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Smart Phones Starting to Look Alike

As I reviewed the recently relesed Droid X cell phone, I started thinking about my long career as a technology journalist.

I got my start in the early ’80s writing exclusively about personal computers, starting with the Apple II, followed by the IBM PC, PC clones and the Mac. Like the handful of other computer journalists at the time, I would quickly get my hands on just about every new machine that came to market, testing the speed of its processor and noting how many kilobytes of memory it had. I would carefully inspect the screen to see if the resolution was any better than its competitors and peck at the keyboard to see if it was suitable for a touch typist. Often, I’d come across a model that stood out from the competition and occasionally I’d find one that was not worth recommending. But what I remember most about those early PC years was the pace of change as PC makers struggled to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Today’s PCs are, of course, a lot better than anything on the market back then. But in many ways they’re not as interesting. That’s because virtually all of them do exactly what they’re designed to do in pretty much the same manner as their competition. Macs and Windows PCs are different, but fundamentally they perform the same tasks.

There are occasional interesting moments — such as when Apple or Microsoft releases a new operating system or a PC maker incorporates something particularly

innovative, like a touch screen or a solid state drive. But even to a trained eye, most of the machines on the market look and function pretty much like the models they’re replacing.

So, instead of getting excited about PCs, the now greatly expanded corps of technology journalists and bloggers are all gaga over the newest smartphones. Anything with an Apple logo on it gets the most attention as we slice, dice and dissect every new iPhone released, singing its praises and damning its flaws.

The tech press is also eager to get its hands on new Android phones to see if any qualify as an “iPhone killer,” or just to compare the latest processor with the one it replaced or the latest smartphone screen with all the others on the market.

I certainly did that in my review of the Droid X that appeared in last week’s Palo Alto Daily News (owned by the same publisher as the Mercury News). But as I was writing the review, I started to wonder when we’ll get to the same point with smartphones that we have reached with PCs. It won’t happen right away because the smartphone industry is still in flux. There are lots of interesting and, in some cases, profitable apps being written for smartphones and we’re about to see a whole new smartphone platform when Microsoft releases its Windows 7 Mobile operating system later this year.

Still, to this reviewer, some of the new phones are starting to look a lot like others on the market.

For example, the Droid X has the same size screen (4.3 inch) as the HTC Evo that Sprint started selling (for the same $199) a couple of weeks ago. It runs the same Android 2.1 operating system (albeit with some minor differences engineered by Motorola and HTC) and the same Android apps. It has the same excellent Google Maps with turn-by-turn directions, and its camera has the same 8-megapixel resolution as the Evo, although the Evo comes with both a front and rear camera. For a fee ($20 for the Droid X and $30 for the Evo), they both can create their own Wi-Fi hotspot, which is a really useful feature if you need to get a PC on the Net and have no other Wi-Fi nearby.

Even when I compare the Droid X with the original Motorola Droid, which came out in late 2009, the similarities are greater than the differences. Sure, the original has a slide out physical keyboard, only a 5-megapixel camera and a slower processor, but they both run the same operating system and the same applications. And, yes, they both make phone calls.

Even Apple’s iPhone 4 isn’t as unique as the company’s “This changes everything” ads suggest. Sure, there are new features. But fundamentally, it’s a refinement over previous iPhones and not all that different from Android phones.

Yes, the iPhone has FaceTime, iMovie, Apple’s legendary ease of use and a really high-resolution screen, but the Evo has videoconferencing and there are video editing programs for Android and more on the way. And while the iPhone screen does look better than the Droid X’s when you place them side by side, I don’t recall anyone clamoring for higher resolution on screens that are small enough to fit in our pocket.

That’s not to say there aren’t other differences or to deny that there will be some who swear by one platform and swear at the other. But at the end of the day, they’re all wonders of modern technology.

I guess it has something to do with perspective. The first “portable” cell phone I used came in a bag and was too heavy to carry around without a shoulder strap. Come to think of it, I also remember the time when phones were tethered to a wire, and even recall having to use a rotary dial to make calls and pay as much as $3 a minute to place a call from one part of the U.S. to another. But, as cranky as this column may make me seem, I don’t remember having to turn a crank to make a call.

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