Mobile Phones Industry

The Economist writes about the changes in the business even as the phones themselves are evolving:

The mobile phone has become a uniquely personal item: many people take theirs with them even when leaving wallets or keys behind. Some phones designed for business users can send and receive e-mail, and have tiny keyboards; others aimed at outdoor types have built-in torches; still others have satellite-positioning functions, high-resolution cameras with flash and zoom, and even the ability to record and play video clips. Clearly, phones ain’t what they used to be.

This spectacular outward transformation of the mobile phone is being reflected by an internal transformation of the industry that makes what have now become the most ubiquitous digital devices on the planet. Over half a billion mobile phones are sold every year, and despite sluggishness in other parts of the technology industry, the number continues to grow. Sales are being driven, in part, by the surge of new subscribers in the developing world, particularly in India and China. In the developed world, meanwhile, where markets are so saturated that most adults already carry a mobile phone, existing subscribers are switching in droves to today’s more advanced models. Meanwhile, the number of mobile phones in use, at around 1.4 billion, overtook the number of fixed-line phones last year.

No wonder so many firms now want a piece of the action. The mobile phone sits at the intersection of three fast-moving industries: it is a communications device, computer and, with the addition of new media functions, consumer-electronics product. Indeed, it is the bestselling device in all three categories.

As a result, the firms that have historically dominated the industrylarge, specialised firms such as Nokia and Motorolanow face a host of new challengers as well as opportunities. The desire for ownership of each mobile-phone subscriber poses another threat to the incumbent handset-makers, as mobile-network operators seek to promote their own brands and to differentiate themselves from their rivals. The result is a little-seen, but almighty, struggle for control of a $70 billion industry: a battle, in short, for the palm of your hand.

The article has an extensive discussion on how ODMs (original design manufacturers) are changing the industry and the threat they pose to the existing branded handset makers.

The Economist compares the business with the car industry: “Less visibly, as the structure of the mobile-phone industry changes, it increasingly resembles that of the car industry (see article). Handset-makers, like carmakers, build some models themselves and outsource the design and manufacturing of others. Specialist firms supply particular sub-assemblies in both industries. Outwardly different products are built on a handful of common underlying platforms in both industries, to reduce costs. In each case, branding and design are becoming more important as the underlying technology becomes increasingly interchangeable. In phones, as previously happened in cars, established western companies are facing stiff competition from nimbler Asian firms. Small wonder then that Nokia, the world’s largest handset-maker, recruited its design chief, Frank Nuovo, from BMW.”

Game Consoles

NYTimes writes that developers are preferring Microsoft’s XBox console over Sony’s PlayStation and wonders if gamers will follow:

Sony has prevailed up to now on symbiotic advantages: it sells more consoles because it has many of the most popular games, often exclusively, and developers of those games are attracted by the sheer number of PlayStation users. If Microsoft can woo more developers to Xbox, the balance of power in the next round could change.

“It’s clear that the camps are being aligned for the next-generation consoles,” said P. J. McNealy, an analyst with American Technology Research in San Francisco. “Whether or not Microsoft is playing for market dominance is another question. I think they would be pleased with a strong second-place showing.”

To topple Sony from its No. 1 position any time soon would be a “titanic event, up there with the fishes and loaves on the all-time miracle list,” he said.

Mr. McNealy said that recent sales figures indicate that Xbox will outsell PlayStation 2 in North America this month, by 275,000 units to 200,000, versus 100,000 for the GameCube. If so, it would be the first time any rival has surpassed Sony’s console sales in North America in 45 months, he said.

That 45-month period roughly corresponds to the current generation of consoles. About 70 million units of PlayStation 2, released in early 2000, had been sold by January of this year. That compares with fewer than 14 million for Xbox, released in late 2001; GameCube, also released in late 2001, lags further.

Part of Sony’s advantage, many experts note, has hinged on its ability to produce blockbuster games or lock up exclusives with third-party game developers. A best-seller like Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a 2002 release for PlayStation 2 and the PC, can sell six million copies at $50 each. (It later became available for Xbox.)

Microsoft and Sony each have fundamental strengths to exploit in the game arena. Sony is principally a hardware maker. Sony Computer Entertainment America’s research and development laboratory, for example, has helped developers take full advantage of its console with hardware peripherals like its successful EyeToy for camera-assisted games. And Sony was established in the console marketplace years before Microsoft arrived there.

Microsoft has a core strength in software. The console’s very name was derived from a crucial Microsoft program for game developers, Direct X. The unit is “a Direct X box, a hardware manifestation of our software for games,” said J. Allard, Microsoft’s chief Xbox officer. The central needs of developers – like the ability to render game play at a higher resolution – were a guiding principle in the console’s design.

Many developers say that PlayStation 2, meanwhile, is a more difficult console for creating games. Some complain that its software tools are not as intuitive as the Xbox’s, especially for developers who have a long history of developing games for PC’s.

And in the end, Xbox is clearly the most powerful console among the three. “On the technical specs it is fairly cut and dried,” said Michael Goodman, a senior analyst for the Yankee Group. “Who’s got the biggest processor? Microsoft. Who’s got the highest-end video card? Microsoft. Who’s got the most memory and the greatest flexibility with that memory? Microsoft.”

Laptop Purchasing

Suggestions from Walter Mossberg:

Buy plenty of memory, preferably 512 megabytes; get at least a 40-gigabyte hard disk; spring for USB 2.0 ports, slots for memory cards used in cameras and an Ethernet connector.

Laptop buyers also must consider issues that are specific to portable computing. And laptop shopping is much harder than desktop shopping, because laptops vary much more. The very term “laptop” covers a wide array of machines, from hulking desktop replacements to slender traveling companions. Their cost ranges from $700 or so to well over $3,000.

Size and Weight: At the light end are machines weighing just two to four pounds. These svelte models, from companies such as International Business Machines, Sony, Dell and Toshiba, are designed for sheer mobility and usually are purchased to complement a desktop PC. On the heavy end are large, bulky machines that aren’t intended to be mobile at all, unless by mobile you mean moving them between rooms in a house. These models, from most of the major companies, weigh seven pounds or more, and they are really desktop computers in the shape of laptops. They are meant to be a user’s principal computer. In the middle are laptops weighing between four and seven pounds, again from most major brands. These models are sort of swing machines: In many cases, they are replacing desktop computers, but they also can be lugged on airplanes.

Processor: I’d aim for a laptop powered by Intel’s Pentium M chip.

Battery Life: I’d insist on a laptop that can keep running for at least three hours on its standard battery.

Screen and Keyboard: I think a 12-inch to 14-inch screen is just fine if it’s sharp and clear. I believe IBM’s ThinkPads, in all sizes, have the best keyboards, but Toshiba and Hewlett-Packard keyboards are good, too.

Wireless Networking: I wouldn’t pay a penny for a laptop without built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking, even if it’s a big desktop replacement model. Try to get one that supports both the original “b” version of Wi-Fi and the faster “g” version.