At the launch of Vodafone’s 3G network back in December 2004, the former CEO of the company, Arun Sarin, proudly unveiled a small range of high-spec handsets up to the task of handling all that rich media scrumptuousness. Of them all, it was pretty clear that the Sharp 902 was the big daddy. It had a screen that swivelled as if it were a camcorder – and it was about the same size as one too. Oh, and it came in cream.
At the time Sharp was quite a force in the European handset space. It was inextricably linked to Vodafone and as a result its handsets were heavily promoted by Vodafone in-store and on TV. UK readers will remember the TV slots featuring David Beckham and Gary Neville that pushed the camera/MMS capabilities of Sharp’s hugely successful GX range.
Alongside Sharp were other Far Eastern vendors such as NEC and Panasonic, while Sanyo and Toshiba – though less established – also launched the occasional device. But then, one by one, they all exited Europe to leave the region in the hands of a familiar quintet: Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Motorola, LG and Samsung. The five seemed immovable, but now once again the market is in flux and the other Asia Pac manufacturers are targeting Western markets. In the last couple of months, Toshiba has unveiled its extraordinary new TG01 device, while Hyundai, Garmin and Acer have also announced plans for a fresh assault on Europe.
Meanwhile, rumours persist that Chinese vendors such as Lenovo will try their luck too. And, don’t forget that other non-Asian companies are back in the action. Palm has announced the Pre, and there’s rising speculation that Dell is readying a mobile device as well. Finally, there’s INQ, an entirely new vendor set up to ride the mobile social media wave. So what’s turning the cycle again? It’s possible to sum it up in one word. A horrible word. A meaningless word. Smartphones.
From a consumer point of view, the pull of the high-end handset with connectivity, GPS, video and so on is getting stronger. No wonder Juniper Research recently projected annual sales of smartphones will hit 300 million units in 2013, 95 per cent up on 2008.
But simultaneous to this rise in consumer demand has been a falling barrier to entry for manufacturers. It’s now relatively straightforward for a vendor to shop for a third party OS such as Windows, Symbian or Android and use extremely powerful multi-tasking processors from a bunch of eager suppliers.
This is exactly what Toshiba did, for example, with its TG01 device – loading Windows Mobile 6.0 with Qualcomm’s 1GHz Snapdragon QSD8250 chipset. Indeed, Qualcomm chips are already powering established phones like the Sony Ericsson Xperia X1, T-Mobile G1, BlackBerry Storm and the INQ ‘Facebook’ phone.
Roberto Di Pietro, Qualcomm CDMA Technology’s VP of marketing, says: "It’s undoubtedly easier and cheaper for manufacturers to make high-end phones than a few years ago. I think this explains why the handset market is so active now."
There are other factors, too. The rise of flat rate data, GPS and touchscreen interfaces have all combined to re-invent what a phone is for. Within the last 18 months, the template for the ultimate phone has changed from the N95 to the iPhone.
You can see this writ small in Toshiba’s strategy. Check out the world of difference between 2008’s Portege range, looking like some kind of so-so HTC cloning project, and 2009’s TG01 with its ultra-skinny yet widescreen vital statistics and iPhone styling.
Med Jeewoth, Toshiba’s country manager for UK and Ireland, sums up thus: "We listened to what users want – great speed, and the interaction of a touchscreen, but also very slim and very sexy devices."
Of course, the success of these new arrivals depends not just on the succulence of their product designs, but on their ability to be ranged by operators and break the product loyalty among consumers to other vendors. It’s going to be tricky.
Soheb Panja, managing editor of UK mobile retail trade magazine Mobile, says: "Sharp’s problem was that it got too close to Vodafone. It did everything Vodafone wanted, so it didn’t invest in new ideas and had no other outlet when the consumers lost interest. That balance is something all the new manufacturers will have to work out as they come back into the market."