Video is the big picture at mobile phone confab

Improvements in screens, sound

Cell phone makers at the Mobile World Congress confab here advanced their quest to grab entertainment dollars as they introduced new handsets Monday geared for use as music, video, TV and gaming devices.

With TV and video in mind, Samsung showed off its new F490, a video-centric phone with a 3-inch by 2-inch screen, which is larger than the average cell-phone screen.

Youngcho Chi, senior vp marketing at Samsung, hailed it as "ideal for watching movies as never before experienced on mobile devices."

It's noteworthy coming from Samsung, as 17% of the people in its home country of South Korea watch mobile TV.

Likewise, Nokia unveiled its video-oriented N96. Niklas Savander, executive vp software and services, lauded it not only for its 2.8-inch screen size but also for having enough storage capacity to hold "more video than most of us watch in a month."

The N96 comes standard with 16GB, expandable to 32GB. In an ergonomic twist, Nokia built in a kick stand to allow users to prop the N96 on a tabletop. Nokia plans to ship the N96 in the second quarter at $798.

With the social networking market in mind, Nokia also introduced the N78, which comes loaded with Nokia's new music service, mapping/navigation and a camera, all meant to let users constantly share updates and photos about themselves. Nokia will start shipping it in the second quarter for $508.

Another phone, the 6210, also includes mapping and GPS to allow people to "tag" their presence.

Nokia CEO Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo also said that Nokia plans to ship 35 million phones this year with built-in GPS technology. The combination of GPS, which maps an individual's location, and such services as music and social networking could potentially lift the market for advertising on cell phones, as advertisers zoom in on users' presence and offer deals to, say, a movie around the corner or a cappuccino at the nearest café.

It was a busy confab for Nokia, which also unveiled a global advertising network, listing content partners including Discovery, Hearst and Reuters.

On the music side, Sony Ericsson continued to add to its line of Walkman phones. Its new high-end W980 is the first model in the Walkman line that users can play without opening the clamshell.

Samsung also introduced a new music-playing phone, the F400. While music-phone advances have tended to emphasize the number of songs, Samsung and Sony Ericsson said their new music phones offer enhanced sound quality. Sony Ericsson is using a proprietary Sony technology, and Samsung is partnered with Bang & Olufson.

U.K. music service company Omnifone also said it has reached a deal with a major handset vendor to embed access to Omnifone's catalog of 1.5 million songs. The songs would be available through carriers that would offer unlimited access for a year or 18 months as part of a user's data package. Omnifone CEO Rob Lewis said the company has not yet finalized deals with carriers but is in "intensive negotiations."

Whether the fancy new hardware finally helps entrench the mobile as an entertainment device remains to be seen. Although the mobile phone has started to catch on as a portable music player, it's sputtering as a TV device. Research firm M:Metrics released figures here showing that in the three months ending Dec. 31, one-third of all "musicphone" owners in Western Europe listened to full-track songs on their phone.

But at the same time, fewer than 1% of mobile users in the five biggest Western European countries and the U.S. watched live TV or broadcast TV on their handsets, according to M:Metrics, which did not provide figures on video viewing.

Noticeably absent from the Mobile World Congress — the world's biggest annual cell phone confab, formerly called 3GSM — was Apple, whose relatively new iPhone has pressured handset vendors into rethinking design. Apple also has come into the market with a business model in which users "sideload" content from PCs to phones rather than buying them from carriers. Other handset vendors including Nokia and Sony Ericsson have since done the same.
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