Rivals see iPhone as the one to beat in hardware, software, marketing

Competitors, wireless market leaders all cite it as the benchmark

"We find we don't know how to talk to customers sometimes," Mosiniak said. The current approach at Best Buy is to ask customer what they want a phone to do, whether it is for voice or e-mail or access to music or social networking, instead of talking initially about a specific product. That's better than dealing with customers on a more technical level, he said, although some customers inevitably want a certain mobile OS that has a touchscreen and works on a certain carrier's network.

"Customers can't really have one size fits all, but they don't know that," Mosiniak added. "I worry they'll wake up and want this stuff" with every feature in one. He didn't say that the iPhone is that one phone customers asks, saying simply about the iPhone, "It works."

Handango CEO Bill Stone said he recognizes that all kinds of customers, from the tech savvy to newbies want a retailer or carrier providing a new phone to "just make it work..., and the iPhone works, easy and simple."

While Windows Mobile runs on the phones produced by several manufacturers and has been around much longer than the iPhone, it inevitably gets compared to the Apple hardware and its Mac OS X-based operating system. "Win Mobile is efficient, but that's boring," said Nerde. "Win Mobile has so many great functions, but it just looks really, really boring."

Dave Stritzinger, chief technology officer at BrightStar, which adapts applications to various devices, said Apple has helped the smartphone become a "fashion item." Apple has "sexed up the smartphone and the others are slow to catch up."

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