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I spent a week in the desert staring at cell phones and came away with the same feeling I had a few weeks before going to CTIA: people are finally starting to understand that user experience matters as much as feature sets when it comes to developing high-end mobile devices.  In other words, the average consumer in the U.S. isn't just looking at the "Free After Contract" section of the phone store anymore, but if they're going to spend $200 or more on a handset, they want something that's functional and fun to use.  Geeks drool over spec sheets, but if your 5 megapixel shooting, GPS-packing uber-phone is chunky and hard to use, the average consumer just isn't going to buy it.  At least not here in the States.

As such most of the focus at CTIA '08 last week in Las Vegas was on two touchscreen phones, neither of which is actually for sale yet: Sprint's Samsung-made Instinct and the second-generation iPhone from Apple. The former was actually launched and shown off (with Beta software), while the latter was all but confirmed by AT&T's CEO to be in stores by mid-June.  Make no mistake about it, Instinct is Sprint's iPhone Killer - even if it's built around a Samsung handset (the F490) that's been available overseas for awhile now.  Sprint's trying to outdo iPhone by packing more features into a very similar form factor with a very similar full touch interface, but all at a lower price and on a faster network.

I got to spend a little time with Instinct a few weeks ago in San Francisco, and a little while longer with the phone at CTIA.  Instinct promises to be a great device offering a bevy of features at a very competitive price.

But it's no iPhone.

The thing that sets iPhone apart is the visceral quality of using the thing.  It's not about megapixels or network speed or any other spec - it's about the feeling of surprise and fun when you flick a finger across the touchscreen for the first time and your Email list, Web page, or photo album responds by scrolling quickly and gracefully for you.  It's like you're some kind of high-tech magician.  Seriously. 

That's what gets people - people who'd never before given a second thought to a $500 cell phone -  hooked on iPhone.  It's all about the experience.  Apple knows that, and that's why they spent years developing a hardened glass, multitouch-capable display that kicks the butt of every other touchscreen on the market.  They knew that while geeks might cry foul at the lack of 3G or video capture, teens and college kids and hip professionals with disposable income would try iPhone in a store and immediately want one.   A few killer apps (Web browsing, Email, iPod) plus an unparalleled user experience equals Apple's absurd profit margins and brand awareness.

That's what happens with nearly every Apple product - you try one for the first time and forget all about specs.  Instead, you get hooked on the experience ... you get hooked on the feeling.

Sprint's Instinct has a ton going for it and will sell by the truckload, at least at first.  I'm still itching to get my hands on a production model that I can really put through it's paces, and it's great to see a cell phone maker besides Apple put so much thought and care into developing a user experience worthy of all it offers feature-wise.  But the first thing I noticed when I tried Instinct out was that the touchscreen didn't respond to my finger flicks quite like iPhone does.  Instinct was good, but that as good. 

That kind of thing matters when you're asking Joe Consumer to drop a few hundred on a new cell phone.  And it matters even more given that Apple's next-gen iPhone is all but sure to hit the streets just in time to steal thunder away from all of this Summer's would-be competitors.

That list of competitors includes the new LG Vu for AT&T which, frankly, left me more impressed than Instinct did.  Vu and Instinct are roughly the same size but Vu felt lighter in my hand in a way that made me think, "Wow, so much tech in there and it's a featherweight!" Vu's menu system is more attractive than Instinct's and the touchscreen was a little more responsive for me.  Then again, Vu lacks Instinct's 3.5mm headphone jack and Sprint is a faster network with better rate plans than AT&T.

It should be a great summer in mobile phone land, and I'm excited for it.  WIth the US economy in decline, people don't have $1 million to buy a new house or $35k to drop on a sports car like they thought they did a year or two ago.  But many of them still have a few hundred bucks for a new toy in the face of so much belt-tightening and penny pinching.  Cell phones are the new toy of choice for many a consumer these days since they combine practical with cool.  Throw some fun into the mix - as Apple did with iPhone - and you've got yourself a multi-billion dollar business.  A sea change is happening in the US mobile market, and I haven't even mentioned HTC's deal to sell phone at Best Buy, Nokia's forthcoming Touch devices, or that Android thing that should finally launch this Summer.

And oh yeah, iPhone 2 should be out in a few months.  Like I said, it should be a fun Summer in  mobile phone land.


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