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(News Focus) Android smartphone makers strive to stand out
By Lee Youkyung
SEOUL, Feb. 22 (Yonhap) -- With Apple Inc.'s absence and the alliance between Nokia Corp. and Microsoft Corp. in the fledgling stage, a recent global mobile fair in Barcelona highlighted one of the biggest challenges mobile hardware vendors face these days: how to stand out among a flurry of Android smartphones.

   All new smartphones announced during the Mobile World Congress last week were based on Google Inc.'s Android platform, with an identical home screen and short cuts to Google's map, search, Android market and voice services.

   That means new smartphones hitting shelves in the next two months or so will all run on a similar Android platform.

   But so-called commoditization, a term that hearkens back to the personal computer industry where a fierce price competition among Windows-based hardware vendors made PCs cheap and undifferentiated commodities, has yet to befall Android smartphones, according to Google officials and the company's mobile phone partners.

   "There is an incredible amount of differentiation going on," Andy Rubin, a vice president for engineering at Google, told reporters last week in Barcelona.

   "Each of our partners has the area they excel at, and they are showing devices that highlight their strength," said Jongyeong Lee, a manager at Google who gave guided tours at Google's Android booth during the mobile fair. "Samsung has displays, LG has 3-D, HTC has smartphones and Sony has games."

   Samsung Electronics Co., among the world's largest vendors of Android mobile devices, announced the second generation of its flagship Galaxy S smartphone last week with an updated screen, sporting vivid and bright colors on a wider display.

   "What do consumers want? They want a big screen. All manufacturers are scaling up the size of the screen," said an official at Samsung's mobile division. "But they also want something thin and light."

   The screen was one of the three elements that Samsung Electronics -- which started out as a TV maker in the 1970s -- thinks will distinguish the next generation of smartphones, along with speed and content.

   LG Electronics Inc., the world's third-largest mobile phone maker after Nokia and Samsung, added 3-D features to its new Android smartphone and tablet computer, hoping to add a premium price to its high-end lineup.

   LG said its Optimus 3D smartphone can record, play back and share 3-D videos without the user wearing a pair of special glasses to view the content. Visitors to LG Electronics' booth at the mobile fair were seen playing 3-D games, such as car racing, on the Optimus 3D.

   "In 2009 and 2010, a lot of companies made a big push into 3-D and produced 3-D content," Park Jong-seok, president and chief executive of LG's mobile communications division, told reporters in Barcelona. "The cost we invest in 3-D is a good cost. We can get higher prices (from buyers)."

   But it was the gaming smartphone from Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB that was probably the most successful in singling itself out in the sea of Android.

   Many consumers are likely to view the Xperia Play as the smartphone version of Sony's famed PlayStation before they even notice its affiliation with Google's Android.

   The Xperia Play has a control pad that slides out from the square body akin to a touch-based smartphone. The game pad reveals touch pads, buttons and PlayStation icons, which enable complex manipulations that enthuse users of Sony's console games.

   "On top of the touch-based user interface that absorbs all basic, casual games from the Android marketplace, this gaming pad allows playing difficult, hard-core console games as well," said Park Sang-tae, a senior marketing manager at Sony Ericsson.

The Xperia play, a PlayStation certified smartphone by Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB. (AP-Yonhap)

Google's top management touted such a trend in Android smartphones as the result of the open, adaptable nature of their platform.

   "Android is well-suited because it is an OS that somebody can take and adapt to a local market," said Google's Rubin.

   "You have the base platform, and you have the ability to add value and let the customers decide if they like that value added or not," said Eric Schmidt, Google's chief executive officer.

   But the wealth of choices within Android devices demonstrated during the mobile trade show does not mean that Android is the sole option for consumers.

   Despite all the buzz and fanfare new Android smartphones generated on the stage, the winner of the 16th Annual Global Mobile Awards announced during the mobile fair went to Android's biggest rival -- the iPhone.

   "Great screen, sharp design, fantastic materials and phenomenal ecosystem for app developers. In a tight race, the iPhone 4 built on the success of its predecessors to set the pace for smartphones," the jury said of the winner of the best mobile device award. Nominees included Samsung's Galaxy S and HTC's Desire, both built on the Android platform.

Google Inc.'s Android booth at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona from Feb. 14-17. (AP-Yonhap)