Call It Simple

Having just relocated from the Third Coast (Texas) to the First Coast (Connecticut), I want my handset to work in the bottom of Grand Central Station, on the train, waiting to pull away.

Having just relocated from the Third Coast (Texas) to the First Coast (Connecticut), I want my handset to work in the bottom of Grand Central Station, on the train, waiting to pull away. I want it to work in elevators, passing over or under bridges, and I want it to perform all kinds of acts unnatural to untethered communications.

But even the best reception in the world cant overcome the hassle of a poorly designed phone.

Case in point: the Motorola StarTac ST7868W phone, provided as part of a company plan, using the Verizon Wireless network.

The network seems to work just fine, even in the basement of Grand Central. The phone seems to work okay — as long as all you want to do is dial a number and hit the send button.

Get much trickier than that, though, and the phone falls on its face.

What do you want to do most with your cell phone, other than call people? Find out who called you. You want to retrieve messages with no fuss.

Trying this on the StarTac, however, is an adventure. Press the key with the envelope icon — now the standard for indicating how to access voice-mail — and the phone springs into action.

But what greets you is your message asking you to leave you a message. Thank you — or me? — very much.

Worse, the instruction manual provides no answer, no matter how many voice messages you leave yourself.

Partly blame the manual writer. An addendum explains the correct procedure: You have to hit the pound key to break out of the voice message and actually go to voice-mail. Only then do you get asked your access code, and only then do you get your messages.

Contrast that with Samsungs SCH-6100 handset. You press the envelope key, it dials, a voice asks for your access code, you enter it and the messages start playing back, one by one, automatically.

Thats how it should be. And how its not at Motorola.

Its Motorola that designed the system that plays back your own voice message to you. And Motorola, that didnt provide an intuitive way out.

Its Motorola that creates confusion on the keypad to start with. This is a keypad that has a PC-like "function" key, for Petes sake. That means you have to strike one key to activate a usable function on what otherwise is a number key.

Motorola has five of these combination number and function keys. Samsung has zero.

Even after cramming all these extra functions on the number keys, Motorolas keypad has more keys than Samsungs does — 20 vs. 18. Motorola adds eight special keys, compared with Samsungs six. And even some of those eight seem to have two functions, though you cant tell what the blue icons mean.

With Samsung, the keypad is simple, the actions clear. Pretty much everything can be navigated using on-screen menus and a scroll button that is front and center on the handset — as opposed to the side of Motorolas phone.

This kind of attention to how things work works. In my personal case, Im going to stick with Sprint and its nationwide network, rather than change to Verizon.

And Im not alone in this decision-making process, where handset is as important as reception.

Look at the market stats. In the fourth quarter of 2000, Nokia still was the Goliath, with 44.1 percent of the handsets sold, according to the NPD Intelect Market Tracking service.

Motorola was second, with a 13.9 percent share of units sold.

Ericsson? Well, it came in at 6.6 percent — behind "no names" such as Samsung, Kyocera and Audiovox.

But lets look at a more telling stat. The average sales price of a Samsung phone was $124. Thats 2.5 times the Nokias average price of $48. And more than 60 percent higher than Motorolas phones at $76, no matter how nifty they look against Will Smiths ear in the movies.

That translates to a much different picture, where it counts. Total dollars. Nokias dollar share is 38.2 percent, according to NPD. Motorolas is 19 percent.

Pretty good, right? Nope. Samsungs dollar share is 18.1 percent. After less than four years in the U.S. market, the Korean manufacturer has just about leapt past the ungalvanized crew from Schaumburg.

Simplicity sells. Just ask people. Theyre willing to pay for it.

Tom Steinert-Threlkeld is Chief Content Officer at Ziff Davis Internet and a former Editor-in-Chief at Interactive Week. He can be reached at [email protected]