May 29, 2012, 12:13 PM

Smartphones require more than just the latest advances

Consumers want community, content and brand, a panel concludes.

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As Apple Inc. has done with its popular iPhone, phone makers must create a sense of community around their products and balance content with the latest technology in order to make their smartphones successful, concluded panelists in a session entitled "Future of devices: Changing landscape" at the Open Mobile Summit in London.

Mobile experts often refer to an "ecosystem" that surrounds a phone. An ecosystem includes the hardware, apps and content of a smartphone offering. Bringing all these elements together can be difficult, but it’s crucial for allowing consumers to find mobile devices useful.

"Convergence is tough," said Steve Walker, chief marketing officer at smartphone maker Sony Mobile. "But being truly integrated makes a big difference. The way we look at convergence is don't do everything at once. The consumer starts with one thing, connects with another, tries a few services, it's a step at a time for the consumer."

One way to offer a premium ecosystem is not always to showcase the next big handset with exclusive features but to focus on what a smartphone can enable through its technology and content, Walker said.

"It often is about the overall experience that goes around the core phone experience," he commented. "There is a way for wireless networks, service providers and handset makers to work together to create an experience that money can't buy. How do you create a community around content rather than just provide the content alone?"

One way is to have a community built in. The panel discussed the long-rumored Facebook smartphone as a way to build steam behind a mobile device without simply advertising the device's latest technological features.

"I want a phone with many specialized functions such as Facebook and many other things," Walker said. "The choice is open for the customers."

"Consumers only respond so much to what makers provide," said panelist Yongseok Jang, vice president of mobile at LG Electronics, a consumer electronics company that makes smartphones. "They pay more attention to what their friends and colleagues and people on the Internet say. So having a relationship with consumers is important."

That relationship includes the type of content a smartphone maker embeds on its devices' home screens before they are sold to consumers, pushing consumers to what the manufacturer believes are golden apps and hot information. A smartphone maker, for example, might strike a deal with The New York Times or Yahoo News to include their apps on the home screen of all its phones.

"When you have content in-house you have a tendency to put your content first," Jang said. "At the end of the day you need balance. What kind of outside content goes with in-house content and creates a unique offering?"

But ecosystem and content aside, brand will remain an important factor in the future of smartphone purchasing, the panelists agreed.

"You walk into a store and look at all the products. It's like a TV business," said Patrick Chomet, group terminals director at Vodafone Group Plc., a European wireless carrier  that sells numerous brands of smartphones. "There will be over time distinctions in size of screen and class, like with the TV business, and that seems to be the case as we currently have these non-differentiated devices. Brand has been important. In 2003 Samsung was up. In 2006 Samsung was down. It's important to differentiate a brand at a given time as people judge products successful at the time."

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