CeBIT 99: The new mobile phones – what's hot and what's not

Our man on the GSM hot-spot hands out the gongs for presentation and star quality

CeBIT Day One is probably as exciting as it gets - the companies keep frontloading the announcements to get an edge in the weekend's newspaper coverage. Microsoft's move to slow down the Symbian bandwagon was the announcement that they're not really interested in winning the mobile phone operating system war anyway. They'd rather offer more comprehensive end-to-end solutions. Considering there will be a billion mobile phone subscribers in the world around 2003-2005 (depending on whose projections you believe) that's not very plausible... but it's a nimble sidestep, nevertheless. Microsoft won't have to concede defeat here if it shifts the battleground and says it's not interested in this skirmish to begin with. I'll give it three points out of five on the James Carville Spin Scale. Symbian set the stage shrewdly by pre-empting the CeBIT hype attack with two announcements made before the convention started - deals with both NTT-DoCoMO and Sun. However, we already knew that Sun is a close Symbian ally in its quest to humiliate Microsoft, and NTT also announced mobile telecom cooperation with Microsoft, effectively hedging its bets. The Symbian-Philips link is getting more exposure - but the big Asian consumer giants like Sony and NEC are still keeping their options open. The expected Ericsson and Motorola pledges of support to Symbian were made. However, the phones apparently won't make the Christmas season in volume. I'll give it three points on the JCSS - a solid, but not headline-hogging performance. The Handset Manufacturer Scoreboard And the surprise winner is Motorola! It had nothing new to show, but boy, did it push the pedal to the metal in making a convincing, focused presentation of its overall digital handset strategy. The new V-3688 is still generating warm, fuzzy feelings in geeks, thanks to the 83 gram weight and voice quality that actually improves on the Startac phones, despite the much smaller size. The "Internet in every Motorola handset" was a winning formula. Never mind that the date for that goal is the year 2000 when the major competition will also incorporate the Internet in all new models. Motorola also smoothly finessed the disappointing fact that its first GSM WAP phone will apparently hit the market as late as year's end - half a year later than the first entries. Motorola managed to turn the attention from this problem into the introduction of WAP in the Motorola iDEN standard: this will probably mean that iDEN will be the first US digital phone format to offer this feature. Motorola conveyed the message that this sets iDEN apart and strengthens Nextel's market position. It was another PR win. I'll give Mot full five points. Nokia struggled somewhat with oversized expectations. The 7110, as impressive as it is, debuted already at Cannes, so it didn't make much of a splash despite being the early frontrunner in the WAP sweepstakes (the Alcatel model is only a slightly modified version of an earlier model). The new, cheap GSM-900/1800 dual band phone was genuinely impressive in its price category. It has some interesting novel features like animated icons, easy ways to download and send pictures and animations to other phones, the option to compose your own ringtones, exchangeable colour covers for the entire moulding, etc. And it is expected to be on sale already this quarter, helping it to exploit the current relatively lackluster selection of affordable 900/1800 phones. But in the hype sweepstakes cheaper models rarely fare well - models that are futuristic and expensive may not contribute much to sales, but grab attention more easily. And introducing models selling sometime in 2000 in volume always makes a bigger impact than introducing phones for next month; the technical specs of phones from both of these groups will inevitably be compared. That's why the 5110 series received little note in 1998 despite becoming a 10 million unit blockbuster. The new car and TETRA phones look good and will probably have a lot higher margins than the mainstream phones, but they don't have the sizzle that CeBIT demands. I'll give Nokia three points - the spring models are solid, but the press isn't wowed. Ericsson is the problem child right now. It had to acknowledge that its first WAP phone won't be selling in volume until the year 2000. It's an enormous disappointment, probably heralding a big missed opportunity for Christmas sales season. The phone itself looks like the sleek, sexy cybersensation it should be... enormous touch screen, voice commands and the works. But at this point it's impossible to evaluate what the competition will be like in 2000. Ericsson really needed this in the shops by August. The worldphone incorporating GSM, TDMA, AMPS, etc. is also pushed to 2000. It might be a great year for Ericsson. But 1999 is starting to look gloomy indeed. And that "all-new A1018" - how did Joseph Conrad put it at the end of Heart of Darkness? "The horror...the horror..." or something along those lines. It's an apt description of this abomination Ericsson is visiting upon Europe. Hefty 163 gram weight, puny stand-by time, that old cramped three-line display. No dancing animations on this puppy. A1018 is not a product for 1999, no matter how cheaply they manage to sell it. The contrast with Nokia's new GSM-900/1800 entry is stark. Ericsson is starting to look like a downmarket brand if it doesn't change its ways. Two points - and a rough spring ahead. ®

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