I have just returned home from one of the oddest musical events I have been to.
Framed by the media launch of two keenly anticipated handsets that may or may not be the saviours of their manufacturer, Sony Ericsson, it was a condensed performance of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, as executed by luminaries of the UK dance and hiphop scenes including Goldie, Sister Bliss, Kano, Scroobius Pip, Layo & Bushwacka and Ms Dynamite, along with, y'know, actual violinists and stuff. See my review after the bit about the phones.
I attended the first announcement of Sony Ericsson's Idou 'phone' back in February, at Mobile World Congress. The event was the first expression of the manufacturer's entertainment-centric strategy, which it hopes will change the fact that its core market — the music-and-snap-happy mid-end — is currently in thrall to the iPhone and its many imitators. In fact, the Idou as presented in Barcelona was a blatant copy of Apple's handset.
The Satio and Aino — the results of the Idou strategy, eight months down the line — don't look much like it. Well, perhaps a bit, but still quite Sony Ericsson. For some inexplicable reason, they are based on Series 60, an end-of-line platform.
They each have strengths and weaknesses. The problem is, each one's strength is the other's weakness.
The Aino is the smaller of the two, a slider phone. It operates in two modes: closed and open. In the latter case, the user interface is based on the physical keypad. Closing the handset takes you to the media mode, which is operated (rather well) via touchscreen. The two modes are completely separate. When you open the phone, all touchscreen functionality disappears, no matter how much instinct tells you to keep on tapping. That said, the device feels great in the hand and seems to be of very good build quality.
The Satio has a 12-megapixel camera — the Aino has a piddling eight, but I should mention that I'm firmly in the anything-above-five-megapixels-in-a-phone-is-a-waste-of-time camp, so hey, it's all the same to me. It does not slide — it is a pure touchscreen device, with a consistent user interface (yay). It feels like a rather hollow camera with phone functionality (boo).
So yeah, about that music. All the above-named DJs, producers, singers and rappers, mixed together, created music that was serviceable, reminiscent of past glories — both of Vivaldi and of the artists involved, none of whom is achingly current — but ultimately bland and pointless.
While it is impossible to avoid, it seems a bit flippant to equate the music with the technology. If anything, they had the opposite problems: the music was the result of many ideas being mashed into one thing that disappointed, while the Satio and Aino were the result of one decent idea being split into two, in a disappointing kind of way.
The question is, would Sony Ericsson have been better off launching its Android handset first?
That device is only set to arrive next year, but the Satio and Aino have landed in a market exploding with applications, web-centricity and customisability. The stats clearly demonstrate that the smartphone is threatening to take over from the so-called 'featurephone' (a rather silly industry term used to pretend that a certain handset is most useful for its camera or media player, rather than its ability to help the user communicate with people).
Sony Ericsson's strategy is to stop dividing its Cybershot and Walkman brands, and build a good camera and good media player into each phone. Hence, the new handsets are each trying to be the ultimate featurephone. In this they may succeed — and I kind of hope they do, because someone out there needs to be making decent cameraphones — but they may have missed the point.
The phone industry has seen a fundamental shift since the iPhone launched, and in late 2009 the future belongs to Apple, Google and maybe — we shall see next year with the rebirth of Symbian, and let's not forget Maemo — Nokia.
Tonight's extravagant event felt a bit like a last gasp. Hopefully it wasn't.