E-TEN Gives Smartphone Trio & Cracking Interview

HTC, look over your shoulder...

If I had to pick my favourite Windows Mobile smartphone manufacturer at the moment it wouldn’t be stuck-in-a-rut-HTC it would be those colourful chaps at E-TEN and this is why…

Today the company gave a formal UK unveiling to three stunning handsets which actually push the boundaries of a sector where features are regularly swapped around but rarely served altogether.

You see, despite addressing both the midrange and the high-end, the ‘X600’, ‘X800’ and ‘M800’ all sport GPS satellite navigation, WiFi, large 2.8in LCDs and Windows Mobile 6 OSes. At the cutting edge, the X800 and M800 also offer HSDPA connectivity and stunning VGA native resolution screens while the latter also sports a slide out Qwerty keyboard to give the TyTN II nightmares.

Ironically, our eagle eyes means we have actually managed to snag each of these individually already – the X800 at Computex in June, the M800 in October and the X600 earlier this month – but with E-TEN CEO Simon Hwang in town for the launch, it did give me some time for a chin wag about his precocious up and coming organisation.

Discussing E-TEN’s impressive rise over the last 18 months Hwang told me that the key was its continued focus on technology, not just for technology’s sake but in trying to give the consumer what they want.

“It has been a challenge for use,” he explained, “in the past we have produced EDGE handsets when the industry (and myself, Simon was too kind to say) pressured us for 3G but the networks were not ready. Instead we have worked on GPS which was a big battle – the battery life, incorporating the antenna – and released it as a differentiator. Now we have 3G when it is more necessary and also VGA screens which we hope will breakthrough in 2008.”

Hwang is right and his approach is refreshingly honest. Even from a journalist’s perspective we can get lost in what the consumer wants and, more importantly, ”needs”. Of course, there is a certain irony in all this because as a Windows Mobile supporter, E-TEN’s product approach is more akin to a certain fruit-based company in Cupertino and I asked if this wasn’t lost on him?

“Yes, there can be a comparison made but as a company we have belief in Microsoft. Microsoft itself is thinking a lot about a new interface for the next version of Windows Mobile. It knows it must change the system to progress and it must not be forgotten that Microsoft is still a young company in the mobile market, its software is still in the early stages. We think it can grow quickly, and the environment (Windows Mobile platform) is vital because it is a known quantity for programmers.”

Despite the likeable CEO’s insistence that E-TEN’s loyalty to Microsoft is strong however it was apparent that third party development was important to him, which brought up another topic: Android.

“We are going to keep watching,” he explained with a note of caution. “Customisation is key, the iPhone, the ‘gPhone’ they are pushing development. We try to push the hardware but we cannot always drive the software but these developments are now pushing the software. At this moment we will stick where we are, but two, three, five years later who knows?”

At this point, I was surprised to learn that although renowned for its hardware, E-TEN itself also has a history in software having worked on real-time stock market monitoring software and Simon told me it would have the ability to design an OS. So why not?

“Because Windows Mobile is an open system and an established system. It has third party support.” That all important term again.

So with a highly productive year behind it, what plans does E-TEN have for next year?

“The smartphone market is getting larger and larger, it is expanding into the consumer space and consumers want more from their phones. Clearly for E-TEN we want a bigger install base and we incubate a lot of technology to do that. We have ruggedized technology for example and more but we know we must keep our focus and release it at the right time, because it is dangerous to look too wide too quickly.”

And what of network deals or rebranding? (E-TEN currently is without a UK or European networking deal to subsidise its handset costs)

“We would not look at rebranding, we are building a brand but to be on a network is vital. We are in talks and we believe with the technology we have got we can make progress.”

I wouldn’t disagree and, to be honest, I’m surprised it hasn’t be snapped up already. Finally, I had to ask, what did he make of the iPhone… “We have a handset coming, a smartphone, for the middle of 2008 which will better that” he explained. Simon told me a little more too, but sadly I’m sworn to secrecy… 😉


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