Smartphone Makers Turn Desperate

There are days when I could chuck my smartphone into the Hudson River. Waiting in an empty shuttle to ride across Manhattan from Nokia's Luma 920 launch to Motorola's Razr debut, I felt like a rope in the manufacturers' game of tug-of-war. The battle for mobile supremacy has turned nasty.

Motorola and Nokia made splashy announcements of their newest smartphones yesterday in New York City. Motorola, newly a Google subsidiary, introduced its Android-based Droid Razr HD, Razr Maxx HD, and Razr M. Nokia debuted the Lumia 820 and 920 running Windows Phone 8. The two companies are depending on these products to boost their bottom lines heading into the holiday season, and it behooves them to make waves ahead of next week's release of Apple’s iPhone 5. 

But smartphone announcements have become a traveling circus as manufacturers attempt to one-up each other. Nokia invited the press to its NYC announcement in mid-August. Motorola scheduled its own announcement for the same day, proclaiming it to be “the day’s main event.”

The press assembled early in the morning for Nokia’s show on the Lower West Side. The tail end of Hurricane Isaac made it uncomfortably humid before torrential rains fell, causing journalists, bloggers and analysts to huddle under tents Nokia had set up outside the building. Once inside, the mass was greeted with a sight familiar to those who often attend such events: a dark room bathed in soft blue light (that made taking pictures difficult) and an incessant chime of background music that cut straight to the brain. 

Nokia’s CEO Stephen Elop came up first and spouted the usual mess of triumph and hope for a company that has laid off thousands of employees in the last couple of years. Several other Nokia and Microsoft executives followed, showing off the Lumia’s new camera features and aspects of Windows Phone 8. Kevin Shields, a senior vice president at Nokia, showed off the Lumia 920’s responsiveness when handled with mittens. 

The surprise came at the end, as is the fashion of these shindigs. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, never before on hand for a Nokia Windows Phone event, took the stage and boomed through the microphone, extolling the virtues of Windows Phone 8 and Nokia. The assembled multitude responded with tepid applause.

Which brings us to the empty shuttle. 

After the speeches and requisite hands-on time with the new devices, Nokia announced that it would provide a shuttle to the Motorola event. This was confusing, especially to people who had already arranged to take a shuttle offered by Motorola. 

Then came Nokia and Microsoft’s “fuck you” to Google and Motorola.

The shuttle heading to the Motorola event at Gotham hall in midtown was a big blue bus with giant “I Heart Nokia” on the side. No doubt Nokia thought it would be hilarious to ferry analysts and reporters to the Razr announcement in a bus proclaiming love for itself. Nokia representatives shepherded reporters to the bus, deftly turning them away from a smaller Motorola shuttle that was forced to park around the corner, out of sight. I stepped on the Nokia bus, dropped off my bag and stepped outside to see what was up with Motorola.

I didn’t want to play this game. I didn’t want to be part of Nokia’s underhanded machinations and its subtle dig at Motorola. It left a bad taste in my mouth.

So I got my stuff from the “I Heart Nokia” bus and went to the Motorola shuttle, joining several slightly distraught Motorola representatives (hired hands from a local marketing firm), and waited. The Motorola reps tried to rustle up some company for me on the shuttle, but no luck. So I found myself in the absurd situation of being the only person on the bus across the city, chatting with the driver, a nice fellow named Mike who liked to honk at pretty women on the street.

Mike dropped me off at Gotham Hall. Inside, Motorola’s setup was vaguely similar to Nokia’s: the same dark room and soft blue light and a stage offset with giant screens in the background. Yet, instead of a podium, there was a setup for a band, with drums, guitars and a keyboard. The reporters looked at each other, shrugged, opened their laptops and tried to catch up with material they hadn’t posted from Nokia.

About 20 minutes before the scheduled start, a band called The Kin picked up the instruments and launched into their set. The reporters hardly looked up from their keyboards. At one point, the lead singer said something along the line of, “We like to get people to sing along. I know you are a bunch of reporters but . . . yeah.” The Kin found no kindred spirits in this crowd.

The superstars then made their way to the stage. Google’s chairman Erik Schmidt was the first, followed by Motorola CEO Dennis Woodside. The only people missing were Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The usual routine commenced, three new devices and a message of triumph and hope. 

The details of the journey of through day, while amusing, don't convey the larger picture. The showmanship of the mobile industry, the sniping between companies, the big announcements that fail to live up to the hype, big names dropped to impress the crowd and all the rest show an industry that has allowed competition to turn it into a caricature of itself. 

Above it all, like an ominous thundercloud, floats Apple. Motorola, Nokia, Google, Microsoft and Amazon (which is announcing its new products today in Santa Monica) all need to stake down their tents before Apple blows in next week with its iPhone 5. The rhetoric, pomp and flash are a desperate bid to attract some attention, any attention, before the real show arrives.

Consumers, like this reporter, are caught in the crosshairs, toppled about through the maelstrom, waiting for the next great smartphone.