When mobile phones first hit the market in the 1980s, they were as much a status symbol – and a bold one at that – as a productivity tool. The first generation of cellular phones were cumbersome, had poor battery life and variable call quality. They were also large, almost ostentatiously so.

Today’s executive can choose between dozens of devices, ranging from the tiny and discreet to handsets that rival a laptop computer in functionality, if not in cost and size. While the 1980s phone was good only for voice, today’s business handset must handle e-mail, web browsing, business applications such as customer relationship management and entertainment.

This has forged a generation of so-called smart phones. Unlike basic mobile handsets, these devices typically have an operating system, typically Symbian, Microsoft’s Windows Mobile or the Palm OS. They might also have a keyboard, pen-based input and handwriting recognition, and connections to Wi-Fi networks.

The clearest examples of this trend are Nokia’s 9500 Communicator and the T-Mobile MDA Pro, made by Taiwan’s HTC. The Communicator is a hefty piece of equipment based on the Symbian OS, with a decent-sized screen and keyboard and a Wi-Fi as well as a cellular connection.

The MDA Pro is akin to a smaller version of a tablet PC, with a keyboard and a screen that swivels for using the device with its stylus. As well as WiFi, the MDA Pro can connect to 2G and 3G mobile networks. SonyEricsson’s P990 smartphone, due out early next year, will also combine 3G and Wi-Fi with a keyboard and pen input.

These phones are aimed at high-end users, especially knowledge workers and the self-employed. The manufacturers and network operators expect that many will be bought by individuals, and then connected to the corporate network. Unsubsidised, such gadgets will cost in excess of €500, but they offer power and functions previously only available in a laptop PC.

Slightly simpler devices such as the Nokia 9300 and HP’s 6500 Messenger series do away with the 3G and WiFi connections, relying on Edge and GPRS networks. For many business users, this offers good enough connectivity.

For HP, it was a question of balancing the feature set with the need to bring devices to market. GPS location services, Edge support and an integrated keyboard were more urgent than WiFi for European business users, according to Alberto Bozzo, who manages HP’s iPaq business in EMEA.

Increasingly, manufacturers will tailor their business phones for the needs of specific markets as well as individual operators. HTC’s MDA Pro is also available, with some software differences, as the M5000 from European operator Orange.

HP produces versions of its 6500 Messenger both with and without a camera.

This flexibility shows how important business phones are, in terms of revenue if not numbers shipped. Some businesses will rely heavily on cameras in their devices; others would rather not have them at all. What they will want, however, is consistency in both software and accessories between devices.

Nokia’s decision to brand its new enterprise-focused range of phones as the E Series is a conscious decision, according to Tom Farrell, Nokia’s director of strategy for its enterprise division. In the way that BMW makes a number of different 3 Series cars, so Nokia has designed business phones, aimed at slightly different types of user. IT departments know that software for one handset should also work with other devices in the series.

But manufacturers have to appeal to the individual user as well as to IT administrators. Managers often specify and sometimes pay for their phones, so handset makers neglect entertainment features at their peril.

“These devices are very personal,” says Suzan DelBane, of Microsoft’s mobile and embedded devices division. “There is a work element and a personal element, such as fashion, size and whether or not the device has a keyboard.”

The challenge for phone designers is to marry these functions without compromising the feature everyone uses most of all: voice calls.

Jawad Shaikh, who heads the telecoms, media and entertainment research lab at consultants CapGemini, agrees.

“The two-minute phone call is still the basic service, and the main reason business people carry mobiles,” he says.

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