Forget what the analysts say about markets and growth, there are far too many smartphones chasing far too few committed customers these days. One appears almost every week with some degree of portentous significance. BlackBerrys, Samsungs, Nokias, LGs, and even Palms. With a growing sense of desperation, the makers of mobile handsets just won't give up trying to make the next Apple iPhone.
At first glance, this phenomenon is neatly embodied by the new C6625 ‘Valencia' smartphone, which pairs maker Samsung with Microsoft and Windows Mobile 6.1. Neither is at the top of the smartphone tree, but neither will give up trying to get there, and with its QWERTY keypad, cut-down spec, and small BlackBerry-aping screen, the c6625 looks at first to be another failed attempt in the making.
In fact, the Valencia is more of a pragmatic try at going back to basics by coming come up with a device that is affordable for small business customers while offering them the sort of Office integration features that are supposed to have been the point of Windows Mobile.
Networks and tariffs
In the UK it is being offered free on various small business tariffs from Vodafone and 02, with a labyrinthine number of possible charges, depending on the specific voice, text and email package chosen, and the number of users and length of contract. It can also be bought with a managed Mobile Outlook service tied to Exchange, more details on which can be found on the Vodafone small business website, but remember to take a slide rule to avoid mental overload.
The point is that unlike some of the rival QWERTY smartphones (the Blackberry Curve or Nokia E71), the Samsung can be had for nothing on any of the available plans. That's not necessarily a huge economy per user, but when handing out to a workforce of 100 people that saving can add up.
So what's been ditched to keep the price down?
Not the modest but still clear 262,000 pixel, 320x240 screen, or the decent QWERTY keyboard (no touchscreen here), which are, along with Windows Mobile itself, the bits of the device that people will have the most opinions on. The Valencia is quad-band, which means good roaming, and comes with 3G data via 3.6Mbit/s HSDPA, Bluetooth, an FM radio, a MicroSD slot and, best of all, support for GPS.
There is no Wi-Fi, which will bother a few people even if its helps the claimed 8-day standby battery life from its 1300 mAh Li-Ion battery, and an unremarkable 2 megapixel camera (which still took remarkably well exposed pictures), but neither of these omissions is terribly important for the business user for whom the Samsung was devised. The GPS could be a useful inclusion for road-bound staff but requires a separate application such as ALK's CoPIlot Live 8, which is an extra cost at £25.99 with the UK and Ireland maps. Given the modest screen size it's also not an ideal way to experience in-car GPS in the first place, although that criticism applies to all of its rivals too.
The real case for or against the Valencia is that it runs a operating system, Windows Mobile 6.x, that is two and a half years old. To put that into perspective, this appeared before Apple's market-defining iPhone had made it into the hands of a single customer, which sums up the platform's main problem. It is old, it is old-fashioned, it represents, in fact, the thinking of a decade again when its distant ancestor, Windows Pocket PC, was born.
A new version, 6.5 is promised for this year, but it's not clear to what extent this will change the basic package.
Maturity has some advantages such as stability (at least that is claimed), and the ability to integrate with Windows, if that's much of a recommendation on its own. Most of the world, bar Microsoft itself, now accepts that Windows Mobile will always be an also-ran in the smartphone world, outclassed by better and newer rivals. But one certainty is that it will live on into the future.
Samsung and Vodafone obviously decided they could do a better job of the interface and came up with their own interface skin (which can be changed back to Windows Mobile's rather glum face), and it does very lightly improve usability by making use of five vertically-arranged buttons to access common functions such as contacts, appointments and media.
The interface remains clunky by whatever standards one wants to define that. For instance, finding simple applications such as the alarm clock means burrowing from icon to icon, and there is remarkably little ability to customise the interface to suit individual needs. Doing simple things always seems more complicated than it would on a conventional phone, and is subjectively harder than on a Nokia, BlackBerry, Palm or iPhone.
The arguments for Windows Mobile are much the same as they are for any of Microsoft's operating systems - it helps the user manage the way things were done in the past. You can open Office files (Excel, Word and Powerpoint), Adobe PDFs, and browse the Internet using IE, and add to this from a long list of third-party apps, all of which run OK with the 32-bit STM microprocessor/ 100MB of memory combination.
Samsung is still wedded to its silly proprietary USB data interface, which doubles as the charging socket, but it does allow the device to charge from the USB when it is attached to a laptop. The C2256 could also do with more security out of the box because any data saved on this will have to be locked up using a third-party app, which is hardly ideal. But let's raise a hand for Samsung, for Windows Mobile in its own way, and for their combined ordinariness. Once you get over the bland interface, it does its job quite well. Email is easy to set up, and the 12mm depth of the phone feels very nice in the hand. The keyboard isn't bad for composing emails and texts. It's not that complicated to use. The GPS is handy when wondering around a place like London. Overall, a low-cost way into the QWERTY smartphone world for the small business perhaps, and it supports Office of course, but don't buy it without comparing to some of its more expensive rivals.