Monday, 27 February 2012

Mobile World Congress, Day 1: high end smartphones head to-head

Following the recent announcements that Huawei, ZTE, Fujitsu and Panasonic would (re)enter the European mobile handset markets, I spent Day 1 of the Mobile World Congress focussing on high end smartphones. My objective was to decide whether these newcomers could genuinely challenge today’s hegemony of Apple, Samsung and HTC. The answer was a clear “yes”, but the most obvious challenger was more of a surprise. I’ll give you a hint – they weren’t Japanese...

Symbian is not dead, just stunned

Before I could get started on this, however, there was the small matter of an 830am Nokia keynote to get out of the way. You may recall that this time last year, Stephen Elop announced his firm’s “exclusive” partnership with Microsoft. This year, despite being promised “significant industry news”, Nokia delivered more of the same. At the high end there were two new devices, the anticipated Lumia 900 and a new camera phone – the N808, featuring a 41 megapixel camera... no, that’s not a typo, it really is 41 megapixel.

I had chance to chat with some Nokia people on their stand afterwards and played with the hardware. The Lumia 900 is very impressive: beautifully made with a wonderful screen and now pre-loaded maps for navigation. In terms of its overall responsiveness and quality it’s the closest thing to an iPhone... which unfortunately probably won’t translate into showroom appeal. The distorting effect of subsidies means that someone needs to totally change the game in order to unseat Apple, who managed to ship 37Mn iPhone 4S’ in the last quarter. Nokia shipped less than 2Mn Lumias.

The N808 on the other hand is a real mystery to me! It’s a somewhat bulky, somewhat ugly 170 gram, white plastic unit, sporting a 4”-ish screen and a bulge to accommodate *that* CCD and Carl Zeiss Lens. Curiously, it runs Symbian 60 (yes, I thought that was dead too!) and it retails for EUR450 (c. $600). I asked the demo guy and his suited and booted commercial minder a simple question: who’s the target market? “People who want a phone but love taking photos”, was the answer. They got quite defensive when I inquired whether that person existed – lots of phones have good cameras and – as my camera-owning friends say – “cheap body, expensive lens”. That CCD is useless without it and $600 buys a lot of compact camera. I can’t see Nokia selling many of these, although I accept that the technology is pretty miraculous and doubtless has other applications.

Japanese phone players face an up-hill struggle in Europe

Nokia done, I visited the Japanese next. Fujitsu didn’t have any of their forthcoming European range on display, but it was showing Japanese market Android and Windows phones. Neither were impressive, being slow and clunky despite their massive specifications. Only a 13 megapixel camera on them though, which seemed a bit stingy. Oh, and the demo girls seemed to enjoy pouring water on them to show how waterproof they were...

...curiously that also seemed to the be a major feature of Panasonic’s Eluga smartphone. This was more impressive than Fujitsu, being less eccentric in colour, more responsive and having a better screen. Even so, it seemed undifferentiated and I can’t see it selling unless it’s really cheap.

Huawei in the Ascendancy in battle of the State-owned super-techs

At least it worked, which was more than half the phones on ZTE’s grubby, ramshackle stand did. Even its top end smartphones were slow and obviously cheaply constructed. Deeply unimpressive and illustrative of the worst of Chinese technology.

Which can’t be said for their Chinese competitor. ZTE and everyone else were blown into the weeds by Huawei. I played with their latest high end effort, the $500 Ascend D Quad. This was my favourite phone product of the day. Running an in-house quad-core ARM CPU and a bought-in “latest Japanese technology” 720P screen (“slightly higher resolution than Retina”, I was told), the Ascend was not only lightning fast – much more responsive than my Galaxy Nexus – it felt like a seriously high end product. The materials were great quality and it had a look and feel of its own. It’s the best Android phone I’ve seen to date and although different from an iPhone, it’s much cheaper. Very impressive and very unexpected.

Overall though, I was a bit taken aback by the lack of innovation on display from the top manufacturers. Nokia’s stand was the best for phones, but otherwise the atmosphere felt a little muted. Comedy moment of the day: the Groupon presenter on RIM’s stand opening his presentation with a slide entitled “what is a two-sided market”. Perhaps a lesson to RIM about where they went wrong...

...tomorrow I’m going to concentrate on what the operators have to say about their new data business models and pay a few visits to the geekier end of the network tech market.

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