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Even a year after the iPhone was launched, cell phone manufacturers are still trying to knock Apple's ubergizmo off its perch as the leading touchscreen cell phone in the world.
it has been raining touchscreen phones ever since Apple's iPhone found favour with the masses in 2007. Unfortunately, most initial devices seemed to be little more than token attempts, with manufacturers focusing on the ‘touch' aspect, rather than attempting to match Apple's innovative interface. HTC's Touch did make an attempt to come out with a finger-friendly ‘skin' on top of its Windows 6 interface, but even that paled in comparison to the intuitive, easy-to-use interface offered by the iPhone. However, that trend seemed to change towards the end of 2008 with a number of manufacturers finally coming up with innovative product ideas. Sony Ericsson's Xperia X1 threw in a QWERTY keypad along with an interesting panel interface, while Samsung came out with a widget-driven interface for its TouchWiz and Omnia devices. HTC, in the meantime, put a spin on the TouchFlo interface that it had used in the original Touch, upgrading it to TouchFlo 3D and using it with the Touch Diamond and Touch Pro.
The dawn of 2009 has seen three major touchscreen devices hit the Indian market at almost the same time - Nokia's long awaited 5800 Xpress Music (also known as the Tube), the BlackBerry Storm, and the HTC Touch HD. Finally, the device that many people call the Godphone, gets some worthy competition.
A matter of interface
With both BlackBerry and Nokia releasing their first touchscreen phones since the launch of the iPhone (Nokia had tried its luck with touchscreens earlier while BlackBerry had stayed away from a touch interface), users have suddenly seen two entirely new interfaces. Of the two, the Storm is by far the better version. The device comes with a ‘clickable' screen - you can compress it slightly to get a ‘mouse click-like' sensation. That may not sound like much but it definitely makes selecting programs and applications a far easier task, although typing gets a bit tougher. Interestingly, there is no stylus with the Storm, making it, like the iPhone, a purely finger-driven device. Now, that is something that many of us who hate twiddling with small styluses, will welcome.
Nokia's 5800 Xpress Music, on the other hand, seems to be a bit of a work-in-progress. It too has haptic feedback (you get a slight physical sensation when you press the touchscreen to select an item) but alas, its new operating system, Symbian Series 60 (fifth edition) seems a bit buggy and if the truth be told, does not look as sleek as the Storm. In fact, many feel that the device itself is a bit of an eyesore when compared with the Storm and the HD. That said, with a price tag in the vicinity of Rs 20,000, the 5800 is easily one of the touchscreen phones from a major player that offers the best value for money. The Storm is a tad more pricey at around Rs 28,000, but those who love BlackBerry's mail service (who doesn't!) won't mind coughing up the amount.
Perhaps the most powerful of the three is HTC's Touch HD. Although it retains the TouchFlo interface that was used in the Touch Diamond launched last year, the HD's massive 3.8-inch (9.65 cm) touchscreen (the largest among the touchscreen phones in India) makes it a treat to use. The big screen also makes the HD a much better device for viewing and editing files. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is the best Windows Mobile device I have ever used-sleek in appearance and packed with all the specs one would ever need. The problem is that all this does not come cheap - at more than Rs 40,000, the Touch HD is one for those with really deep pockets.
The problem is that while all three interfaces do represent a step forward, none of them are as easy to use as the iPhone. If pushed, I would go with HTC'c TouchFlo being the best as the big screen makes it so finger-friendly. In terms of innovation, BlackBerry certainly seems to have the edge, although some people might be alarmed at using a screen that wobbles a bit!
The specs rock...
Where all three devices take the iPhone to the cleaners is in the technical specifications department. All three, on paper, offer more than the iPhone 3G. The Storm and the 5800 have 3.2 megapixel cameras, while the Touch HD offers a stunning 5 megapixel shooter. All three devices have GPS and expandable memory. And both the Storm and the Touch HD allows users to view and edit MS Office files, enabling you to work on documents, spreadsheets and presentations with minimum fuss - something the iPhone still cannot do. In terms of browsing the Net, all three devices are respectable competitors to the iPhone, with the Touch HD's Opera Mobile being arguably the most powerful mobile phone browser in the business. There is also the little matter of ease of use-all three devices can be synchronised far more smoothly with a computer when compared to the iPhone, where you have to operate through iTunes, even to do something as simple as transfer photographs and music. The Bluetooth functionality on all three also supports more devices than the iPhone does. In terms of connectivity, all three match the iPhone, although the Storm surprisingly does not offer Wi-Fi.
...but where are the apps?
The one area where the three have been unable to dent the iPhone is in applications. While the Storm does have an application store, it lacks the depth and variety of applications seen in Apple's App Store, which recently crossed 20,000 applications. The Touch HD supports most of the apps that run on Windows Mobile 6.1 (Professional), but the greatest expectations are from Nokia. Although there are very few applications available for the operating system the company has used in the 5800, this number is likely to increase significantly as Nokia uses the OS in more devices, most notably the Nokia N97 that's expected later this year. Another significant edge that Nokia enjoys in this regard is its N-Gage gaming platform, which, while not currently on the 5800, is expected to be made compatible to the Symbian Series 60 (5th edition) soon. Now, that could really dent the iPhone's entertainment appeal. BlackBerry too seems to be looking beyond its corporate roots, but it will take some time before it can match the apps that will be on offer from Nokia. As for the Touch HD, with Microsoft readying Windows Mobile 6.5, all eyes will be on whether one can upgrade the device to the new OS or if the apps for the new OS will be compatible with its earlier versions.
Competition, at last!
If we could have had a device with the camera, display and interface of the HTC HD; the haptic feedback and e-mail expertise offered by the BlackBerry Storm; and an OS that offered as much hope for developing applications and the value for money proposition of the Nokia 5800, we would have been hailing the arrival of an iPhone killer. Unfortunately, while each of the three devices does manage to better the iPhone on some counts, they come up short in the overall package. That said, there can be no denying that those looking for alternatives to the iPhone have better options than they did a year ago.
Enterprise users are likely to flock to the Storm. Those looking for value for money will invest in the 5800 and those with deeper pockets will probably go for the Touch HD. They may not have unseated the iPhone from the touchscreen throne, but these three new contenders in the market have definitely given the folks at Cupertino something to think about. There still is a gap between the iPhone and its competitors. But it is narrowing. The ball is now in Apple's court. Will June see it add yet another spin to its ubergizmo and catch the competition off guard? The world will be watching.