Handsets as fashion statement

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At this year’s 3GSM World Congress, the world’s handset makers will have an important line to toe.

On one side, vendors must keep pace with the market’s technological advancements. HSDPA, MP3, DVB-H, Bluetooth, wireless e-mail-the list of new technologies seems never-ending.

On the other side, handset makers need to come to terms with the evolution of the cell phone as a fashion accessory. No longer a clunky plastic appliance, users in most developed countries are beginning to evaluate a phone’s looks alongside its features and functions.

“I think what we’re going to see … is more segmented offerings,” said John Jackson, a mobile-phone analyst with research and consulting firm Yankee Group.

Jackson said users in Europe, North America, Asia and other developed markets are no longer content with a sensible, no-nonsense handset. Users are now showing a taste for the fashionable.

“That 25-year-old professional who bought a phone for work also needs a phone for their nightlife,” Jackson said. “The lesson of the 20-million-unit Razr will be remembered.”

Motorola Inc.’s wildly popular Razr has indeed made its mark on the worldwide handset industry. With a bright screen and Bluetooth, the Razr is light on features but heavy on style. As shoppers clutch the Razr with delight, vendors across the board have begun releasing Razr look-alikes in an effort to cash in on the fashion-phone rush.

Jackson said 3GSM could stand as the show where the world’s handset makers begin fighting each other using design and style rather than features and functions.

Despite the growing importance of form over function, handset vendors are expected to still use 3GSM as a venue to tout their technological advancements, as they have in previous years.

“The main attraction will be the growing number of applications and services supported by phones, along with the increasing complexity of devices that has resulted in a continued drive for connectivity,” said Stuart Carlaw, an analyst with research and consulting firm ABI Research. “I will be keenly investigating roadmaps for the integration of technologies such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, Zigbee and UWB in relation to cellular handsets and related-use cases.”

The world’s phone makers doubtless will show off handsets that support DVB-H and other mobile TV technologies, as well as dual-mode cellular/Wi-Fi handsets, music-capable phones and BlackBerry-style, enterprise-focused devices. Yankee Group’s Jackson said the main technological attractions at the event likely will center on TV and music services.

While handset makers focus on attracting users with advanced services and sleek designs, the world’s wireless carriers are apt to concentrate on phones that support their new, advanced networks. As carriers build out their W-CDMA networks, and look toward an HSDPA future, they will be pushing for devices that run on such networks. Handset makers have been steadily introducing more and more W-CDMA phones, but so far only a smattering of vendors have shown off HSDPA devices.

“We expect to see tri-band HSDPA devices in early 2006, providing the vehicle to achieve that unique opportunity for truly mobile broadband services and global roaming on a single device for HSDPA with the ability to fall back to UMTS and EDGE service,” said Chris Pearson, president of the GSM trade group 3G Americas.

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