Entelligence: when less beats Moore

Entelligence is a column by technology strategist and author Michael Gartenberg, a man whose desire for a delicious cup of coffee and a quality New York bagel is dwarfed only by his passion for tech. In these articles, he'll explore where our industry is and where it's going -- on both micro and macro levels -- with the unique wit and insight only he can provide.

We are all familiar with Moore's law. The observation made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that the density of semiconductors doubles roughly every eighteen months. The net result? It's always going to be better faster and cheaper. Certainly that's been true of the phone space, with large screens, fast processors and lots of storage.

In the last few weeks alone I've looked at new phones with 1Ghz processors, the latest and greatest software platforms from Google and RIM... but it's been one little gadget that's caught my attention and it totally bucks the trend. What device? It's the Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 Mini Pro -- which is a lot of name for a small phone -- and it shows some very different thinking about what a smartphone is. In theory, this isn't a phone that I should like. Instead of a large 4.3-inch screen, it's running a 2.55-inch screen at 240 x 320 resolution. Don't look for a 1Ghz processor here. It's got an ARMv6 revision 5 processor at 600Mhz. Finally, forget Froyo or even Eclair. This thing's got Android 1.6 on it and may never get updated to the latest and greatest. Despite all that, I think Sony Ericsson has a potential hit on their hands if they decide to bring this to the US later this year as they said they plan to. Why am I so enamored?

First, the size. This thing is small. Feature phone small. One of the casualties with the growth of the smartphone market has been the death of small phones. Don't get me wrong, to really take advantage of the power of today's phones operating systems, larger screens are important. The problem is, while the larger the screens help with email and web browsing, they make the devices harder to hold and carry ubiquitously. The Dell Streak's 5-inch screen is fantastic for email, but it hardly slips into a pocket without notice.

Second, the speed. Despite the relatively slow 600Mhz processor, the phone is actually very speedy. Running apps such as Tweetcaster and NewsRob are much faster than devices such as the Galaxy S that runs a processor nearly twice as fast. The combination of a smaller screen and fewer pixels makes a huge difference in terms of processor workload. The net is something that's more akin to a sports car than a subcompact in terms of performance.

Third, battery life. The added benefit of that slower processor and smaller screen is a battery that lasts and lasts. I've had no problem getting two days of normal use on the phone, and even on my hardest days, I never found myself out of power.

Finally, add in a slider keyboard that's near perfect -- it may not look like it from the pictures, but it's one of the best phone keyboards I've ever used -- and a tweaked UI that makes use of the corners to activate frequently used apps and you have a device that's perfect for messaging and communication. The net result is something that's about the size of a feature phone but also packs the power of the Android OS. Gmail client, Webkit browser, a selection of Twitter clients, news readers etc. They're all in the marketplace. Sure, the small screen and the old OS mean that you're not going to run every Android app that's out there, but you can definitely run more than most people will need.

As platforms mature, they tend to fragment into products that can meet specific needs. That's true of everything from cars to toothpaste. It's going to be true of smartphones as well. The X10 Mini Pro shows what the future of feature phones will look like. A device like this, optimized for communication, loaded with social media applications and running with a $15 dollar date plan would have tremendous appeal to younger audiences. In many ways, it may be devices like this that deliver on the vision Microsoft tried to establish with Kin -- but with the platform flexibility and data pricing that Kin lacked.

Long term, the X10 Mini Pro isn't the phone for me, but I suspect it and devices like it could very well be in the sweet spot for some segments of the market. It's nice to see that when it comes to phones at least, less can beat Moore.