NEC 232: Curves, and the Future of Mobiles

nec-e232.jpgIf you want a glimpse of where mobile phones are heading, look no further than NEC’s 232. An unremarkable, if technically solid tri-band GSM phone available in November, the 232 is NEC’s attempt to move past the mass market for cellphones. In a partnership with Fitness magazine, the 232 will come pre-loaded with a number of fitness applications—BMI index, calorie counting, max heart rate tracking, etc—designed to appeal to women interested in tracking their fitness routines.
This is where the mobile industry is heading. Whether the 232 proves popular, and I suspect it won’t attract a huge audience, it’s interesting primarily because it shows phone manufacturers segmenting the mobile market into specific populations, each to be tackled separately. In NEC’s case, they’ve focused on women. NEC will run full color ads in fitness magazines to raise awareness about their 232, positioning it as a quick way to keep track of your exercise regime. Think of it as the Curves-gym style approach to cell phones: NEC reps told me the goal is to give women a tool to let them maximize the benefits of the time they spend working out. (A similar convenience-focused, fitness philosophy helped Curves become the fastest growing franchise in US history.)

It’s a smart strategy for NEC too. Trying to claw its way back into the domestic GSM market, after completely missing the boat on TDMA and CDMA, NEC competes in a market dominated by folks like Nokia and Sony Ericsson. NEC wisely realizes they’ll have to play a different game to make a name for themselves here. Which is not to say the 232 isn’t a solid phone, even without the unique marketing play. At just $249, the phone is EDGE-enabled, has a VGA camera and 5MB of available memory. Not bad for an entry-level consumer phone. Finally, high-speed cellular data is becoming a reality for the masses.
Bottom line, segmentation is the future. Mobile penetration in most of the big cell phone markets—India being a huge exception—sits well north of 60 percent. Price competition is fierce for carriers and phone-makers alike, so both are desperate for mean to reach specific subsets, build a little loyalty, and hopefully milk a few extra dollars on data services. Nokia knows this. The N-Gage is an early example of this trend, and side-talkin’ or not, it was a smart move the part of the Finns. As comrade Malik wisely pointed out, Samsung realizes this as well:

Well in an effort to spread this message, they have repeatedly teamed up with fashion designers, especially in emerging markets such as India. However, they are now bringing that model to the US. They have teamed up with Vogue, and Diane von Furstenberg to develop a new line of products.

Expect more experimentation along those lines, from all of the major phone makers.
Guest review by Matt Maier, Business 2.0’s fearless gizmo correspondent and my fellow traveler into the wireless wonderland. Matt uses six phones at a time, talks on none, takes video clips on two and when he is slowing down he double fists fizzy and fancy caffeine drinks.