Phone makers catch 'iPhoneitis'

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Sony Ericsson, LG and Samsung have all caught "iPhoneitis," joining in on one of the hottest trends at the Mobile World Congress -- touch-based user interfaces.

All three launched mobile phones at the show in Barcelona, and they all use touch in different ways -- from LG's icons that change function depending on what part of the phone is being used to Sony Ericsson's ability to focus where a user touches while taking a picture.

Sony Ericsson likes to point out that it has supported touch since the birth of the company. But it also gives Apple some credit.

"They are a source of inspiration," said Rikard Skogberg, category manager at Sony Ericsson.

The point is to make mobile phones easier to use and to open the door for more features, such as mobile Internet.

"Sony Ericsson's goal is to make our phones as easy as possible to use, and touch is a big part of that. If people are going to buy more advanced phones, they must be able to use all the features -- and for that to happen they must be intuitive," Skogberg said.

LG's Channel Marketing Manager Heather Seabrooke agrees.

"It's all about usability. With touch you don't need a million different buttons. Instead you can use the same ones for different things," she said.

But not all phone vendors seem to be convinced. Nokia was expected to show a new version of its S60 operating system with an integrated touch-based user interface, but it was nowhere to be seen.

Nokia says it will use touch starting sometime during the second half of this year, but not in a gimmicky way. And there must be a clear migration path for users.

Several analysts are also skeptical.

"We believe that a good user interface must also support buttons to be effective and fast. And we will see a lot more innovation before this market becomes mature," said Leif-Olof Wallin, research vice president at Gartner.

But at the same time he thinks that Nokia's lack of support for touch may hurt its sales in the short term.

"Nokia's new flagship phone, the N96, has an impressive spec but it doesn't support touch. And that makes it a bit handicapped," said Wallin.

Ben Wood, director of research at CCS Insight, has this warning for users: "We think 2008 will be the year of crap touch phones."

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