Majority report

Tom Cruise had his eye on me.

It bored into my soul with an unusual intensity, demanding my attention and daring me to look away. I didn’t. I knew I was being summoned, and I was ready to obey.

And that was just one of the movie star’s eyes, an image of which Nokia placed on

the display of its 9290 mobile phone for a picture on the invitation to its product launch and a screening of Cruise’s new movie, Minority Report.

The screening and launch party were held at the Paramount theatre, which sits at the corner of John and Richmond Street in downtown Toronto. It was a noisy mix of video arcade games, screaming kids at the concession stands and rooms filled with THX sound blasting from the speakers. Not a bad setting for an action adventure story set in the year 2054, where Cruise’s character becomes the victim of technology that predicts murders before they occur.

Just a few feet away from the theatre, camped out like an enemy force preparing to storm the fortress walls, Ericsson Canada had parked its “”Drive to 3G”” trailer, where it introduced four handsets of its own. The two companies, both struggling to convince a reluctant public to buy new devices, sit at nearly opposite ends of the market share spectrum, as the marketing strategies on display Monday night proved. While Nokia had little difficulty drawing a crowd to the Paramount’s VIP lounge, Ericsson was busy taking its act on the road.

Two years ago, when I went to hear Ericsson president Kurt Hellstrom speak at Comdex Fall in Las Vegas, Nev., I was surprised to see a rare instance of an IT vendor acknowledging its mistakes. Ericsson had bungled the handset market, Hellstrom said, by waging a price war that only ate into its own margins (tell it to the processor or PC makers, Kurt). Though it has fairly large research and development resources (including a large centre in Montreal), Hellstrom said Ericsson would partner its way to success with a like-minded company. That partner turned out to be Sony, with whom it formed a joint venture last year. So far the results have been unimpressive. Its market share fell 6.4 per cent according to IDC, and it still lags behind Motorola, Samsung and Siemens, which are Nokia’s real competition.

These are early days, of course, and Sony is not a bad choice for a company that needs to gain more traction outside its native Sweden. Sony has developed a lot of brand cachet with consumers through its retail stores that show off its camcorders, TV sets and stereos. Ericsson may be able to look cool by association, if it’s lucky.

Nokia needs no such partnership. It’s considered cool enough that Minority Report director Stephen Spielberg’s preproduction team consulted with its staff, as part of a panel of futurists, to conceive the kind of gadgetry we might see in the future. Maybe part of Nokia’s compensation was its prominent brand placement in the film. At one point, a government official flips up a transparent display screen which he uses as a sort of laptop. The word “”Nokia”” is etched in the upper-left corner, and the camera cuts back to it about three times.

The irony is that only once in the film do characters use anything remotely resembling the cell phones it offers today. The 9290 and Sony Ericsson’s T300 both offer Internet surfing and the ability to capture and store photos. I don’t think it’s spoiling Minority Report to say that the movie’s climax includes a cell phone conversation where the device is little more than an ear piece — no added browsing functionality at all. It didn’t even have a display.

Maybe Minority Report is itself a projection of the future, where the handset wars have ended and the phone makers realize all we want is basic voice access. Until then, Ericsson will be taking the 3G trailer across the country to prove otherwise, while Nokia remains on Cruise control.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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