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Smartphone makers, mobile operators still baffled by iPhone

A report about a panel session on mobile user experience at Barcelona's Mobile World Congress shows that only Apple "gets it." And if the industry's experience with the iPod is anything to go by, this situation will only get worse for the competition.
Written by David Morgenstern, Contributor

A report about a panel session on mobile user experience at Barcelona's Mobile World Congress shows that only Apple "gets it." And if the industry's experience with the iPod is anything to go by, this situation will only get worse for the competition.

According to an EE Times story by David Benjamin from Barcelona, the innovations in the mobile telcom space is coming from Apple. One panelist said that 77 percent of iPhone users rated their experience as "very satisfied."

One direction, advocated by Lucia Predolin, international marketing and communications director for Buongirono S.p.A. of Milan, Italy, is to manipulate users by identifying their "need states" — including such compulsions as "killing time," and "making the most of it" — and fulfilling them subliminally.

Adobe's Murarka proposed a more technological approach to improving the user experience, satisfying the mobile phone subscriber through better interface design. Sarah Lipman, co-founder and R&D director for Power2B, suggested an almost mystical solution, somehow tapping into users' "neural networks" to navigate a mobile phone interface "using touch and pre-touch input."

This all reminds me of the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The men run their hands over small parts of the elephant but describe the whole animal based on that touch.

From the floor at the Barcelona conference, it appears that the iPhone's competitors are looking at the mobile user experience from a narrow perspective. Each design team hopes that a particular innovation will make up for missing pieces up or down the mobile service food chain. This comes nowhere near the integrated approach that Apple delivers on.

There must have been a stampede to the local wine bars after the session.

In a recent post, I reported on the steady gains of Mac OS X based on Net Applications' Web browser statistics. But I didn't mention the iPhone.

Back in November, the iPhone's WebKit-based browser passed the Windows Mobile browser share. Net Applications said the iPhone's share was greater than all the Windows Mobile devices combined. Now, Windows Mobile accounted for some 9 percent of all smartphones shipped in 2007.

So, the figures say that iPhone users really can use their browser and do so; it's not hype. And the stats also mean, as we see mirrored in the Mobile World Congress report, that users of other mobile devices can't and don't use the browser on their phones.

In addition, Mary Jo Foley pointed to some other recent analyst figures on handheld market share in a blog post: Windows Mobile falls behind iPhone in latest mobile-market numbers.

Here's a story that illustrates the developer side of the problem. I was talking the other day with an executive consultant who works at a very large technology company. In his career, he's been part of top management teams at the big Silicon Valley businesses.

Check out a related story: Macs and iPhones - impolitic Apple hardware can be hard to hide.

I mentioned an Apple patent that was filed back in late December. This was the so-called "coffee shop" wireless communication system patent that could let customers pre-order items from a handheld in the store.

A processing system is described that includes a wireless communication interface that wirelessly communicates with one or more wireless client devices in the vicinity of an establishment. The wireless communication interface receives a remote order corresponding to an item selected by at least one of the wireless client devices. A local server computer located in proximity to the establishment generates instructions for processing the remote order received from the wireless communication interface. The local server computer then passes the processing instructions to an order processing queue in preparation for processing of the remote order.

The executive said that the thing that drives Apple's competition crazy isn't the patents themselves. Every big technology company generates lots of patents — but they don't go anywhere. The patents are wallpaper. They are a technology defense for the company, rather than being indicators of future products and strategies.

The difference with Apple patents is that the team in Cupertino seems to be able to create the hardware and software platforms and then just as important, it builds the partnerships that can execute on the strategy. Every music player company wants partnerships such as the Starbucks-iTunes deal, but it's Apple that pulls it together.

The patent on ordering items is often conflated with Starbucks, since Apple has an existing relationship with the company and the technology is a natural fit with the queues in the shops. However, this in-house wireless ordering strategy could be employed for many different products and another brand might want to be the first with Apple on this one.

I'm sure that we will see waves of iPhone wannabes this year and next. I bet that some devices will beat the iPhone on some feature checklist for memory, or camera image resolution. Whatever.

These operators and device makers will find the same tough going as Apple's competitors have in the audio-video player market. The iPod's platform of hardware, software, accessories and services remains compelling, so customers stay with the Apple platform. It appears that it will be deja vu all over again with the iPhone.

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