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Mi-fone, Nokia, Sony, knock at Samsung door

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By targeting specific market segments, rival phone makers are taking on the seemingly unstoppable Samsung and Apple, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

A flood of new smartphones is arriving on the market in the coming weeks, and all have one thing in common: each appeals to a very specific target market, carefully tailoring its features, attractions and differentiators to the wallet of the target audience.

The flagship phones from the big brands will capture most media attention, while the low-cost phones will truly transform the market.

Exhibit A: The Mi-fone range of smartphones. Billed as the first African mobile device brand, most of its models sell at well under R1000, and target the mass market in African and the Middle East. At the top of the range, a series of smartphones run on the Android operating system.

The entry-level Android model, the Mi-A100, includes two killer features that are rare on high-end smartphones: FM radio, and dual-SIM capacity, which allows users to have SIM cards from rival networks in the same phone. FM is one of the most common requirements among buyers of low-end phones: dual-SIM meets a demand that has largely been ignored by manufacturers over the years, for fear of offending mobile operators who take a dim view of sharing space with competitors.

The Mi-A100 does not have the most responsive touchscreen around, and including Angry Birds is probably a waste, given the game’s demands on responsiveness. However, the Android 2.2 or Froyo operating system and built-in WiFi offers the mass market entr√©e into the world of apps, web-based e-mail and social networks. Shop around, and you can find this one at well under R1000.

Exhibit B: The Nokia Lumia 710, the baby brother of the Lumia 900 launched in South Africa earlier this year. Not as elegant or sleek as the high-end phone, this is a mid-market device that comes in at under R3000, but packs in a range of content offerings, like Nokia Drive, with Turn-by-turn navigation: Nokia Music, giving access to the Nokia Music Store through the cool Windows Phone interface: and the Xbox Live gaming interface. It runs on Windows Phone 7.5, offering a taste of the upcoming Windows 8 operating system that will run on phones, tablets and computers.

Exhibit C: Somewhat further along the cost spectrum ‚ expected to hit the shelves at around the R4000-R5000 mark ‚ is the new Sony Experia S, due in South Africa in the coming month. It is the first Sony phone to drop the partner Ericsson brand, and it is a thing of beauty. Running on Android 2.3 or Gingerbread, it is the design of the phone and Sony’s customized user interface, rather than the features, that will sell it.

Resting on its side, it resembles nothing less than a miniature flat-screen TV set. The impression is emphasized by a sharp LCD HD Reality display on a 4.3‚ screen that rivals anything produced by Apple or Samsung. The screen, along with a 12MP camera, allows for 1080p HD video recording and playback – i.e. as sharp as anything you can see on a high-definition TV screen. A 1.3MP front facing camera enables 720p HD video chat. Add 16x digital zoom, autofocus and 3D Sweep Panorama to the main camera, and it begins to sound like something you would buy in an audio-visual store rather than from a phone outlet.

A transparent strip at the bottom of the phone lights up to show off the three main control buttons ‚ similar to those on any other Android phone, but never before housed in such a dazzling setting. In design appeal, the Experia S knocks the spots off the iPhone.

Exhibit D: The Samsung Galaxy S3 will be launched in London on May 3, and is already creating an iPhone-type buzz ‚ a first for a non-Apple phone. Rumour sites have been set up to track market predictions. Key among these, and almost obviously: it will be a 4G phone with a 4.6‚ screen, run on Android 4.0, better known as Ice Cream Sandwich, and sell at more than R8000. Such is the hype, every expectation is that it will be the high-end phone of the year, even at a high-end price to match.

* Arthur Goldstuck is editor-in-chief of Gadget and heads up World Wide Worx. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee

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