The Wide, Wild World Of Phones

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Over this week, much of the wireless industry has landed in Barcelona, where manufacturers, carriers, developers and others connected to the business have gathered for the Mobile World Congress trade show.

MWC provided an illuminating look at the state of wireless, starting with the gadgets we compulsively paw in any line that lasts longer than a minute.

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The inflationary universe of Android phones: I though the 5.5-inch display on Samsung’s Galaxy Note II made that Android phone too hefty, but ZTE’s Grand Memo (above) packs in a 5.7-in. screen, Huawei’s Ascend Mate runs 6.1 inches and Asus’s Fonepad has a screen spanning a full 7 inches. Key question: When does Saturday Night Live run a parody commercial featuring a phone version of the full-size iPad?

Android’s fragmented, and nobody cares: The interface Google built is disappearing behind replacement home screens and alternate layouts of the core system buttons added by Android vendors. Users seem okay with that, to judge from the runaway sales of phones with proprietary front ends like Samsung’s Galaxy S III.

Potentially most-disruptive development: Two open-source competitors, Mozilla’s Firefox OS and a mobile version of the Ubuntu distribution of Linux, each promise to make the smartphone experience affordable for “feature phone” buyers.

They may not make it — both showed notable sluggishness when I played with early versions on the show floor. But iOS and Android need somebody to keep them honest if Microsoft’s Windows Phone (which itself is getting cheaper on models like the Nokia 520) or BlackBerry’s new BlackBerry 10 operating system fail to flourish.

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Least productive competition among phone vendors: Many Android manufacturers showed off screens with resolutions far exceeding the 326 pixels per inch of the Retina Display on the iPhone and iPad. But if you already can’t see individual pixels on Apple’s phone, why bother exceeding that number? Especially if it comes at a steep cost in battery life, as reviewers of HTC’s Droid DNA found last year?

LG unintentionally demonstrated the pointlessness of this competition when it invited visitors to its exhibit to compare the uber-high-res display on its new Optimus G Pro with lesser screens–as seen through magnifying glasses.

Most helpful competition among phone vendors: Smartphone battery life isn’t what it should be — the MWC hallways featured recharging lockers in which you could stash your phone for a quick replenishment. I was happy to see vendors placing new emphasis on increased battery capacity, as measured in milliamp hours (mAh for short) and noted with prominent mentions of that figure on spec sheets.

I was also gratified to see manufacturers compete in cameras over something besides resolution alone. Bigger image sensors and wider apertures, among other picture-taking upgrades, might do a lot more for picture quality than the usual megapixel inflation (13 MP looks like the new normal there).

Tech advance most uncertain of materializing: This is a tie — NFC payments and cordless charging each looked incapable at MWC of moving past their own hangups. The former suffers from a pre-existing condition (credit cards usually work just fine) and a self-inflicted wound (Google’s Wallet software had a head start, but then competing carriers backed Visa’s Isis system). Summed up PayPal president David Marcus in a chat Tuesday: “Too little, too late.”

The latter remains mired in a standards war that may only be getting more complex: MWC featured exhibits not just by the two main rivals, Qi and the Alliance For Wireless Power, but a newer entrant, Proxi. As long as Apple — an MWC absentee, in keeping with its usual practice of shunning other people’s tech events–doesn’t anoint a winner, I don’t see how this ends anytime soon.

Credits: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery

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