iPhone imitators prepping for their close-ups

The Nokia Tube and others bob and weave for market advantage

It may be too early, or too presumptuous, to call Apple's iPhone a technology icon, but all the other major equipment makers in the emerging smart phone realm are looking to create their own "iconic" device.

While iPhone imitators almost never want to say they're imitating the iPhone, analysts see the iPhone as largely driving the smart phone market, if not globally, then certainly in the US.

The main feature being imitated is the iPhone's touch screen, even though the iPhone 3G's new networking abilities -- and Exchange e-mail capabilities -- got the big marketing treatment from Apple this US summer. Of several imitators already on the market, the most successful to date -- based on retailer comments and buzz -- appears to be the Instinct from Samsung and Sprint Nextel. The Instinct offers a touch screen and haptics feedback technology that gives users a little buzz when a touch is made.

Nokia, the largest maker of mobile phones worldwide, was supposed to have introduced by now a new smart phone code-named Tube to take on the iPhone, analysts said in interviews Friday. "It needs to hit the market by the end of September to take advantage of Christmas sales," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Gartner in the UK.

While Nokia has been tight-lipped about the Tube's specs, the company has stated it will be sold as a "high-midtier" device, rather than the earlier expected "higher-tier" device. That means it could sell, before any carrier subsidy, for about US$450 to $500, Milanesi said in an interview.

Compared to the US starting price of the iPhone 3G -- $199 -- the Tube's price could allow carriers to back off more stringent subscriber contracts, yielding both lower monthly subscription costs and shorter contracts. "It could be more favorable to consumers," she said.

Milanesi said the phone's success will not depend only on contract terms and price, but also the "right look, specs and usability," she said. So far, nobody has seen a prototype.

Can the world's biggest mobile phone maker, with 40 percent of the market and 120 million phones shipped in the second quarter of 2008, come up with the magic ingredients to out-do the iPhone? Doubtful, Milanesi said -- mainly because the iPhone is such the rage in the US, a market where Nokia doesn't have the same brand identify as Apple or other brands. "Nokia is still having trouble making inroads in the US," she said.

Meanwhile, the iPhone might seem like the only smart phone getting much attention in the US, but that's partly because the smart phone market was just emerging in the US when the first iPhone appeared a year ago. The market for smart phones and mobile phones is more competitive in Europe, Milanesi said.

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