And now the other foot falls... Last week's announcement of the M600i from Sony Ericsson left some industry watchers scratching their heads – why announce the week before 3GSM? The best guess then was to ‘capture the news cycle’ ahead of Barcelona to get as much coverage as possible. Turns out that was partly true, because it was also to clear the decks for the phone that they’re hoping will be the pick of the conference, the W950i Walkman Phone.
From the power-user point of view, there are two differences between this phone and the M600i. The first is the keyboard, it’s back to a normal 123/abc keyboard, with the addition of some buttons to launch the new music application. The second is the onboard storage of 4 Gigabytes, which should handle a fair number of tunes no matter how you add it up – SE specs say 4000 tunes, although that’s got to be at some massive compression level (they quote E-AAC+, a cutting edge flavour of AAC). If you’re going to go with 128kbit MP3 files, then it’s 1000 songs. You choose your format and take your chances.
But this isn’t a power-user phone. This is mass market. It’s not going to sell because it’s got a little bit more storage space. It’s not going to sell because it’s the latest version of the OS. It’s going to sell because it’s got the word ‘Walkman’ on it. And it’s purple.
After the iPod, it would be fair to say that the Walkman label is the most well known portable music brand on the planet. This is Sony Ericsson’s sixth phone to carry the Walkman brand, and while the other five have been the SE bespoke OS, they’ve sold well enough (around three million). Now take your phone, add in all the power of a full smartphone OS, a touch screen and a decent user interface for selecting music, and you’ve got a winner. Well, that’s what they’re hoping for.
Regarding the user interface. We’ve got three dedicated hardware keys, one to launch the music application and two on the side to control your volume. The music application is a new UIQ app, and will use the touch screen (and one can assume the Album Art from the ID3 tag) to create an easy to navigate system.
The other key element isn’t in the phone. It’s in the software that runs on your computer to get the music onto the phone. Let’s not kid anyone here, the majority of music is going to come from a hard drive, over a USB cable. It’s not going to be bought in the operator stores and downloaded over the air. The desktop software (Disc2Phone) is going to have to be smooth, allow playlist management, transfer at high speed, importing of music on your PC… and be nice to use. Sony’s solution on other devices, Sonic Stage Connect, has struggled to be described as average and has a lot of shortcomings. A lot of value in the aforementioned iPod is in iTunes.
It’s these two bits of software that will make or break the system. I’ll reserve judgement until I get my hands on it in real life, but Rafe’s had his hands on the app (and the phone) at Barcelona and reports that the whole package is very tasty. The pictures aren’t conveying just how sexy the phone looks, and while I’m one to shy away from any marketing department that describes a colour as “Mystic Purple”, it is a stunning choice that works well.
I can’t help but feel that someone has taken time to look around and decide who the nearest competition is, and decided to pitch the W950 directly against the iPod Nano. It’s very likely that with a contract the 4gb phone will undercut the 1gb Nano. This is where the Walkman brand is going to make a huge difference. No one will trust a UIQ phone to play music (even though it can do it competently) but a 'Sony Walkman'? Not a problem.
And while the W950 has all the other bells and whistles that the power users will expect, this phone isn’t targeted at them. It’s a media phone. The bullet points in the shop aren’t going to say Symbian OS, or Opera 8 Browser, or even Push Email support. No, they’re going to point out the stereo Bluetooth headset, the five different external speakers available to plug the phone into, the ability to store 4000 tunes on your phone, and one-touch access to the music player.
Yes it doesn’t have a camera, or a Memory Stick expansion slot. And yes I can hear the moaning about this already – but again you’re missing the point. Sony Ericsson are finally moving away from the “one size fits all” device which the P910 typified, and are targeting devices to specific market sectors. We have the high end business phone (P990) and the messaging device (M600i). Joining them is the W950 media phone, which will play to the mass market in a way that the UIQ devices have never been able to do before.
It may be a smartphone, but it’s in disguise. For all the desirability of the M600i and the practicality of the P990, I think the W950 is going to be the biggest seller. It’s going to have network support behind it (music phones are expected to be their saviour this year) in the form of promotion and subsidy. It looks gorgeous, has a sensible keyboard, and just feels right in terms of size and weight.
And it should take some programmer around 30 minutes to knock up a skin that lets everyone have an iPod style interface.