One of - if not the - most innovative new mobile phone concepts coming to market this year is the SmartSkin phone from Wildseed. When it was first revealed a little over a year ago, the SmartSkin idea appeared to be simply "faceplates on steroids". The idea made sense: embedding graphics, ringtones, and games in a matching-theme "smart" faceplate. But since then, the concept has evolved and additional details have become public. There's a whole lot more to SmartSkin phones than just content-enabled faceplates.
First, the phone itself is a solid piece of hardware. Manufactured by Curitel with the model name "Identity", this quad-band GSM phone is reasonably sized and feels well-built. A 65,000-color TFT display, VGA camera, and FM radio lead the list of hardware specs. Under the hood, a 200 MHz Intel xScale processor and 16 MB of RAM give the device more horsepower than just about any other non-smartphone on the market. An additional 32 MB of flash memory provides ample room for photos, recorded ringtones, and other content.
The real surprises, however, are the abundant subtle-but-thoughtful hardware innovations.
First, each key on the keypad has its own individual three-color LED backlight. It makes for some pretty neat light shows for ringtones and music, but that's just the beginning. Like many phones, each number on the keypad can be assigned to a specific contact, activated by holding down that key. But on the Wildseed phone, the lights link to those same contacts for status indicators. So once you've assigned your "top ten friends", a simple glance at the keypad will tell you right away which friends tried to call you recently, and who your pending voice and text messages are from.
Another unique feature is the USB functionality. With an included cable, you can connect the phone to your PC, and all of the flash memory appears instantly as a drive. No special software is required; it works exactly like a keychain USB drive. Not only is the 32 MB of built-in memory available, but any flash memory in the SmartSkin (up to 64 MB) is available to the PC as well.
Finally, the phone includes two headset jacks: one 2.5 mm for phone headsets, and one of the stereo 3.5 mm variety, for music headphones.
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Moving on to the software side of things, Wildseed is really a software company more than anything. Their CEO used to work for Microsoft, where he helped develop their DirectX graphics technology. That heritage shows throughout the OS. All of the themes and menus, (which are completely different for each SmartSkin,) are fully animated, with smooth scrolling and transitions.
The OS is also fully multi-tasking. Applications can run in the background, and everything stays "where you left it" for easy navigation. Also, if you're listening to music, (FM radio or MP3s on a SmartSkin,) the music volume automatically lowers and mixes with the incoming call sound (or you can set it to mute completely, if you prefer.)
Of course, the most visible feature of the phone is the SmartSkin itself. As I mentioned earlier, a SmartSkin can include up to 64 MB of memory, which contains a collection of ringtones and graphics themed to match the skin. It also contains a complete menu theme, and a special menu of live WAP, SMS, and MMS links.
The theme and menu "stick" with phone, so they can be selected later when a different SmartSkin is on the phone. Ringtones and graphics can also be downloaded into the phone, but only once (to one phone,) if they are copyrighted.
Basic skins (as described above) will be available with both generic themes (raver, headbanger, etc.) and also branded themes (Nelly, American Idol, etc.). These kinds of SmartSkins are expected to retail for $25 - $50, depending on branding.
Even more interesting are the "advanced" skins. Extra hardware features can be added via SmartSkins. For example, a Push-To-Talk skin, Bluetooth skin, and megapixel camera skin are all on the drawing board. Certainly a SmartSkin with an integrated camera or Bluetooth would be more convenient than the attachable accessories that snap on to the bottom of other phones.
One key advantage of this approach to hardware is that it takes dramatically less investment to develop a new SmartSkin and bring it to market, compared to the cost of designing a whole new phone. It's also a great way for Wildseed to experiment with new hardware features with little risk, so they can incorporate just the successful ideas in future phone hardware.
The first "advanced" skins to reach the market will be game skins, which will include a joystick and extra buttons specifically tailored for each game. Tilt sensors and other special features can be included on certain game skins.
The Curitel Identity is expected to reach the market early next quarter (about two months). At least one major U.S. carrier will offer the phone; the carrier is expected to be named at the CTIA show next month.