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Switched On: Gluts and glory


Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

Before the mass adoption of smartphones in the U.S., many fretted that the heavy subsidization model was feeding a free handset model that would keep Americans hopelessly addicted to basic voice plans and phones optimized for them. The price consumers paid in relation to the value of the handset, it was argued, was hopelessly out of whack. This year, a string of successful smartphones have shown that an increasing percentage of U.S. consumers are willing to pay $200 for a flagship device. On the other hand, there's still ample evidence that price and value can remain disconnected. And the carriers aren't making it much easier.

The smartphone surge has been driven in part by a desire to acquire the best and by a response to carrier advertising. However, a recent run-up in advanced smartphones have made it difficult to define a clear top of the line at many carriers, and carriers simply cannot promote them all with the same attention lavished on the iPhone or original Droid. Take the turn of events at Verizon, for example, which in the space of a few months has rolled out the Droid Incredible, Droid X and Droid 2, with the Samsung Fascinate in the wings. At least the first three have been all priced at $199, with strong precedent for the Fascinate coming in at that level. And while AT&T has been a bit more diverse in the operating systems of its recent spate of high-end contenders -- the iPhone 4, BlackBerry Torch and Samsung Captivate -- they too have all been priced at $199.

And for those who find that moderate confusion level of this uniformity humdrum, Sprint has thrown things for a loop with its recent pricing of the Epic 4G at $249. The most feature-packed of the Galaxy S quadruplets with its sliding keyboard and front-facing camera, Sprint has taken a risk in pricing the Epic 4G above its own recently launched EVO 4G and its larger, enthusiast-beckoning 4.3-inch display. In contrast, while the Droid 2 is not a perfect counterpart to the Epic 4G, Verizon's highest-end keyboard-packing Droid has not crossed the $199 transom. But counter to Sprint's focus on the keyboard, Verizon has implied that the Droid X is its highest-end handset -- and its feature set matches up fairly well against the EVO 4G.

Gone are the days when carriers were holding out for a hero device. Now, as a whole league of them rush to the scene, the bigger burden is choosing your champion.

Sprint has even released a video explaining the differences between the EVO 4G and Epic 4G in which surname-excised Sprint employee Heather asks, "how will you ever decide which one is right for you?" While the WiMAX-supporting carrier would clearly be pretty happy if customers (especially those defecting from other carriers) bought either, its justification for the Epic's 25% premium is anything but airtight. Sprint highlights the Epic 4G's display, noting that it makes for a thinner form factor and longer battery life, but the EVO's screen is, of course, larger. It also highlights the keyboard ("a third way to send messages" and an advantage diminished by the efficiency of typing on the EVO's larger display),

But the most dubious contrast is Sprint's positioning of the DLNA support of the Epic 4G vs. the HDMI support of the EVO 4G even though the EVO could certainly gain DLNA capabilities via a software update (or even an app). More importantly, though, HDMI and DLNA are really focused on different tasks. Despite the need for a cable, more consumers are in a better position to take advantage of the former for displaying HD video.

Another deviation, though, is more promising for consumers hoping to see lower prices for premium hardware. Sony Ericsson's XPERIA X10, with its 1GHz processor and four-inch display, is launching on AT&T at $149. While the XPERIA X10 ships with an older version of Android, and Sony Ericsson has not committed to an upgrade time frame yet, it's put its own TimeScape and MediaScape eye candy experiences on top of the stock Android experiences, and maintains that, unlike some manufacturer modifications, consumers don't have to use them.

With the re-entrance of Microsoft coming before the end of the year providing a new alternative to a bevy of hardware manufacturers, the cycle of new hardware smartphones coming to market may continue to compress. Gone are the days when carriers were holding out for a hero device. Now, as a whole league of them rush to the scene, the bigger burden is choosing your champion.

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.

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