Electronic Design

January’s Smartphone Stars Don’t Seem So Smart Today

The recent releases of the Motorola Q9 and Q9m smartphones got me thinking about last January's Consumer Electronics Show. Ed Zander, CEO of Motorola, proclaimed in his keynote that users no longer needed to lug around a notebook computer. Instead, Motorola's Q could serve as a suitable replacement - and fit into a shirt pocket, too. He also noted that the Q's multimedia capabilities could be used for music, photos, and videos. The Q wasn't the only hot smartphone at the show; a billboard advertised the merits of a similar device, the Samsung Blackjack.

But recently, BusinessWeek published a cover story entitled "Zander May Be Running Out of Minutes," which stated, "The board of directors at troubled Motorola Inc. has begun exploring options for the succession of embattled Chief Executive Edward J. Zander." Could the sales of the Q be responsible?

Motorola sold over 150,000 Qs in the first 30 days after its June 2006 announcement. Not too shabby, but the company expected to sell 10 million in the first year. It seems unlikely that Motorola got anywhere near those lofty goals. But Apple's announcement that iPhone sales pushed past 1 million in its first 74 days, at more than twice the price of the Q, indicates that the market is there for multimedia phones.

Unlike earlier this year, I haven't seen any marketing efforts for the Q9 and Q9m. Should these phones be scrapped altogether, and should designers go back to the drawing board? What a conundrum this must be for smartphone makers. After all, smartphones are supposed to be all-purpose devices that make calls, connect to the Internet, send and receive e-mail and messages, view documents, play music and video, and take and display photos. What more can anyone ask?

What's the Reality?
I own a Q and don't like it very much. I may be nitpicking, but little things annoy me. For instance, the designers of the Q decided to use a 2.5-mm stereo audio jack, rather than switch to the 3.5-mm jack found in most, if not all, stereo audio devices (e.g., Apple's iPod).

At first glance, the smaller jack seems to be a reasonable design decision, since Motorola has been designing cell phones for a long time and is accustomed to working with 2.5- mm jacks. The problem for users like me is that the Q doesn't come bundled with a stereo headset.

As a result, users are left to figure out how to use the ubiquitous 3.5-mm headset with a 2.5-mm jack. A 3.5-mm-to-2.5-mm stereo adapter is a possibility, but doesn't work. Purchasing a new headset is the other possibility. Unbelievably enough, when I tried to purchase a headset at the Motorola site, the link to it was down. Finally, tech support sent me the headset for free, saving me about $28, but only after causing a lot of frustration. My recommendation to Motorola: Bundle a headset with the Q.

Another thing that annoys me concerns keeping this smartphone charged up and ready to go. The decision to use a mini USB port for charging and connecting to a PC elated me at first, since USB is a ubiquitous standard. The elation evaporated, though, when I realized that Motorola had somehow made the port proprietary. You can charge the Q with Motorola's charger, but not with most third-party chargers, like those that connect to the cigarette lighter in your car or portable chargers.

I have a Universal Mobile Charger from PLANon (www.planon.com) for emergencies, but it doesn't work with the Q. Recently, I saw a neat solar-powered charger from a company called Solio (www.solio.com). A representative assured me it would work with the Q, but I haven't tested it, so I'm skeptical. My recommendation: Give third-party chargers a break.

Video Issues
Another annoyance for me is the Q's video capabilities. The Q uses a 312-MHz Intel XScale-based PXA270 applications processor (see "What's New in the Q?" at ED Online 13567). Although this processor does most jobs well, playing video clips or streaming video is not among them. Most of the videos I've tried have played more like slide shows, and even the samples that come with the Q will stop and start. Video streams encounter the same problems.

This pales in comparison to the video on Apple's Video iPods and the iPhone. I haven't tried playing videos on the new Qs, and am not likely to, but I hope they do a better job. And, truthfully, I'm not even sure the processor is at fault. It may be the video subsystem or the operating system/media player. My recommendation: If you can't get the video to work better, then do a better job of managing user expectations.

I'm sure Ed Zander had high hopes of cracking both the business and consumer markets in a big way with the Q, as did other makers of smartphones. Back in January, these devices seemed compelling. Now, they seem dead in the water.

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