New Music PhonesWithout The i
How do you steal the spotlight from Steve Jobs? It's not easy, but with two months to go until the debut of Apple Inc.'s (AAPL ) iPhone, wireless carriers are pinning their hopes on snazzy new devices from Samsung, LG, and Nokia (NOK ). The names of two of the new phones say it all: UpStage and enV.
No one knows whether the iPhone will be a runaway success when it hits Apple and Cingular Wireless stores in June. But the combination phone-music player got rave reviews at its unveiling in January, and few are willing to bet against CEO Jobs' track record. The tension is even higher because the iPhone is arriving at the same time that Sprint-Nextel (S ), Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, and Cingular are trying to sign up as many well-heeled, data-hungry customers as possible to offset the high costs of building third-generation wireless networks. That explains why so many phone discounts and 30-day "test drives" are suddenly available.
Industry watchers say such pricing and marketing moves clearly aim to steal the limelight from the iPhone. They also anticipate a surge in multimedia features, despite phone users' heretofore tepid interest in downloading music or video to their phones. Sprint may be the most aggressive of the lot. This month it began selling Samsung's UpStage on an exclusive basis. The candy-bar-shaped device looks like a cell phone on one side and flips over to reveal a full media player on the other. Including an add-on battery and a case, it will sell for just $149—well below cost—with a two-year contract. In addition, Sprint has slashed the price of its over-the-air music-download service to 99 cents a track, from $2.50. Verizon matched a Sprint offer to give new customers 30 days to decide whether they want to continue their service. But Verizon also let dissatisfied customers pay only for the data they used.
The carrier recently rolled out LG's enV multimedia phone and plans to sell similar devices from Samsung and Motorola (MOT ). In early April, T-Mobile began selling the $250 Nokia 5300 Xpress Music at a $150 discount.
All these phones have clear, large, color screens and impressive sound quality. A couple of relatively new Verizon models include an antenna to grab television signals. The UpStage even uses a touch pad for navigation that's similar to what Apple promises, if not as easy to use. Alana Muller, Sprint's director of wireless data programming and marketing, says UpStage's timing is "serendipitous," adding: "We didn't plan this because of Apple." Jim Ryan, Cingular's vice-president for data product management and business marketing, calls it an act of "desperation."
While each carrier is arming itself with new gizmos, the victor ultimately must deliver a great experience as both a phone and a media player. The makers of the new Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile phones have been criticized in the past for multimedia software that is too complicated for average users. Elegantly simple software is precisely the advantage Apple brings to computers and music players—and which, Apple fans predict, it will bring to phones.
By Cliff Edwards and Roger O. Crockett