The age of the ubiquitous touch-screen phone may not be far.
They might not all be the engineering marvels that a fourth-generation iPhone or HTC EVO 4G are, but if mobile phone companies and analyst predictions are to be believed, touch-screen phones are what everyone’s betting on this year.
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Shipments of touch-screen phones in India grew from 800,000 in January-March to nearly 1.5 million units in the first quarter of FY11, according to data from market research firm IDC. Both Samsung and LG launched popular sub-Rs10,000 phones (the Corby and Cookie, respectively), and smaller firms such as Karbonn and Fly are already tantalizingly close to the Rs5,000 mark—with Karbonn’s K560 and Fly’s E145 both priced at Rs5,500.
The common touch
“Touch-screens are not a feature restricted to high-end devices any more, it is a feature offered in a number of mid-range mobile handsets as well,” says Naveen Mishra, IDC’s lead telecom analyst. “All major mobile device vendors now have a range of touch-screen models on offer in response to increasing customer demand.” Mishra says this movement was kick-started by the launch of Apple’s iPhone, which placed an “aspirational value” on owning similarly designed devices.
Samsung Inc. has 20 touch-based phones on sale; six of them were launched in 2010. Their flagship Corby range of phones starts at Rs8,000. “Touch makes up 14% (in terms of revenue in FY10) of the overall sales of Samsung mobiles,” says Ranjit Yadav, director of Samsung’s mobile and IT business. “The market is changing and is ready for the touch-screen adaptability—consumers want user interfaces and large screens and there was also a strong need for social networking platforms and messaging tools.” Samsung also launched its proprietary “Bada” operating system in June (similar to Google’s Android and Apple’s iOS 4)—with the intention of creating, among other things, “more affordable” smartphones with both touch and keypad interfaces.
An easy touch
In February, LG announced its intention of bringing touch-screen phone prices down to Rs5,000 by the end of the year. The company has since launched two new variants of its Cookie line—Fresh and Plus, priced at Rs7,250 and Rs6,500, respectively. “The touch-screen segment is growing at a fast pace and we are bullishly looking at exploiting this space,” says Sudhin Mathur, head of LG’s mobile communications division. “We do not see any barriers in large-scale adoption of touch screens. It is expected to grow up to 20-22% (in terms of revenue) in the next one year.” LG says it’ll be launching 40 new handsets in 2010; around 15 of them will be touch phones.
Nokia, India’s most popular mobile device manufacturer with a market share of 52.2%, has a number of touch-screen phones below Rs10,000—including the popular Nokia 5230, which has variants starting from Rs6,500. Touch interfaces, the company says, have proven to be popular on devices with advanced multimedia features such as mapping, Web browsing, location tagging, listening to music on the go and creating personalized music play lists. While declining to quote India-specific statistics, Nokia estimates that globally, “40% of mobile phones will incorporate touch-sensitive technology by 2012”.
Quality just out of reach
But today’s low-end touch-screen phones still have a way to go. They’re more fragile, and prone to scratches and smudges. The current operating systems are sluggish, sometimes making even simple tasks a chore. They use what are called resistive touch screens, which are less responsive (but more durable and long-lasting) than the capacitive screens that power high-end phones such as the iPhone.
But Samsung’s Yadav says it’s only a matter of time before they catch up. “We can look at faster processing speeds, full HD resolutions, and more interactive UI getting incorporated in (low-end) touch screens and the volumes are definitely set to grow fairly strongly,” he says. Most of these will continue to be powered by cheaper resistive touch screens, and newer devices powered by them (such as the Nokia N97 mini) offer much improved responsiveness and speed.
The differentiator will be the operating system that powers the phone—cheaper touch-screen phones today mostly use cobbled-together proprietary operating systems, but phones powered by Google’s open-source Android operating system (which currently start at Rs16,745 with the Sony Ericsson X10 Mini) could become cheaper in the future.