Muscling into new markets

22 May 2006

About a year ago, I wrote about the fact that consumer electronic devices are increasingly threatening the mobile phone space. With the advent of wireless networking technology becoming an increasingly popular feature for devices ranging from PDAs to portable gaming consoles and digital cameras, more and more devices are able to connect online and to other devices.

So far, that hasn't really happened since most of the devices' wireless capabilities remain application-specific, allowing gamers to play wirelessly against other gamers or digital cameras to connect to printers and PCs.

There are obvious obstacles for these devices to venture into the communications space. It isn't so much the technology since mobile phone chipsets are cheap and easily accessible, but rather the complex industry relationship, business model and regulatory hurdles that restrict the introduction of voice into these devices.

All this means that mobile phone makers have a distinct advantage when it comes to developing multi-function, converged devices. After all, camera modules or MP3 software are also relatively commoditized technologies that can be applied effectively into mobile phones.

And that is exactly what mobile phone makers are doing today. Nearly every handset brand now has models that are dubbed 'music' phones, and nearly all newly released phones come with a built-in camera.

And it doesn't stop there. Both Sony Ericsson and Nokia are aggressively pushing products that are specifically designed to compete with digital cameras and music players.

It comes as no surprise that Sony Ericsson is taking the leading role in this movement. Having the advantage of being a part of arguably the world's biggest consumer electronic firm, Sony Ericsson has started to leverage the brand legacy of Sony to highlight a range of music phones. Its Walkman phones, featuring dedicated music features, are well documented by the media.

Although I don't see many people using their phones as their MP3 player, there is plenty of evidence that the familiar brand of the Walkman (and the pretty sleek design) do give these products ample mind share on the market.

Now Sony Ericsson aims to borrow another Sony brand and add it to its new K790 and K800 models, which bear the Cybershot logo.

From the initial specs, you get a 3.2-mega-pixel digital camera with 16x digital zooming, a Xenon flash and something called BestPic, which will record nine sequential still photos with a single press of the shutter button. There is also software for image stabilization, auto red-eye reduction, PictBridge support, additional software for picture blogging (through Blogger) as well as PictureDJ and VideoDJ for adding music or commentary to image files.

While it doesn't have established brands to piggyback on, Nokia has adopted a similar strategy with its N-series of 'media' phones. There is the N91 music phone with 4 Gb of internal memory. There is the N90 with a high-quality lens from Carl Zeiss (ironically, the lens supplier to Sony's Cybershot products).

Battle of titans looms

None of these products are ready to compete head-on with high-end digital cameras, or offer the same slim, sexiness of the iPod, yet there is no doubt they do offer pretty much the same functionality as many of the midrange to low-end products in these two categories.

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