Friday, January 11, 2008

Send in the Clones

A few weeks back I wrote about the Verizon LG Voyager clone and its superficial shortcut touch screen cover that hides the fact that it is an old-school clam shell phone with a tiny QWERTY keyboard.

But there are a hosts of iClone's jumping into the market after, as WIRED magazine described it, Apple blew the doors off the cell phone industry. Prompted by ABC News analyst Michael Malone's question "Can Apple stay ahead of these guys?" I decided to investigate the impressive iPhone killers as he called them.

Prada is probably the most elegant and beautifully designed of the iClones but it has serious short-comings. Without Wifi and no on-screen QWERTY keyboard, it is out of league with the user experience of iPhone and other iClones trying to be a phone, MP3 player, web browser and email handset. Prada also is one of the few iClones more expensive than the original iPhone it is trying to copy. And the GUI on Prada is practically non-existent. Nothing impressive here.

The LG Voyager (picture in previous post) has some impressive features that the iPhone does not. For instance, you can use it to connect to Verizon's real-time TV service (for an additional $13 a month) VZ Navigator GPS ($13 a month or $3 a day) and in a pinch the phone will work as a modem. A serious drawback in this feature set is the lack of wifi. The Voyager has two color screens and a tiny keyboard, which some reviewers seem to think is an advantage. But why? Only poor design would force so much investment in screens and a QWERTY keyboard 4.5 inches wide is like trying to cook dinner for 12 with your daughters easy bake oven. It's all a waste.

But more importantly, the Voyager fails basic usability tests when it comes to syncing contacts and calendars to your PC. It has trouble, like many PC managed devices, setting up playlists and consistencies with managing music. I've always found that it is much worse to have a whole bunch of features that fail to work 50% of the time that a narrower set of features you know you can count on working. As I stated earlier, you can over-design and under-implement by simply trying to put stickers on the cover (shortcuts) but not make them a useful and simple way for the user to get their tasks accomplished.

CECT P168 is an iClone from China that truly tries to re-engineer the iPhone and is deceptively an eye-match. When you first see it you wonder, what the hell is that thing attached to his iPhone but upon closer examination to come to see it is not an Apple product at all. The reason this phone looks so much like the iPhone is the proportionality of the screen, the black touch face and silver rim and strategically located main menu button. Even the wallpaper and start up screens are complete iPhone imitations.

Meizu's M8 also cuts an astonishingly beautiful design profile with a clean and simple look that causes Apple lovers to do a double-take. You might easily catch yourself thinking upon first glance it is an iPhone but then snap your neck back saying it can't be. The M8 runs a tricked out version of Windows CE 6.0, dressed up to look like the iPhone OS. But, M8's biggest drawback is that it is still vaporware with no release date in sight. By the time it comes out, they must fear, the train will already have left the station and the next generation will be playing a different song.

In design terms Samsung's F700 is lame. It form factor is chunky and doesn't effectively use the entire area of the 2.7 inch screen (that falls short of the 3+ inch edge to edge screen of other iClones and the original iPhone). But in hardware terms the 5 Megpixel camera is twice the resolution of Apple iPhone. The F700 sports HSDPA (but no Wi-Fi) so we'll see if it can get traction outside the channel.

HTC Touch is smaller than all the other iClones, limits its screen size and takes up valuable surface real estate with hardware buttons as opposed to touch screen. This handset tries really hard to be iPhone-like, yet it has all the markings of a Windows product -- too much text standing in for a graphical interface and general design confusion where simplicity and spareness should be respected especially in small spaces.

The HTC Touch looks and feels a bit too much like a remote control device for your garage door opener in form but not iconic enough to work that factor well. For ham-fisted or chunky fingered folk, using it becomes difficult as a touch screen device which the designers realized and ship a stylus in the box to make up for it.

So there you have it. The iClones. Mild-mannered half attempts at copying, with limited success, with the exception of the Chinese who boldy re-engineered the iPhone.

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