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Rivals take on iPhone with both barrels

The iPhone isn’t at the International Consumer Electronics Show, except in the hands of mobile phone designers and marketers eager to replicate its clean, intuitive user experience in their own products.
Image: Rokr E8
Motorola’s ROKR E8 seamlessly switches from phone to music player to camera with touchscreen configurations customized to each function.Motorola
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The iPhone isn’t at the International Consumer Electronics Show, except in the hands of mobile phone designers and marketers eager to replicate its clean, intuitive user experience in their own products.

Apple Inc.’s introduction of the mobile phone with the iPod interface sucked a lot of the air out of the mammoth halls at last year’s CES. After 12 months of scrambling, manufacturers and carriers appear to be well on their way to catching up to iPhone.

Racing to serve the pent-up demand for intuitive, easy-to-use converged phones that was revealed by the popularity of the iPhone, numerous companies are at CES 2008 to show off not only more-or-less iPhone-like handsets and smartphones, but also the components and accessories to support them.

Manufacturers try to put it all together
Motorola Inc., under new leadership as it tries to recover from plummeting profits, is betting on a radical redesign of its top-end phones to seamlessly integrate the oil and water of telephone and media player.

“The problem with a lot of these music-camera-phones is they don’t do a good job of putting camera and music player ergonomics into the device,” said Kent German, CNet’s senior editor for mobile phones. “It’s a phone, and you’ve got to use these really weird buttons that aren’t intuitive.”

Motorola’s big play this week is the buttonless ROKR E8, which attacks the problem with what Motorola calls ModeShift morphing to switch from phone to camera to mp3 player.

“They do that in a way that highlights only music buttons” or camera buttons on the E8’s touchscreen depending on how the device is being used, German said. “That’s pretty cool.”

The model is LG Electronics’ Voyager, an iPhone-like touchscreen phone that Verizon Wireless introduced in the U.S. market late last year. Demand for the Voyager has been so great that it remains unavailable in Verizon’s stores, with a week-long wait for Web orders.

Customers demand their freedom
The popularity of the iPhone highlighted more than just demand. It also aggravated the frustration of U.S. cell customers who must sign contracts with carriers that offer a limited number of phones, whose features they often cripple.

If you’re not with AT&T Mobility, you’re not able to use the iPhone.

“The hype surrounding that device really caused a lot of people to say, ‘Hey, this monopoly is kind of unfair and kind of wrong,’ ” German said. That started a rapid shift to unlock cellular networks so customers wouldn’t be cut off from the phones they wanted.

Google Inc. made the first move in November, when it announced Android, an open-source platform for mobile phones. Major manufacturers, including Motorola, Qualcomm and HTC, immediately jumped on board.

Then Verizon Wireless, the most closed of the major U.S. carriers, turned 180 degrees about, announcing that it would allow almost any device to run on its circuits as early as late 2008, along with most kinds of software, including Android. When that happens, Verizon customers will be able to buy the CDMA phone with the mix of features they want and use it over Verizon’s network.

“In addition to music/multimedia, we expect navigation and improved mobile Internet browsing to be increasingly prominent themes,” analysts at Credit Suisse said in a report last week forecasting what would come at CES.

Beyond the iPhone
In addition to the new ROKR, Motorola also unveiled the MOTO Z10, which it is marketing as a full mobile film studio. The Z10 features a 3.2-megapixel camera with a “burst” mode for high-speed image capture, as well as a QVGA screen rated at television-quality 30 frames per second.

In the same iPhone-like vein, Sony Ericsson introduced the first “gesture” phone, the Z555, which it said can decode users’ intentions by reading their hand motions — by waving your hand over it, you can mute the ringer, ignore a call or activate the snooze function on an alarm.

Developments like these exemplify a fundamental shift in how designers think of mobile communications. For proof, look no further than Sony’s PlayStation Portable, which the company said would soon be able to make wireless calls through the voice-over-Internet carrier Skype.

The PSP, in other words, will become another multimedia device that happens to offer voice communications, like the iPhone, the Voyager and the MOTO Z10.

Mobile phones “for a long time were kind of a phone with another thing built in,” German said. Now, “you’re almost moving in the other direction.”

Component, accessory makers join the party
With the prospect of scores of cool new devices’ hitting the U.S. market, other companies are leaping to piggyback on them with chips, drives and accessories:

  • Intel Corp., which joined the Android alliance, is at CES to showcase a new integrated microprocessor and flash memory chip for high-end cell phones based on its time-tested x86 architecture. It plans to shop the system, dubbed Menlow, to any interested handset maker.
  • Intel is also showing off stackable solid-state miniature memory chips that can extend to 16 gigabytes, an obvious lure for handheld device makers who will need to cram more stuff into ever-smaller designs.
  • Microvision Inc. is introducing its highly anticipated SHOW plug-and-play mini-projector for mobile devices, which it says is able to throw a high-definition 100-inch-diagonal image for 2½ hours on a single battery charge.

“People ask me, ‘Is convergence real?’ ” German said. “More than I’ve seen in the past few years, it is. ... [The industry] is really trying to make interesting devices.”