Touch screen technology is going to help bring smartphones to the broader consumer market in Latin America, phone vendors and analysts agree.
Smartphones are the fastest growing segment of mobile telephony in Latin America, though they still represent less than 5% of total sales, according to consultancy Pyramid Research. Senior analyst with Pyramid Omar Salvador said he does not see smartphone sales taking a big hit from the economic crisis and expects them to represent more than 5% of total sales in 2009.
Traditionally, the smartphone market has consisted mainly of business users, and the phones used mainly for email and messaging. Now, with touch screens, they are a true multimedia device and are therefore more appealing to a wider audience, Salvador told BNamericas.
"Navigation, music, browsing, mobile TV applications such as Youtube, makes them more appealing to the consumer segment. That makes a big difference because the consumer segment is significantly bigger than the business segment in terms of volume and value. We are expecting to see in Latin America smartphones like the BlackBerry Storm, the iPhone and other touch screen phones targeting the consumer segment," Salvador said.
Vendors have recognized Latin American users' passion for chat and other web 2.0 applications and have been introducing a range of models to suit different budgets and different preferences.
Over the last week, RIM (Nasdaq: RIMM), which makes BlackBerry, introduced a touch screen phone called the Storm. LG also has expanded its range of smartphones to try to encompass all the tastes in the market and is aggressively trying to move up from 5th to the 3rd- most sold mobile phone brand in Chile in 2009, the company said during a presentation last week.
According to Oscar Avendaño, mobile director for LG Chile, LG introduced touch screen phones to the Chilean market before the arrival of the iPhone, though those phones were aimed at high-end consumers. The company's recently launched KP570 Cookie is a full touch screen phone designed for the mass market.
"Our differentiating factor is that we've been able to create a solution for every segment of the market," Avendaño told BNamericas.
According to the executive, the profile of the type of user that likes a touch interface "is a young pioneer, an early adopter... Also, there are the young people that are looking for entertainment and those that look for performance," Avendaño said.
RIM's market intelligence manager for Latin America, Roger Crespo, told BNamericas that RIM seeks to have a small, select number of phones that give operators various marketing options when targeting different segments but at the same time do not swamp them with too many handset models.
With the Storm, RIM completes its portfolio that includes the Pearl, which has sure type; the Bold 3G phone and the Curve, both of which have full Qwerty keyboards; and the Flip, a clamshell model.
TO TOUCH OR NOT TO TOUCH
Touch screens provide new ways to interface with a device. There are advantages and disadvantages to this, and at the end of the day it comes down to personal preference.
"Implemented properly, it enhances the use of the phone. Instead of scrolling through different menu items, touch allows users to directly access features. This is more intuitive and efficient than trying to scroll or clicking through multiple items on a page. In that sense, it adds to productivity," mobility analyst with consultancy Gartner, Tuong Nguyen, told BNamericas.
Nonetheless, the analyst does not necessarily believe touch will replace Qwerty; both will co-exist, as there are certain features of Qwerty that cannot be matched, Nguyen said. According to Nguyen, Qwerty is faster and more efficient for intense email usage and texting.
There is also the issue of tactile feedback that one gets when pushing a button on a physical keyboard. With the BlackBerry Storm, a touch-based phone, RIM attempted to add more feedback with its Sure Press screen, which has to be clicked downwards to select the icon requested. This is designed to avoid problems such as accidental dialing when in one's pocket, or the unintentional selection of an option.
"The challenge of touch screens is to be able to write and navigate in a way where someone is completely sure of what they are doing - that their intentions are converted into action," Crespo said.