U.S. Mobile Christmas 2005


Since last year's post summarizing the U.S. mobile phone market was so popular (Sir Tim Berners-Lee used the image in a presentation to the W3C! W00t!), I figured I would take a half hour or so and do it again this year for comparision purposes. There were so many phones this year that I just focused on the major carriers, and not the MVNOs this time, but that's only about 10 or so missing models, so it's not a huge deal.

Here's some thoughts, observations and predictions:

Black and white phones are almost gone. Hooray! Only Verizon and Nextel has them available, and I'd bet they're not selling many. I have to say I'm surprised to see any since you can get a much nice color phone with or without a camera for free now, but maybe it's just one of those things that will linger for a long time.

There Too Many Phone Models Right Now!. B&W phones are indicitive of another problem, actually. Though I'll admit that 180 million mobile phone users are going to have a range of tastes, there is such a thing as too much choice, especially when it comes to electronics. Apple has three models of its products, and that's it. The carriers are just waaaay over doing it. Sprint/Nextel alone has 41 different phone models to choose from (22 and 19 respectively) not including things like computer wireless networking cards. This is crazy - not only does it cost the carrier too much to store and support that many models, but it just confuses consumers who go for the cheapest or flashiest model anyways. There's a power-law curve for mobiles as well, why the carriers are offering soo many models when they're selling only a few key phones, amazes me. They could learn a lot from MVNOs like Virgin and Boost, which purposefully have a much more limited range of handsets available.

3G is Half Here. Both Sprint and Verizon have launched their 3G offerings (Power Vision and VCast) and are promoting the services like crazy. But I don't consider EDGE to be 3G, so the GSM guys in my book are lagging big time. Hopefully Cingular will get it together by next year. In terms of marketing, I personally think it's a huge mistake for Sprint/Verizon to be promoting the services that 3G enables, rather than the technology itself. I know this seems backwards, but after 10 years of Internet access and the fiasco that was WAP 1.0, Americans are "bandwidth savvy" in my opinion. Look at Comcast marketing - that's what these guys should be emulating. The CDMA carriers should be screaming FASTER FASTER FASTER at the top of their lungs and in BIG FREAKING SIGNS. Yes, a majority of mobile consumers will walk into a store and buy whatever phone is free with a plan. Offer them mobile video and more games and they'll think, "Meh." But if you had big freaking signs over the 3G phones that just said "FASTER!! FASTER!!" people would get it. Faster is better, we all know that and consumers would flock to those phones. That's just my opinion.

Mobile Video is Here! (And Then Some). On the 3G note, it's nice to see that all the carriers have some sort of mobile video offering, ranging from streaming (MobiTV) to clips (VCast). The quality of course depends on the network, and go from a cruddy to smooth. There's a lot more to come, I'd say. Verizon is going to be selling episodes of Lost soon as well, so that should open up a whole new area of business. Next year we'll see DVB-H and MediaFlo handsets... 100 channels of crystal-clear streaming video to your phone. Look for some cool stuff coming next year - when I can get video podcasts to my phone, then you *know* it's arrived.

Mobile Music is NOT Here. Amazingly, even though video is everywhere, music is not. I actually can't believe this myself, but the carriers haven't really gotten it together around mobile music yet!!!! There's some half-ass offerings so far, yeah, but it's nothing like it should be: Cingular has the iTunes phone and just announced MobiRadio, Sprint has a new music store with a custom DRM and obscene per song prices, and everyone have music capable phones, though most with very limited storage and no DRM (thus users are forced to rip and "sync" - i.e. copy - themselves). That's it. None are anywhere *near* coming close to threatening Apple's dominance in portable music. This is a massive failure on their parts, and there's no excuse for it.

Motorola dominates the U.S. market. It's incredible how much Motorola has thrived in the U.S. this past year: The RAZR is everywhere, but so is their V550 series and other phones as well. Check out the top 10 phone models in the U.S. to see what I'm talking about, six are from Moto. Nextel basically only sells Motos really. Nokia phones seem to only sell on the low-end candy bar end, and Samsung and the rest of the Asian manufacturers own the flip.

The Flip is Still King, Keyboards Are the Joker: Speaking of the flip... Americans definitely seem to prefer them (if you assume that carriers are offering the models that people buy). And though I think there's a lot more keyboard phones this year (including Verizon's new VX9800), there's a lot less than I thought there would have been a year ago. That's because I live here in they Valley where every other geek has a Treo- it shows you once again how little this area reflects the rest of the world in terms of mobility. Every carrier does have at least one RIM device by the way, that says quite a bit.

WTF Are the Smart Phones!??!: About a year ago I started telling most people around me to stop focusing on smart phones (phones with actual operating systems), because I didn't think they'd reach ubiquity for another few years. But even this drop off in offerings here in the U.S. surprised me: There are less smartphones available this year than last. I can't even find the 6682 online yet (which is supposed to have already launched), the Microsoft phones are last year's models, there's no Linux phones and the rest are PDA replacements like the Treo or Blackberry. Wow. Hopefully when 3G networks come to the GSM carriers, this will start to change as consumers demand more functionality to take advantage of the faster networks. But wow, the lack of a decent smartphone selection for regular consumers is disappointing.

Still no WiFi Phones: I definitely expected this, but I'll promise you that this is the last year we'll see that happen. Next year UMA phones will be available, and some may be big hits. We might even see some WiFi devices emerge that take over where devices like the Sidekick sit, and provide voice using VoIP, etc.

In general I think that we're definitely making progress in terms of functionality and availability of phones, and there's some neat things on the horizon. I will admit that we're going to have to wait another year for the Mobile Data Services revolution (where carriers really push cheap data services in order differentiate themselves from competition) I was hoping would show up this Christmas, but it doesn't look like it's going to happen this year. Over the next half we'll see more and more 3G offerings, MVNOs, etc. and *next* Christmas will be the big battle. That gives a lot of companies focusing on the U.S. a little while longer to get their stuff together. Not much longer, but a little.

See you next year!


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