Ina Fried

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As Smartphones Go Mainstream, the Industry Works to Make Them Mom-and-Pop Friendly

Once the purview of corporate road warriors and hard-core geeks, the smartphone is now the device of choice for the majority of phone buyers who are due for an upgrade. As a result, carriers around the world are shifting their approach in how they develop, market and sell the devices.

The early period of the smartphone is probably typified by Verizon’s successful Droid campaign, which focused heavily on the technical muscle of the device. Although that campaign continues, today’s carriers are at least as concerned with how to make smartphones appear easy and approachable to those moving up from feature phones.

At France Telecom, which sells phones in dozens of countries worldwide, 45 percent of all devices sold last year were smartphones, prompting the company to create a bunch of new services aimed at making the transition easier. A quarter of its customers sign up for at least one of the Orange Care services, which range from backing up contacts to call-in support.

The company is also setting up a “get started with smartphone” service that it expects to have up and running in 13 countries by the end of this month. In 300 of its stores, Orange plans to set up “Care Corners” dedicated to offering paid-for specialist support, especially help getting started.

“We want to democratize the smartphone,” said Olaf Swantee, senior executive vice president for France Telecom’s Orange unit.

Here in the U.S., carriers and device makers are also tweaking their pitch. Sprint, for example, has focused on a set of Sprint ID packs that allow Android newbies to get up and running with a collection of apps and widgets that match their interests. The concept was first introduced at the CTIA show in 2010 with partners such as Disney, MTV and ESPN. Since then, the carrier has continued to roll out new themed collections, including a NASCAR pack, a “green” pack to go along with its first eco-centric Android device and a Relay ID pack aimed at the hearing-impaired community.

“Smartphones are already mainstream,” an AT&T representative said, noting that the company sold more than 5.5 million smartphones last quarter, with smartphones accounting for nearly two-thirds of new sales to contract customers.

At the same time, even the father of Android admits that the operating system is still geared mainly to techies.

“I would probably characterize Android as it is today as an early adopters’ platform,” Google’s Andy Rubin said at last December’s D: Dive Into Mobile conference. “It’s for the tech enthusiast and people who are married to the tech enthusiast.”

Both Google and those that make Android devices, of course, are trying to change that. Samsung, HTC, Sony Ericsson, Motorola and other Android phone makers all offer their own custom user interfaces designed to make Android simpler to use.

Microsoft, for its part, has made a big part of its Windows Phone 7 pitch the idea that it is offering a smartphone for the masses. Its early ads focused on it being a phone designed to fit into, rather than take over, one’s life.

And while the exact smartphone share numbers vary somewhat in different countries, the rise in adoption and surge in mobile data use is a global phenomenon, Swantee said.

“We have countries where the GDP is $2,500 (per person),” Swantee said. “And we have countries like Switzerland where the GDP per head is in excess of $45,000. The countries all move to these products.”

The price of the devices does tend to vary by country. While the iPhone and high-end Android devices dominate in Western Europe and North America, emerging markets have seen strong sales of lower-end devices, including offerings from Nokia and Research In Motion. Increasingly, though, Android is also playing in these countries, with devices that sell for well below $100 unsubsidized expected to be available this year. In Africa, France Telecom is selling an Alcatel-branded device that offers limited data access and costs just $25.

“Mobile Internet is quickly becoming intrinsic in many people’s life,” said France Telecom Executive Vice President Anne Bouverot. “That drives quite a similar demand (worldwide).”

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