Are there too many smartphones on the market?

Microsoft manager at CES talks about iPhone's impact

Are there too many smartphones on the market?

That and other provocative questions were posed during a CES panel discussion Thursday between journalists for the The Verge and managers for Windows Phone at Microsoft and smartphone makers HTC and Samsung.

The question of whether there are too many smartphone variations on the market was partly incited by Motorola CEO Sanjay Jha's comment at CES that the company plans to make fewer phones in 2012.

The HTC and Samsung officials agreed there is a profundity of smartphone choices with little to distinguish some of them, but they also argued that competition and demands from users have led to the proliferation of devices. Add in frequent OS changes and the need to have devices at different prices, and the result is a surfeit of phones on the market, they said.

But Josh Topolsky, editor-in-chief of The Verge, would have none of it, asking: "Is this the kind of [b.s.] we need, with all these products in the market? Are we trying to create demand where there isn't any?"

Topolsky tried to inject humor into the issue, noting that AT&T has put on sale five nearly identical HTC smartphones at the same time. Nilay Patel, managing editor at The Verge, joked he spends two hours a day counting smartphones from various manufacturers.

Ryan Biden, Samsung's director of product management for mobility, said he agreed that there is a "proliferation problem" in the number of models on the market. "There should be a drive toward optimization."

But Biden and Drew Bamford, HTC's executive vice president for user experience, could not say whether their companies plan to reduce the number of smartphones they will release in 2012.

The audience applauded when one person asked whether HTC and Samsung could release more Android phones that are pure Google, without the added "skin," or interface, provided by HTC and Samsung.

Bamford responded that all the makers want to provide a unique experience for customers, and did note that HTC makes phones that can be "rooted" to bring them back to pure the Google OS.

Some of the most poignant remarks came from Microsoft's director of Windows Phone marketing, Aaron Woodman. Questions arose about how a powerful, successful company like Microsoft could be so far behind Apple in building a successful phone and whether Windows Phone was more or less a reaction to Apple's iPhone.

"In our company, we love the industry so we talk about Apple a lot, but the Windows Phone is so different than the iPhone," Woodman said. "I have no desire to be Apple; it's not in our DNA. We feel really proud of our differences."

Still, Woodman added that in designing and even conceiving of a Windows Phone, Microsoft's "time horizon was much longer.... Apple [iPhone] forced a conversation [with Microsoft] to look at the whole consumer who was employed and listened to music [and did other things with technology]. Windows Phone was not a reaction to the [iPhone] product, but a realization of the acceleration of change, and it was kind of faster than we were on pace to do."

Want more on CES? See our roundup of everything you need to know from CES and our interactive chart of top CES product launches.

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Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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