Jeff Gelles: With Apple's iPhone 5 in wings, competitors make pitches

Motorola has stepped up with three new Droid Razr smartphones: the Droid Razr M, the Droid Razr HD, and the Droid Razr Maxx HD.
Motorola has stepped up with three new Droid Razr smartphones: the Droid Razr M, the Droid Razr HD, and the Droid Razr Maxx HD. (BEBETO MATTHEWS / Associated Press)
Posted: September 07, 2012

Wireless-industry analyst Roger Entner calls it the "Apple blackout." Fans of the old TV comedy series Get Smart might think of it as the Apple "cone of silence" - the shroud due to descend momentarily on just about any technology news unrelated to the iPhone 5, which Apple is expected to unveil next week.

The cone's inevitable descent surely explains why some of the biggest names in non-Apple technology took to the stage Wednesday to tout several of their latest inventions - mostly well before they'll actually hit the market.

Google and the handset-maker it acquired this spring, Motorola Mobility, presented three new versions of the Droid Razr - including the $99 Razr M, which will arrive next week in Verizon Wireless stores. Two higher-powered versions of the Droid, which runs on Google's Android operating system, are due "before the holidays," Motorola senior vice president Rick Osterloh promised.

At another media event in New York, Nokia and Microsoft teamed to unveil two new Lumia phones based on Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 operating system. Nokia spokesman Marcelo Vilela said global distribution was expected "later in the year."

Apple may not totally dominate the market for smartphones - in the aggregate, Androids now claim 52 percent of the U.S. smartphone market versus 33 percent for iPhones, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt proudly pointed out Wednesday. But the day's events were a stark reminder that Apple's trailblazing smartphone still leads in the popular imagination, even before the debut of the iPhone 5.

"Everybody's trying to get their news out before the Apple blackout," says Entner, of Boston's Recon Analytics. "Apple will really take all the oxygen out of the room."

Until next week, we won't know for sure what the iPhone 5 will look like or offer, though Entner and other analysts expect much of the buzz to bear out - in particular, a larger, 4-inch-plus screen and the capacity to connect to 4G LTE high-speed data networks.

Entner says Apple also is expected to deliver a new version of its iOS operating system, and to integrate its own mapping software and turn-by-turn directions into the new iPhone. Since Android already offers that feature, the new iPhone could finally spell doom for small-screen, stand-alone GPS devices.

But that's next week's news. Today, here are a few more details about what to expect from Motorola, Nokia, Google, and Microsoft:

The new Droids. Until Google bought Motorola Mobility, Androids were Androids. Now, the new Droid Razrs, updated versions of Motorola's flagship Androids, can claim to be first among equals on the open-source platform Google created to compete with the iPhone. And it can't hurt that the future of the top-selling Android, Samsung's Galaxy S III, is in the hands of a judge who ruled Samsung infringed on key Apple patents.

"The new Motorola starts today," Motorola CEO Dennis Woodside said at Wednesday's event, citing 4G data speeds and extended battery life as the keys to the new Razrs' success.

Woodside reminded the audience of a familiar scene - the rush for every available outlet in airport lounges - and said, "A mobile phone that's plugged into the wall is simply not a mobile device."

Motorola's solution? Osterloh said the Razr HD will offer 16 hours of talk time - "almost double that of [the] competition." And he said the Razr HD Maxx, with more memory and extra battery life, should have enough juice to stream up to 27 hours of music or 10 hours of video.

Osterloh also touted the new Razr's displays. The Razr HD promises a 4.7-inch display, with "85 percent more color saturation than iPhone 4s," he said. And the smaller, 4.3-inch screen on the Razr M offers 40 percent more screen area than iPhone 4s.

The new Lumias. Android and iPhone may own 85 percent of the U.S. smartphone market, but Microsoft hasn't given up. It's counting on the appeal of its latest platform - Windows Phone 8 - to get it into the game.

Microsoft said the 4.5-inch Lumia 920 will feature "the world's brightest, fastest, and most sensitive touch screen." The 4.3-inch Lumia 820 will come with Nokia City Lens, augmented-reality software that uses the Lumia camera's viewfinder to deliver details, say, about the pub you see down the block, as well as "Nokia Drive," a free navigation system with turn-by-turn guidance.

But the Lumias' defining feature will be the latest Windows Phone operating system and its signature "live tiles" display. Think of iPhone or Android icons, then imagine them expanding to three or four times their size, and updating with new information from the underlying app.

With live tiles, you don't have to open your e-mail or Facebook app to see the latest message or posting from your people. They're right there on the tile.

Come Oct. 26, when Microsoft launches its Windows 8 operating system, a version of live tiles will be available on all Microsoft devices.

Will Microsoft finally score in the smartphone competition? "People who do try it and like it, like it a lot," analyst Jeff Kagan says of the live-tile design. "It just hasn't gotten any traction."

Maybe it will, someday. Apple is a hard act to follow, even when we don't yet know the script.


Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

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