It's like a scene from a bad horror movie. Samsung and Research in Motion are among the companies trundling down the steps into the basement. And down there, waiting for them, is Apple chief executive Steve Jobs and his chainsaw collection. Dudes, don't go down there.
Apple's easy-to-use, media-friendly gizmo has cut deeply into the smart phone market. Six months after putting out the iPhone last year, Apple had seized 26.7 per cent of the U.S. market in the final quarter of 2007. The assault was put on pause — with Apple dipping to just 19.2 per cent of the market during the first quarter — as Apple reloaded with a faster iPhone. After it goes on sale July 11, however, it's going to be a long, hard year for Apple's rivals.
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The biggest reason? Apple has caused a panic, with competitors scrambling to crank out Web-friendly, widescreen phones. But like the iPod, the harder rivals try to blunt Apple's strengths, the worse they look in comparison. In 2001, Apple started out with just a thin slice of the market for digital music players. By 2005, its iPod was synonymous with the category, with competitors such as SanDisk and Microsoft cranking out slim, slab-like variations on Apple's designs.
But of all the companies now up against Apple in the smart phone market, Research in Motion has the best shot at coming out on top. Chiefly because that's where RIM's BlackBerry sits already, with 44.5 per cent of the smart phone market. Its greatest strength: RIM's best phones are the kind of gear Jobs would never crank out.
Take the BlackBerry 8700c. The chunky gray gadget has all the beauty of a belt-sander. But if you're looking to polish off a load of e-mail on the go, its nubby keys and sturdy scroll wheel make it the perfect tool for the job. And RIM's deep ties to corporate e-mail systems — and the work the Waterloo, Ont., company has put into making its handsets easy for businesses to manage — mean these are power tools packing plenty of juice.
Apple, however, threatens to blunt RIM's drive into consumer-friendly smart phones with handsets such as the BlackBerry Pearl. The touch-screen BlackBerry Thunder, set to launch in the third quarter of this year, aims to neutralize the threat by countering the iPhone's blank, touch-screen interface with one of its own, and adding RIM's support for corporate e-mail systems to the mix.
Details on the phone itself are thin. However, it's hard to imagine RIM being able to back up that wide, media-friendly screen with the wealth of multimedia content Apple has packed into its iTune store for its iPhones, iPods and Macs. RIM might do better than Apple if it were to roll out a phone with tiny plastic keys aimed at prying your credit card company's vice-president away from her CrackBerry. But Apple is too smart to go there.
Another phone that aims to slow down the new iPhone when it goes on sale June 20 comes from Samsung, a company intimately familiar with the Apple device. Samsung makes an ARM Holdings-based microprocessor that serves as the brains of the iPhone. Moreover, Samsung can couple design smarts with truly wicked manufacturing skills to create amazing gear, such as the vanishingly thin U600 and U700.
Samsung's iPhone killer, the Instinct, isn't about to amaze anyone, however. The phone is little more than an iPhone knockoff, right down to the blank black face and chrome trim — a disappointment from a company that shouldn't stoop to knock off anyone. Worse yet, the phone's look, and $199 US retail price, invite comparison to a competitor the Instinct doesn't match. Unlike the new iPhone, the Instinct lacks wi-fi, it has less memory and its touch-sensitive interface is less sophisticated.
Next up, Google, another company with an inside track at Apple. Google chief executive Eric Schmidt holds a seat on Apple's board. And he's admitted that he's had to sit out some meetings, with Google readying an effort to pump its software into Internet-friendly phones due in the fourth quarter from such manufacturers as HTC, Samsung and LG Electronics.
At first glance, Google's so-called Android effort poses quite a threat, since Google has a host of online services it can pour into the handsets. The challenge: timing. By the time the first of these handset arrives, Apple could already be synonymous with web-friendly phones.