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Friday, November 04, 2005

It's Not Just a Phone, It's an Adventure - Motorola V60

Larry Azlin, a software engineer in El Cerrito, Calif., considers himself one of the lucky ones. His aging clamshell cellphone, a Motorola V60, seems to work just fine. But once he gives it some thought, it occurs to him that he does have a few complaints.

"The buttons on the sides are a bit annoying," he said. They seem to do different things when the phone is open and when it is closed.

His biggest complaint is that the Motorola V60 phone insists on making noise at every opportunity. "You can't even turn it off without it making a sound," he said, noting that when he tried to discreetly silence the phone at a concert, it squawked.

Mr. Azlin is hardly alone in being confused and confounded by his cellphone at times. Gone are the days when the most one expected from a mobile phone was to place or to receive a call.

In recent years cellphone makers have tended to view their products, which millions of people press to their faces every day, less as phones and more as platforms for services and features.

Practically every new iteration of cellphone promises more: digital music, streaming video, 3-D video games, location-based navigation and full Internet browsing, not to mention a camera. With more features often come more buttons, complications and costs, and thicker operating manuals.

Some people call it feature creep.

Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for the NPD Group, a market research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y., said he had seen "a little bit of response" from cellphone makers to do away with arcane key combinations and with making users mine through menus to accomplish the most basic of tasks.

But "the customer for handsets really isn't the consumer," he said. Rather, it is the carrier.

At a wireless trade show this month in New Orleans, carriers like Cingular and Verizon Wireless spoke repeatedly about the importance of providing services that would further drive the average revenue per user on their voice and data networks.

Mr. Rubin said creating phones that encouraged consumers to browse the Web, to upload videos and to download ring tones, for example, was good for the industry's bottom line.

James Burke, senior director for North American product operations for Motorola in its headquarters in Libertyville, Ill., near Chicago, acknowledged that "phones are clearly getting more and more complicated in terms of what we can put into them." But he said better and cheaper technologies gave cellphone operators more opportunities to "really address consumer needs."

"My sense is that technology is a bit dangerous here if done wrong, jamming every feature in like a Swiss Army knife," Mr. Burke said. "You get into trouble with the consumer. But if done right, it can really be enabling. It can be very powerful."

He cited two phones expected soon from Motorola - the E815 (scheduled for the first half of this year) and the E725 (scheduled for the second half) - as examples of how to do it right.

The E815 features a large keypad and well-spaced buttons beneath a large color screen. The combination makes it easy to create and send text messages, he said. The E725 is a "slider" phone, with its display panel and scroll wheel sliding up to reveal a 12-button keypad for simple navigation.

Still, both phones are laden with functions. They offer high-speed uploading and downloading of pictures and files. The E815 has a 1.3-megapixel camera; the E725 will have a VGA camera, dedicated music keys, a five-band graphic equalizer, audio synchronized rhythm lights and up to two gigabytes of storage on an optional removable memory card.

"I don't think we're overserving people," Mr. Burke said.

John Chier, a spokesman for Kyocera Wireless, which is based in San Diego, said his company's research had affirmed that "people wanted a phone that was easy to use." But he asserted that the solution was not to create lots of stripped-down phones.

In the end, Mr. Chier said, cellphone makers have little to distinguish themselves beyond the way they combine and arrange features. "As manufacturers, we are pretty much painting from the same technology palette."

One effort to make things simple is Kyocera's SoHo cellphone, a "voice-centric" phone in limited release in North America. Its exterior has sharp, angular lines, but the clamshell phone offers little more than a large keypad for making calls and text messaging. It has no camera, but predictive text software, voice-activated dialing and a speakerphone.

On the other hand, Kyocera's Slider Remix KX5, due in August, is a multiuse phone that shoots video and 1.3-megapixel pictures, plays music files in MP3 and AAC (the format used by Apple's iPod), and much more. More important, Mr. Chier said, the Slider Remix will be easy to use with its pinwheel-like controls and - yes, Mr. Azlin - a one-touch silence button.

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