Rivals play catch-up with Apple

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, there can be no higher tribute to the influence of United States technology group Apple than a walk around the Mobile World Congress this year.

The Californian group, like previous years, has stayed away from the world’s biggest mobile industry trade show, but evidence of its design and approach to user experience can be glimpsed in the work of all its competitors.

At first glance, many of the sleek high-end phones on display here could be the Apple iPhone. But take a closer look at the black tablet-shaped phones with touchscreen technology and they are branded by rivals LG, HTC or Acer.

“Everyone wants to be Apple, don’t they?” says Nick Lane, chief researcher at British consultancy Direct2 Mobile.

“Apple do things effectively. They have found the heart strings of the consumer and not really any other company in mobile has been able to achieve that.”

Apple’s trick is to offer sleek design that takes the fear out of technology, making downloading, transferring data and using applications as easy and as logical as possible, say industry watchers.

This approach can be seen in the iPod, which revolutionised legal music downloads, and is now evident with the iPhone, which has opened up the market for powerful high-end phones, known as “smart phones” in the industry.

The second area where Apple, previously an outsider in the industry, has pushed the mobile sector forward is with its AppStore, which it launched last July.

The AppStore enables users to download new applications for their iPhones from games to social networking programmes, news services or travel widgets.

Software developers are encouraged to design applications that can be sold via the online store, offering users a choice of 15 000 downloads that add functionality and personalisation.

The 500 000th download was celebrated at the end of January.

On Monday, software giant Microsoft and Finnish handset maker Nokia responded, announcing their versions of the concept with the “Windows Marketplace for Mobile” and the “Ovi Store”.

“People have seen the success of Apple,” commented Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at research group Gartner.

“They also see that it’s a way to keep your customer loyal because if you have a lot of applications, people will be more inclined to buy your phone than another phone. It’s a way to make a device more interesting,” she added.

Furthermore, it generates revenues. She says Apple takes 20% of the income from an application download with the remainder going to the developer.

The maker of the Blackberry handset, Canada’s Research in Motion, has its own version of the “Appstore” and British technology group Surfkitchen has developed a platform for offering the store concept to network operators.

French network operator Orange has already set up its version in Britain and France, while China Mobile has announced a move into the area.

“Everyone will jump on the ‘me-too’ bandwagon and offer an AppStore,” said Lane. “It makes sense that people are moving into the space.”

Imitation of Apple carries dangers for some of the company’s high-end competitors, however. Already seen as behind the zeitgeist, an obvious rip-off of the iPhone or the AppStore to catch up would hit their credibility.

Nokia, the world’s biggest handset maker, continues to manufacture distinctive phones and Tony Cripps, an analyst at research group Ovum, says the new Nokia store concept is slightly different.

“Nokia’s Ovi Store is not simply a ‘me-too’ take on the barnstorming iPhone AppStore, although its concept undoubtedly owes a great deal to Apple’s success,” he said.

Nokia will offer the service to buyers of its mid-range phones when the boutique goes live in May. It plans to personalise the space with content tailored to the user based on his or her location and declared preferences.

“Context is something of a Nokia obsession of late, so this could prove interesting, but is as yet an unknown,” added Cripps.—Sapa-AFP



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