Dawn of a new ultra-mobile era


19 Nov 2009

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The HTC Tattoo and the INQ Mini 3G are just two of the handsets aiming to place the smart phone in every palm.

Computing really only "arrived" when it became personal, when the computer was small, affordable and intuitive enough to take pride of place in the family home and now, as Moore’s Law would have it, in most small bags.

Likewise, the mobile phone followed a similar trajectory: from the monstrosities of the Eighties to the ubiquitous Nokia handset of the late Nineties, the Irish embraced texting and couldn’t leave home without their mobile.

Not quite 100pc mainstream

However, despite the massive momentum behind the iPhone and other smart phones of its ilk, it hasn’t been quite enough to get one in every pocket because there are barriers to complete mainstream acceptance.

These barriers include handset price, data plans and contracts – as well as the simple fact that the standard smart phone can simply be too feature rich for the average user – but the growing popularity around apps or mobile applications is creating a market demand.

There are two relatively unknown players out there – INQ and HTC – that have a plan to bring the smart phone to the masses, and the way they see smart doesn’t necessarily mean complicated.

Having officially arrived in Ireland last week, HTC is a successful Taiwanese mobile handset brand that has had a few Windows Mobile smart phones on the Irish market, but nothing to write home about.

HTC at work

The recent release of its Hero smart phone, running on Google’s Android operating system, is a fresh bid for success, but interestingly, the company plans to bring out a Windows Mobile 6.5 smart phone, the HSD2, a decidedly more niche offering that shows HTC can do multiple platforms for multiple customer needs.

HTC’s motto, according to its executive director of European operations, Jon French, is not so much about getting a phone but about having a phone that gets you.

What this translates to in reality is a push towards more intuitive smart phones that use always-on internet connections to sync to the user and take on their personality to a certain extent through increased customisation.

An example of this is HTC’s new user interface, Sense, which uses smart-phone capabilities to deliver smart, but relatively simple, things such as live weather, automatic time-zone updates and integrated social web straight to the user homescreen.

French said that, with both the HTC Hero and the Tattoo handset, the company is pushing for a wider audience. The Tattoo is a pared-down version of the Android-based Hero that is aimed at 15–25-year-olds and comes with interchangeable and customisable covers at €19.99 a pop. A smart strategy for placing a smart phone in the palm of every fashion-conscious teen?

The smart phone’s coming-of-age

Intuition and simplicity are key to the coming-of-age of the smart phone, a sentiment echoed by INQ co-founder Jeff Taylor.

INQ, which was founded only last year by Taylor alongside CEO Frank Meehan, has already won Phone of the Year at the 2009 GSMA Awards in Barcelona for the affordability, ease of use and social-web integration of its first-ever handset, the INQ1.

Recently, INQ released another phone onto the Irish market exclusively through 3 Ireland – the INQ Mini 3G – a handset that again pushes an affordable price tag mixed with ease of use, but this time the company worked closely with Twitter to add to the phone’s existing Skype, Facebook and MSN Messenger functionality.

“I think the mobile industry has lost track a little bit. INQ prefers to think of phones in terms of appliances, as much as mini-computers,” said Taylor.

He had this to say about the current smart-phone market: “There are a lot of great pocket-sized mini-computers out there that have phones built in. The trouble is they can be quite expensive and complicated to use.”

INQ’s focus

Taylor believes “normal people” want something that is affordable, useful and useable, and this is where INQ has its focus.

Somewhere between the regular handset and the smart phone, he said INQ has created a new category: “One of the places we came from was looking at the phone as a communications device. A lot of people try to turn them into games machines, video cameras and so on, but even now, why do most people buy phones? To communicate.”

The bar has changed for communication. It is no longer just about voice and text, but more so about the social web, instant messaging, Facebooking and tweeting each other, and to this end the INQ Mini 3G aims to capture this while throwing in a few extras, such as having your handset double as a mobile broadband dongle for your laptop.

Right down to the physical design of the handset, INQ’s business strategy involves thinking about what people do every day on their phones.

“Most people type with one hand, so we’ve raised the keys a lot to give a sense of where the thumb is spatially and where it needs to move to.”

Simple but smart. As Taylor put it: “The smartest phone is the one that doesn’t need a manual.”

By Marie Boran

Photo: The HTC Tattoo and INQ Mini 3G.