonar's target hardware, it actually doesn't; we'd expect Sonar widgets to be every bit as capable (and far more attractive) as what you're getting on this class of device currently. Throughout its system, Sonar says it's paid special attention to making sure that neither widgets nor native functions consume much data, which it's pitching as a major advantage for carriers looking to conserve available bandwidth as phones become more capable and users become more connected. The operator pays less, the customers pay less, and the experience is better, so everybody seemingly wins.

Sonar seems to have a good pulse on the kinds of users it's going after, and the widgets they've implemented thus far clearly reflect that -- besides basics like weather and news, they also have Twitter, Wikipedia, and mapping widgets ready to go. The system supports location-based services, and it also allows widgets to write information directly to their display names (so, for example, you might see "73 Cloudy" in place of "Weather") and to the home screen.

Much of Sonar's development has revolved around its push infrastructure, which is wicked fast. Seriously -- if you update a contact from your portal, a friend's Facebook status changes, you add a widget, or reskin the interface (did we mention it has comprehensive support for themes?), the phone updates in a matter of seconds, all allegedly without much impact on battery life. The ability for users to add apps with this drop-dead simplicity and speed is a big win, and naturally, they can be removed just as easily.

Betting on Google's success, the company has chosen to develop its technology on top of Android but says that it could easily be adapted to Symbian or just about any other platform a manufacturer or carrier desires in just a few weeks' time. That explains why they're demoing on a G1 -- it's just about the only Android phone readily available at the moment -- but a commercial deployment would likely be on a phone designed with Sonar's basic specifications in mind: four-way directional pad, back and OK buttons, a numeric keypad, and that's it. Simplicity reigns supreme here.

Sonar's composed entirely of ex-Apple and Adobe employees, so you might imagine that design was high on the priority list; indeed, everything we saw was beautiful. All of the default themes look great, and the company tells us that they're vector-based for easy adoption to different screen sizes and form factors (one catch: only portrait screens are supported right now). As with everything else, configuration is done through the portal, and changes take effect on the device in about the time it takes for you to turn your head from your computer monitor to your handset.

Sonar says that it's hoping to have a live, commercially available system deployed about this time next year, though the carriers and manufacturers involved are anybody's guess -- and given what we've seen, we'd be pretty shocked if it didn't get picked up by a few players. The bottom line is that we loved what we saw, and while it may not be for us or the typical Engadget reader, we can totally see this in the hands of someone who values... you know, actual humans over technology. (Imagine that.)

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