Apple Inc. begins its first foray into the wireless telephone business on 29 June with the release of the iPhone. Millions of loyal Apple customers can hardly wait for the device, which combines a cellphone, music player, and Internet-access device. But Apple's rivals in the cellphone business seem just as enthusiastic.
"Apple is going to raise consciousness. 'My God, can my phone do that?"' said Kim Titus, spokesman for Samsung Telecommunications America LLC, a leading maker of wireless handsets. Titus said that consumers will rush to buy iPhones - but also Samsung phones like the new Upstage, an ultrathin device that offers music, web surfing, and live video, but costs far less that Apple's $600 iPhone.
Other cellular network operators and cellphone makers share Titus's optimism. They think the launch of the iPhone will spawn new demand for high-end phones, demand that the iPhone can't entirely satisfy.
"While the iPhone has tremendous hype and attention and will sell quite well, it's still a small portion of the overall cellphone market," said Charles Golvin, wireless analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge.
Apple officials say they expect to sell 10 million iPhones worldwide by the end of 2008, but according to research firm Gartner Inc., worldwide sales of all cellphones will reach 1.15 billion in 2007. That leaves plenty of room for iPhone alternatives, and there are plenty of them.
There are already quite a few "smart phones" available to consumers. Best known are Research In Motion Ltd.'s BlackBerry phones, which feature a miniaturized computer keyboard. There are also the Palm Inc. phones, which combine a mini-keyboard with touch-screen features. But there also are several new devices waiting to give the iPhone a run for its money.
The new products aren't exactly copycats; Golvin said it takes over a year to design a phone, meaning the rivals were on drawing boards before Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone in January. And many of the phones lack the iPhone's most talked-about feature-a touch screen that lets users dial calls, look- up phone numbers, or view web pages with the sweep of a finger.
Perhaps the closest to an iPhone clone is the HTC Touch, a new touch-screen device from High Tech Computer Corp., a Taiwanese maker of smart phones based on Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Mobile software. The Touch isn't yet available in the US, but HTC expects to sign up an American distributor by the fourth quarter of the year.
Currently on sale in Britain for the equivalent of $666, the Touch is the fifth generation of HTC phones with touch-screen controls, according to Todd Achilles, the company's US vice president of sales and marketing.
"They've been incredibly popular in Europe and Asia," said Achilles.
Another high-end phone without a US carrier is the $749 N95 from Finland's Nokia. But Nokia sells the phone here anyway, at the company's Nokia.com website. A customer who buys the phone can then have it connected to any cellular phone service that uses the GSM network. These include T-Mobile, owned by Germany's Deutsche Telekom, and AT&T, the sole US wireless carrier that will offer the GSM-compatible iPhone.
The N95 lacks a touch screen, but it features a 5 megapixel digital camera that produces photos far better than those usually produced by cellphones. It'll play videos downloaded from the Internet, and let you show them on a standard TV by plugging in a video-out cable.
The N95 and several other iPhone rivals also boast GPS technology, a feature absent from the iPhone. Users can get turn-by-turn driving instructions, as well as directions to nearby locations like hotels or ATMs.
"GPS is one of the most highly demanded applications built into a wireless phone today," said Mark Elliott, spokesman for Sprint Nextel Corp., which offers GPS in cheap phones as well as more expensive models.
Sprint is targeting the iPhone market with the Upstage, a Samsung-made phone that's about the same size as Apple's iPod nano music players. The Upstage features a striking design - one side of the device is a phone, while the other features all the music, video, and GPS controls. The Upstage is less expensive than an iPhone, or even most iPods - $99, with a two-year service contract.
The Upstage displays live video pumped over the Sprint data network, but it's hard to view on the phone's cramped screen. Verizon Communications tries to solve this problem with its VX9400 phone made by LG Electronics of South Korea. The VX9400 has a larger screen that rotates 90 degrees to expose the phone's keypad and present a wide-screen appearance. The VX9400 is considerably more expensive than the Upstage - $249, or $199 when ordered over the Internet, plus a two-year service agreement.
Another rival touch-screen phone from South Korea's LG Electronics was codeveloped with the Italian fashion design firm Prada SpA of Milan. Officially on sale only in Europe, the Prada phone can be bought through Internet sites like Dynamism.com for $800. Like the N95, Prada buyers must separately sign up for GSM cellular service.
None of the Apple alternatives can begin to match the glamour of the iPhone. But that's fine with competitors who plan on riding Apple's coattails.
Said Verizon spokesman Michael Murphy, "I would have to think that a rising tide lifts all ships."