BARCELONA — Sorry, America; The rest of the smartphone world isn’t all that into you.
There are reasons, of course. Some companies might not want to jump into a gigantic market that often looks like Apple, Samsung and everybody else. The thought of dealing with U.S. wireless carriers, who continue to control a large share of phone distribution, may discourage them. In some cases, they ship phones that won’t work on U.S. networks, or will only work poorly.
Whatever the cause, the results are the same at Mobile World Congress: exhibits abounding with phones that will only make it to the U.S. if visitors pack them in their luggage for gray-market resale.
If the name sounds familiar, you probably have either gray hair or a good recall of telecom history. Nokia — well, HMD Global, a firm started in Finland to restore that brand name after Nokia’s doomed purchase by Microsoft (MSFT) to push its Windows Phone operating system — has drawn an insane amount of attention here for the remake of its classic 3310 feature phone.
“Feature phone,” as you may recall, is polite telecom-speak for “dumb phone.” The new, 49-euro 3310 looks much like the 2000-vintage, candy bar-shaped phone that many of you may have carried in that earlier, simpler time when the lack of mobile browsing and apps allowed a phone’s battery life to be measured in days. The handset’s spec sheet boasts of 22 hours of talk time (remember that being the key metric for a phone?) and a month of standby time. You can also play the classic “Snake.”
But I will be stunned if the average MWC attendee buys this thing for anything other than ironic reasons — seriously, who wants to go back to triple-tapping on a numeric keypad to type letters? U.S. buyers, however, won’t have that option at all: The phone relies on 2G signals that are currently being herded to extinction in the States.
Huawei may be the third-largest phone vendor in the world after Apple (AAPL) and Samsung, but it remains an asterisk in the U.S. One big reason: its habit of leaving the U.S. out of the distribution plans for its highest-profile phones like the P10 and P10 Plus it introduced here.
The headline features of these Android phones, priced at 649 euros and 699 euros, respectively, are cameras developed with the renowned German firm Leica that feature 20 megapixels of resolution on the back and 12 MP up front. To test that out, I took a self-portrait and then made the mistake of going too far with the “beauty effects” in the P10’s camera app — with my eyes enlarged, my skin smoothed and my face narrowed, I looked like an alien from Planet Selfie.
Huawei also made major alterations to the stock Android interface by replacing the traditional Back and Recent Apps buttons in favor of a “navigation key” button that you can swipe or tap across. So maybe it’s a good thing the P10 and P10 Plus will remain persona non grata in the U.S. market.
ZTE Blade V8 Lite
ZTE has carved out a respectable niche in the U.S., selling capable phones to prepaid users at affordable prices. And the Blade V8 Light could be the company’s next winner.
Although the Blade V8 Lite’s 5-inch screen, 16GB of internal storage and 8-MP rear camera might seem a little scrawny, its inclusion of a fingerprint sensor gives it security similar to more expensive devices. Huawei also added an unusual feature that many of MWC’s far-flung attendees could appreciate: built-in support for the Goodspeed international roaming provided by the Finnish firm Uros, Ltd.
Although ZTE hasn’t announced a price, Uros has started taking orders for it on Amazon at 159 pounds or about $197. Any price in dollars, however, will have to include the cost of having one couriered across the Atlantic.
General Mobile GM 6
Google’s Android One, the project launched in 2014 to make Android both affordable and more secure in the developing world, is not as dead as the lack of recent attention to it might suggest. For proof, look no further than General Mobile’s GM 6. This Android One device features a 5-inch screen, 13-MP rear and 8-MP front cameras (the front one includes a flash, an unusual feature even in a show as selfie-obsessed as MWC), 32GB of onboard storage and a microSD card slot to augment that, a fingerprint sensor and even an FM radio. And like other Android One phones, it gets software updates direct from Google.
General Mobile hasn’t announced a price, but the whole point of Android One is to make Google’s phone platform as affordable as possible — The first such phone, launched in India in 2014, sold for just $105. According to The Information Google now plans to bring Android One to the U.S. this summer — but this phone and this company won’t be a part of that launch.
The punch line: General Mobile was founded in the U.S. and counts New York as one of its three locations, along with Istanbul and Dubai.
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