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Santa's Bag of Cell Phones

As we enter the ramp up to the Christmas buying season (which may not be quite as jolly this year), we are seeing a gaggle of new cell phones. The good news is that these products continue to demonstrate the creativity that has characterized the consumer electronics business. The bad new is that they are forced to operate under a business model that harkens back to the Soviet Union's planned economy.As before, each phone will be released by a single carrier, inextricably tying the consumer product to the cellular service. With the consumer features driving the carriers to a much greater degree than enterprise requirements, it's not surprising that touch screens, 2.0-megapixel cameras, and music players dominate over flexible developer environments, fixed mobile convergence, or centralized management and provisioning systems. In short, the unholy alliance of cell phone manufacturers and cellular carriers continues to underwhelm.

iPhone 3G (AT&T): Certainly Apple has led the way in creating the recognition that there is a consumer market to be had for mobile devices, and buyers are willing to spend money for a compelling product. While we continue to see business people pressuring their IT departments to support iPhones, the lack of centrally-managed systems for provisioning and software updates and a fundamental inability to lock-down the configuration make the iPhone a great choice for your kids but a lousy choice for your vice presidents.

G1 Android Phone (T-Mobile): Featuring a touch screen (lacking the pinch-and-stretch feature) as well as a full QWERTY keyboard, the HTC manufactured T-Mobile G1 is the first handset to support Google's much anticipated Android operating system. Due to be released on October 22, initial reviews have been lukewarm (everyone still loves the iPhone), and the Google-linked applications are clearly targeted at the consumer market. The idea of marketing a phone whose primary features are tied to data hungry Google applications but offering it through the carrier with the poorest 3G coverage of the four majors seems to epitomize the fundamental disconnect between marketing and operations that characterizes the cellular industry.

Blackberry Bold (AT&T): Due out before November, the Bold is reported to be the best Blackberry yet. Rogers is already marketing the Bold in Canada, and by all reports RIM has once again hit it dead on. Slightly larger than the Curve, it feature a brighter display, the classic RIM keyboard and user interface, along with all the security and management features that have made Blackberry an enterprise mainstay; the Bold just does it better. For enterprise users, the Bold will be the one to beat. However, RIM is currently hitting on all eight cylinders as their sales in the consumer market have been nothing short of amazing. The Bold can cover both sides, but it is destined to be the standard for the RIM faithful, the enterprise users.

Blackberry 9530 Storm (Verizon): The intelligence about the Blackberry 9530 Storm (formerly the "Thunder") is a lot slimmer. Due out in November, the Storm will be the first Blackberry to feature a touch screen. Aimed primarily at the consumer market (the "iPhone beater"), the Storm will be a big test for RIM. This will be their opportunity to demonstrate how adept they are at translating their legendary design expertise onto a new platform. RIM's strength has come from the combination of good hardware design (everyone loves that keyboard) coupled with a superb user interface. We can assume the hardware will be sturdy, but will they be able to either emulate or improve upon the iPhone user interface while holding on to the security and management features that have made Blackberry a stalwart in the enterprise market? A touch screen device will fill a hole in their enterprise product line (and possibly take some of the iPhone pressure off the IT department), and could also give Apple a run for their money with RIM's growing base of consumer customers.

Blackberry Pearl 8220 (T-Mobile): The Pearl 8220 will be RIM's first shot at a flip phone. Like the original Pearl, it will use the two-letters-per-key layout, which met with a lukewarm reception initially. The compressed keyboard allows for a smaller form factor, and the SureType technology seems to take care of the interface issues- once the user gets used to it. The practical business types still go heavily for the Curve or the Bold, but a significant hunk of the consumer market still craves a small, sleek device.

Nokia 5800 XpressMusic (Carrier unknown): Nokia is also getting into the touch screen market with the 5800 XpressMusic (formerly the Tube). Due to be released tomorrow, there are already YouTube videos demonstrating the user interface, which is functional, but not quite up to the level of the iPhone. Nokia has never had the appeal in the US market that they have in the rest of the world, but they do command a growing share in the enterprise smartphone market with the e- and n-Series, the poor-man's Blackberry. One factor in Nokia's favor, however, is the Symbian development environment that is far more flexible than RIM's. The result is that Wi-Fi/cellular fixed mobile convergence solutions like those from Agito and DiVitas support a range of Nokia devices but no Blackberries.

The most distressing feature is the fact that there is a carrier noted with each phone with the exception of the Nokia 5800 XpressMusic whose marketing plans have not been released. How is the handset market ever going to develop as a standalone consumer electronics business if you can't buy the product unencumbered? I'm not switching my brand of gasoline when I buy a new car, and I'm not switching my cellular service to get a new phone. That is doubly true when we are dealing with enterprise cellular contracts.

We are seeing a relentless buildup of forces pressuring the cellular carriers to alter their business models. Google announced a technology that would allow a mobile device to scan the airwaves and locate the best service available at the best price before initiating a communications session. With WiMAX now becoming a reality (at least in Baltimore), and DeFi Mobile offering a flat-rate global VoIP service that operates over Wi-Fi, the cellular carriers have got to be hearing the drumbeat.

In the meantime, Santa is coming for enterprise wireless buyers, but his sled is a little light.