iPhone Dives Into Ocean Of New Smartphones

Executives with rival device makers virtually all say the same thing: We love it.
Responding to Friday's release of the iPhone, the most talked-about launch in mobile-phone history, executives with rival device makers virtually all say the same thing: We love it.

"We think it's great," says David Petts, senior VP for Nokia's global enterprise solutions group, noting that the iPhone, while not a business-oriented device itself, is bringing attention to an entire new class of multimedia smartphones that go beyond the traditional strengths of the BlackBerry: integration with corporate e-mail systems, decent voice capabilities, and rudimentary Web access.

"The iPhone's arrival is serving as a catalyst for the other handheld makers to finally get serious about their converged smartphone offerings," says Carmi Levy, senior VP for strategic consulting at AR Communications. "The smartphone is finally emerging out of its awkward adolescent phase."

Many of these converged devices offer iPhone innovations trumpeted by Apple, at comparable or lower prices: the HTC Touch, for example, has a touch-screen interface like the iPhone, and is available unlocked (i.e., not tied to a specific carrier) via online importers for about the same price as an AT&T-only iPhone. Loaded with iPhone-like multimedia functions, the BlackBerry Curve is available unlocked for about $100 less. Also available unlocked, LG's Prada has a stylish exterior and a beautiful interface to rival the iPhone.

And then there's the Helio Ocean. Like the iPhone, it's a consumer-oriented device with a unique interface (in this case, two keyboards to the iPhone's none) and an almost unparalleled set of features that has been lavishly reviewed. Unlike the iPhone, it's not tied to the traditional carrier service model (besides offering devices, Helio is a mobile virtual network operator, or MVNO, meaning that it offers wireless service over the Sprint backbone). And it costs $200 less.

Only available since last month, the Ocean is too new for its success to be reliably gauged. Headed by EarthLink founder Sky Dayton, Helio claims to have recently broken the 100,000-subscriber model, making it a gnat on the flank of the Big Four U.S. carriers (AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless, Sprint, and T-Mobile). But the innovative device has already captured the imagination of the small percentage of the handset cognoscenti who aren't camping out, literally or figuratively, waiting for Friday's 6 p.m. iPhone release.

Trying to capitalize on the iPhone release, Helio has released a PowerPoint slide that gives a point-by-point comparison between the Apple device and the Ocean. A quick glance yields some interesting points.

  • Instant messaging capability: iPhone, no; Ocean, AIM, Yahoo Messenger, Windows Live Messenger; plus IM capability integrated directly into the device's address book.

  • GPS capability: iPhone, no; Ocean, GPS-enabled Google Maps plus the "Buddy Beacon" friend finder, and photo-tagging with GPS data.

  • Network speeds: iPhone, EDGE network with rates of 70 to 135 Kbit/s; Ocean, high-speed 3G network with rates up to 2.4Mbit/s.

What's more, says Levy, "Helio's online/call center subscription model allows customers to bypass the typically Byzantine retail channel and provides more direct control over the service through the life of the device." Providing relief for mobile phone users fed up with the traditional carrier-dominated model, this innovative system "could be just as significant as any flashy hardware launch announcement."

Does this mean that the Ocean is a better device than the iPhone, or that it will outsell the Apple device? Not necessarily, and not likely. Nobody was camping out waiting for the Ocean's release. It does indicate, though, that smartphone options (and price points) are expanding rapidly, and the iPhone is entering a market that's far more crowded now than it was in January when Steve Jobs first introduced his latest world-changer.