Will we ever see an iPhone killer?

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Will we ever see an iPhone killer?

Las Vegas (NV) – Ever since Apple first showed its iPhone in January of 2007, cellphone makers appear to have accelerated their innovation efforts to create new types of phones or at least phones that offer the same appeal as the iPhone. This year’s CTIA tradeshow revealed that the iPhone will remain the benchmark of a mass market smartphone, while all other manufacturers are still catching up. But they are learning and are getting closer.

It feels like the iPod all over again. There is an industry that has been making cellphones for quite a while, but it was Apple that has opened a whole new market and enthusiasm for what is essentially a boring product category that is, at least in this country, focused on voice and data usability. The iPhone hardly can be considered a new product and has many flaws, but Apple got a lot of things right simply by looking at the market, talking to people, correcting mistakes others have made for years and coming up with a fantastic design that was years ahead of its competition. Looking at the news that are coming out of CTIA, this scenario looks very similar to what happened with the iPod back in 2001 and if Apple can repeat history, then the iPhone could become the iPod of cellphones.

Virtually every major handset maker scrambles to develop iPhone-killer these days but only three (maybe four) may have a decent shoot at accomplishing this goal: RIM with its BlackBerry 9000, Samsung with its Instinct phone and SonyEricsson with the Xperia. There is a wildcard in this game, which has the potential to make a strong debut – Garmin’s Nuvifone.

All these new smartphones are powerful, but they lack certain Apple-patented technologies, such as multi-finger gestures and an accelerometer or proximity sensor. However, they do set the bar higher in terms of plain hardware specs. It is very obvious that aim to beat the iPhone at its own game and to improve the device’s weaknesses and offer features such as 3G support, GPS, video recording, higher resolution screens, memory card slots, user-replaceable batteries, haptic feedback and physical, slide-out QWERTY keypads (Xperia).

It is interesting to see that all these devices don’t hide the fact that the they are ripping off some of the iPhone’s most obvious assets – they similar in shape, design and touchscreen size, with shiny graphics and fluidly animated UI, But it is our impression that these would-be iPhone-killers still fail to capture Apple’s mojo: Ease of use, an appealing user interface, seamless hardware/software integration and the brand appeal. At least Samsung and SonyEricsson have come up witchy catchy names for their new phones. The industry is closing the gap, but it isn’t quite there yet.

After flashy announcements made earlier this year we had the chance to look at the Nuvifone and the Xperia X1 at CTIA. Our first impression was that the SonyEricsson’s contender is actually a phone that looks great in real life, with a curved slide up screen, its QWERTY keyboard, 3″ touchscreen display, 3G support, a 3.2 megapixel camera and a GPS. The manufacturer had only demo phones with fake screens on display, but we managed to get our hands on a working demo. However, we were not allowed to actually take a video of the phone, as we were told that the “software was incomplete” and only the main features were functional. No showtime for the Xperia X1 yet.

Garmin’s Nuvifone, scheduled for a H2 rollout, was even less complete and on display in a fishbowl-shaped case. The model Garmin had on display looked a little plasticky to us, included a very simple layout, very few buttons and a large 3.5″ touchscreen display. When it will be available for purchase, the device will feature a built-in camera, GPS for navigation with North America maps preloaded and HSDPA support. A Garmin representative noted that the fishbowl model was “as close as [he has] come to one”. We will have to wait a few more months to actually see a working unit. We were a bit surprised to see that Garmin’s booth actually lacked information about the phone and the representatives were not able to provide information about how the phone will work and how its key features would be implemented – at least features that went beyond the main three functions of calling, searching and map viewing.

It is quite apparent at CTIA that instead of taking a risk with groundbreaking new feature, handset makers are trying to compete with the iPhone on hardware specs and endless features, although Apple demonstrates that fewer features implemented exceedingly well trumps a boatload lot of features that are hastily integrated. In our opinion, the hardware specs game could backfire as Apple’s has learned how to create cutting-edge computer hardware in compact form factors.

That thought, of course, brings up the most recent analyst rumor about the iPhone, the imminent release of a 3G iPhone. It was generally expected to launch at WWDC in July, but it looks it could appear even sooner. Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster reported an iPhone shortage in 20 of Apple’s 180 US retail stores, suggesting that inventories are cleared out an upgrade is one the way. Gartner analyst Ken Dulaney cited “sources in Asia” who told him that Apple ordered 10 million 3G iPhone units from the world’s largest manufacturer of electronics components, Hon Hai.

If we believe the rumors, than the 3G iPhone will have a redesigned casing, a 30 FPS video camera, GPS, slimmer profile and better battery life. If that is the case, then Apple will be able to eliminate most of the main complaints about its first-generation iPhone. And, Apple could be driving the software path towards video calls, as recent patent filings indicated that Apple will be bringing its Mac videoconferencing solution, dubbed iChat, to the iPhone. With iChat, the 3G iPhone user will be able to place video calls to other 3G iPhone users, desktop iChat and AIM users and even Apple TV users watching their big screen TV.

At least right now, Apple is uniquely positioned for a vertical integration of its hardware, mobile operating system and applications. Whereas competitors have to shop for the operating system and applications somewhere else, Apple tightly controls all three under one roof. Microsoft’s just updated Windows Mobile 6.1, but we yet have to see if it will be a match for the iPhone (Mac) OS and Android-powered phones that are yet to appear in the second half of the year. If we look at the iPhone SDK and upcoming software update with enterprise-grade security features, the iPhone isn’t only consumer device anymore, it is moving into the business as well.

It has been 14 months since the iPhone has been unveiled, but this year’s CTIA shows that traditional cellphone makers are still behind Apple in designing a “cool” smartphone. And while the new generation of phone sis catching up, the next-gen iPhone could reestablish or even extend the lead. As long as Apple is skating to where the puck is going to be, and not where it has been, handset makers are going to have a tough time knocking-down the iPhone.

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