Like most manufacturers, mobile phone makers are constantly introducing products in hopes that one of them will be the next big thing. And though the calendar is crammed with opportunities for rolling out shiny new gadgets, few are as high-profile as this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
This year, Motorola Inc. has introduced several phones, including one, the MOTO Z10, that allows users to edit video on the cellphone before sending it by email or uploading it directly to the Internet.
Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB has rolled out a new clamshell, the Z555, that can be controlled in part by a wave of the hand, saving the user the effort of opening the device or halting other functions in use.
What else are handset makers considering as they contemplate the mobile phone of the future? Will it be bigger, smaller, lighter?
For one thing, analysts generally agree, the manufacturers will focus on making cellphones simpler, thanks in part to the iPhone. Essential functions will be easier to find and fewer keystrokes will be needed to get to them.
“Whether or not you think the iPhone is usable is not so important,” said Jessica Sandin, the head of the mobile practice at Fathom Partners, a British strategic mobile consultancy.
“It has pushed manufacturers to think again about usability. Many cellphone makers have lost their way as they crammed more and more functions into the phone, making them harder and harder to use.”
This doesn’t mean there won’t be room for a phone with novelty value that creates buzz and drives sales. With an eye toward creating that viral chatter while strengthening its market share, Nokia Corp. may be trying to create an even more versatile Swiss Army Knife of phones—one that combines a keyboard with a numeric pad and a game console.
According to the website electronista.com, the company has filed patents for a triple-sliding phone that would achieve that trio. A Nokia spokeswoman would not confirm the filing.
Patents don’t always result in a final product, but they do give an idea of what the cellphone manufacturers are working on. Another website, unwiredview.com, said Sony Ericsson was devising a phone that would clean its screen every time it was closed—perhaps not the most necessary feature, but one that would save a lot of rubbing on shirt sleeves.
While companies are searching for the big seller, there is also room, among the one billion mobile phones sold a year, for niche products like a self-cleaning phone. Globally, Nokia dominates the market—which is still growing at about 20% a year even after years of expansion—with a share of almost 40%. Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd and Motorola round out the top three.
Whatever the features, the next big thing in mobile phones must not be too big, analysts agree.
A phone must fit comfortably in a hand or a pants pocket. That is increasingly turning out to be a challenge, as new features have created a paradox for manufacturers.
“The trend is towards allowing people to do more and more things with the phone,” Sandin said. “Many of the new functions are more visually oriented and require bigger screens and bigger phones to do it well.”
With cellphone users almost as fickle as fashion hounds, manufacturers have had to speed up the time it takes to get a phone from the design stage into the hands of an executive showing it off at a trade fair.
That means the phones that will be introduced at the end of this year probably have not even been sketched yet, today, by an engineer.
“Everything about mobile phone design and production has to be quick, so it’s months from when there is an idea for a phone to the roll out on the market,” said James Marshall, Sony Ericsson’s head of product marketing, who is in Las Vegas this week for the trade fair. “The market moves very quickly, so you have to minimize development times.”
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