Sendo's last, best hope for smartphone glory

Sendo's new smartphone has had a more exciting history than most, but that's not what matters most

The past twelve months must have been interesting for UK mobile phone company Sendo -- interesting like an atom bomb. This time last year, it was finally showing off the Z100 Microsoft-based smartphone -- itself almost a year late, and the product of a troubled relationship with the great god Bill. As many a dysfunctional family has found, even a new baby can't paper over some cracks: however, Sendo's decision to smother the infant at birth still counts as one of the most extreme examples of public displays of disaffection. The lawyers are still busy arguing over the corpse.

As the body bags were being airlifted to court, though, Sendo found itself with hard choices. It had to have a smartphone if it didn't want to disappear into the low-margin mud. It had a smartphone, of course -- or rather, it had a collection of chips and bits in the shape of a phone. It's as if Dr Frankenstein had assembled his monster and thrown the switch, only to find the weather forecast was for uninterrupted sunshine. As so often, hard choices means no choice: the only other game in town was Symbian -- shortly afterwards, the delivery vans pulled up at the lab and unloaded Nokia's own brand of bottled lightning.

But the Sendo X isn't just the Z100 under new management. Last year's hardware is as attractive as last year's pizza, so while the software engineers were getting their heads around Symbian and Series 60 the hardies were redoing the silicon. It's an impressive achievement -- and a sobering insight into how difficult it must have been to develop the Microsoft version. A fully featured smartphone is one thing, but to produce one in under a year -- pretty much the same amount of time that the MS version had been delayed, don't forget -- and with all its essential bodily parts in place speaks volumes for the gallons of sweat, solder and software Sendo must have expended. There's not even a bolt through its neck.

Certain things augur well. While there's nothing as frustrating as having a project cancelled from underneath you, engineers often hanker for the chance to throw everything away and start again from scratch. They rarely get the opportunity: a successful product has its own inertia, and newer versions tend to evolve from what's gone before. This time, Sendo had a team who had already built one smartphone: it might have been one of the most expensive and frustrating training exercises in the history of mobile phones, but there'd be no team in the world with a skill set so perfectly matched to the task.

Doubtless, support from Nokia will also have been exemplary – one can only imagine the glee in the boardroom when the phone call came through from Birmingham. If Nokia's software strategy is going to work against Microsoft, it needs as much high-profile non-Nokia hardware out there running Series 60 and Symbian as possible – and a public defection like Sendo's is a beautiful package of insult and ready-salted wound. If the Sendo X is as good as it looks on paper, then Nokia should be even happier: the lesson is, you can take two years to build a smartphone with Microsoft, or a year with us. When the court case is over and the Sendonites can speak again, there'll be a fascinating study to be written comparing the two experiences. This is the Pepsi Taste Test Challenge for the mobile industry.

Sendo's also had the luxury of watching other companies and learning from their mistakes. The ticklist of features on the Sendo X looks complete: about the only missing good idea is some form of better text input than the telephone keypad. That may yet turn up: the Z100 had an optional fold-away keyboard, and nobody else has got the problem quite sorted out yet.

It's remarkable how much Sendo has got right. Although the headquarters are in the UK, it is largely funded from and builds its phones in China, the place now seen as the industry's next happy hunting ground. The policy of asking operators what they want and producing it is another idea that seems obvious now but was very smart then. Sendo's geographic spread of sales is superb, and with products like the clamshell M550 having the very best class of production problems – they can't make enough – the company shows every sign of sticking around for the long term.

It could still go badly wrong. Smartphones are aspirational devices that get shown off to your mates, and nobody wants to be a laughing stock with a buggy mobile. Sendo says that it will not ship until the thing's good and ready, but then who says anything else? We're promised hands-on experience of the thing in a couple of weeks' time: watch this space. If this monster doesn't fly, then Sendo won't get a third chance: if it does, the UK will have a mobile phone manufacturer for years to come.