Expect fewer phone models in 2012, executives say

Are there too many mobile phones to choose from? Phone makers are starting to worry that people are getting overwhelmed by so many options and, as a result, some plan to reduce the number of models they produce this year.

Speaking at CES this week, Motorola CEO Sanjay Jha reportedly said that the company plans to make fewer phone models in 2012, in part because the variety is confusing to some consumers.

HTC is thinking along the same lines. “It’s a goal to have less phones,” Drew Bamford, vice president of user experience at HTC, said during a panel discussion at the show on Wednesday.

When pushed, Ryan Bidan, director of product marketing at Samsung, said that while he wasn’t sure what the model count for his company would be in 2012, he agreed that phone makers should drive down the number of phones. “Sheer SKU proliferation is a problem,” he said.

However, he said one reason companies such as Samsung produce so many different models is that technology evolves so quickly. “It comes back to the rate of change in the market. If there’s new-slash-better technology available and I don’t supply it for you, I’m going to hear from you that it’s not available,” he said.

He also stressed that Samsung wants to offer products to suit many different kinds of customers. “Not every solution will fit everyone,” he said. For example, Samsung introduced a stylus for its Galaxy Note tablet, but not on other tablets, and it offers a range of form factors on its phones.

While Microsoft doesn’t produce phone hardware, it’s hoping to see an increase in the number of models running Windows Phone, but that’s because it’s a relatively new entrant to the market and isn’t available on many models yet. “We have a stated objective” to have a broader selection of handsets running Windows Phone on the market, said Aaron Woodman, a director from Microsoft.

Microsoft also seems to have slightly different goals than some of its mobile operating system competitors. For example, it has at times made the decision to leave out features in order to gain ease of use, Woodman said. In the past, Windows Mobile was feature rich, but it was a challenge to get value out of the features, he said. “In some cases now, we just do less,” he said. “Functionality without accessibility is just not worth it.”

Microsoft continues to hope that design will set it apart from competitors. Its Windows Phone user interface has gained praise for its difference from iPhone and Android devices and for its ease of use. “Trying to differentiate on the experience level is our focus,” he said.

One thing Microsoft is making a clear effort to do is not ape Apple. “I have no desire to be Apple. It’s not in our company DNA, it’s not in our brand DNA and it’s not our approach to the problem. We feel really proud in the differences we see,” he said.

Since it has become the phone maker to beat, Apple often looms large over technology and mobile phone conferences such as CES, even though the phone maker doesn’t participate in such events.

The panelists were split on whether another company like Apple might enter the mobile industry and make a similarly large impact. “I think there’s always space for something. If not, the industry is dead,” said HTC’s Bamford.

But Woodman disagreed, saying it’s too expensive to get into this market so there’s a limited number of companies that could enter now. Even Hewlett-Packard, with its deep pockets, couldn’t make a go with WebOS. Small companies may innovate “around the edges” and then be acquired by larger companies to make a difference, he said.

Nancy Gohring covers mobile phones and cloud computing for The IDG News Service. Follow Nancy on Twitter at @idgnancy. Nancy’s email address is NancyGohring@idg.com._

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