CTIA - I-mate phones may stir up enterprise mobile

Startup I-mate unveiled smartphones it will sell independent of carriers.

A vendor based in Dubai pounced on the enterprise mobility market Tuesday evening with a set of Windows Mobile 6 phones that come with built-in security and management software and will be sold independent of carriers.

The company, i-mate PLC, unveiled its Ultimate series of four GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) phones at Showstoppers, a product showcase held alongside the CTIA Wireless I.T. and Entertainment show happening this week in San Francisco. They will start hitting the market worldwide in the middle of next month.

The devices all are about the size of a typical smartphone, run Microsoft's Windows Mobile 6 operating system and come with the Office Mobile suite. Two have touchscreens and two have QWERTY keyboards, one of them using a "slider" design with a larger keyboard and a screen that can be viewed horizontally. They are aimed at markets ranging from small business to larger midsize enterprises.

One thing that sets i-mate apart is its business model: It will sell the phones in the US through resellers and retail channels, bypassing mobile operators and the subsidies they typically offer. The i-mate phones will range in price from about US$600 to US$800, said Nicole Buchanan, vice president of sales and marketing (Americas) at i-mate. The company isn't averse to carrier distribution if it can make a deal: It will sell devices through Telstra in Australia, Buchanan said.

Although carriers dominate the US handset business, a few device makers are starting to take matters into their own hands. Nokia Corp. sells phones through its own retail stores and makes some high-end devices available through alternative distributors such as Brightpoint, which i-mate will also use. The trend allows businesses to make their handset choices without worrying about what carrier to use or how long the mobile operator will continue offering the device they want.

The traditional mobile handset business, in which carriers dictate the timing of handset and service rollouts based on their own business plans, doesn't match up with typically long enterprise planning cycles, IDC analyst Shiv Bakhshi said Monday at the show. Enterprises often can't find out what phones will be available when they carry out their mobile strategies or whether their current phone models will still be available in the future. Although hardware makers are starting to gain some autonomy, with the prominent example of Apple Inc. and its iPhone, they have a long way to go, Bakhshi said.

The i-mate phones come with built-in software for securing and managing the devices. The Secure i-Q software lets users or IT support people lock down a lost or stolen device or wipe the data from it over the air. They can then configure a replacement device with all the appropriate applications over the air, Buchanan said. Custom i-Q allows for customization of each device with applications, e-mail settings and features over the air.

I-mate's only previous product was a digital picture frame with Wi-Fi. The company is listed on the London Stock Exchange. It developed the i-Q software and designed the Ultimate phones, which are built by contract manufacturers. All the devices use an XScale PXA 520MHz processor and have storage expandable to 2G bytes. They come with features typical of high-end phones, including Bluetooth and cameras. Three of the models have a front-facing camera that can be used for videoconferencing, according to i-mate. One feature that makes the devices stand out is XGA output, which lets a user plug the handset into a full-size display or projector.

The Ultimate 6150 and 8150 touch-screen phones and 8502 QWERTY phone are due to ship worldwide in mid-November. The 9502 slider phone will ship around the end of the year, i-mate said.

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