Nokia gets serious about touchscreens as Apple and Palm gear up

by Caroline Gabriel, ReThink Wireless

The handset sector is in a state of suspended animation, as everyone waits for a series of key new announcements, that could provide a kickstart after the depressed first quarter. A firm shipment date for Palm Pre, new iPhones, and serious touchscreen moves from Nokia – these are top of the industry’s wish list, while RIM is working hard to keep up the momentum for its Bold and Storm 3G phones ahead of the new challenges.

The rampant speculation about how new iPhones may look was stimulated further last week by a research note from Lazard Capital Markets, reporting that Apple has ordered 100m units of 8Gb and 16Gb NAND flash memory chips, mainly from Samsung. Analyst Daniel Amir took this to mean that a 32Gb iPhone would appear in June, rather than anticipating a dramatic increase in 16Gb phone production – given that Apple partners are trying to offload 16Gb models in anticipation of a new launch. Not that this has been entirely successful – insiders in O2 UK told Mobile Today that cut-price offers for the 3G iPhone have seen low take-up, because they still entail signing hefty contracts – a free iPhone requires a 24-month contract priced at between €35 and €45 a month. O2 is ramping up promotions and diverting further subsidy budget to the Apple device, as it seeks to meet its sales targets, say the sources.

“Historically, Apple’s orders with Samsung have been for iPhone flash, since Samsung has worked with Apple in developing special packaging for the iPhone,” Amir said.

Meanwhile, Gizmodo has seen internal emails sent to Sprint retail employees informing them that training for the Pre launch is about to begin, and cancelling May holiday leave, which could mean the much anticipated handset will hit its target of shipping before mid-year after all. The sources say there are two launch scenarios outlined – depending on the finalization of testing and the ability to ramp up manufacturing in time. The first would see a May 17 launch, but if this proves non-viable, the roll-out would be delayed until June 29, just within the half-year deadline.

Meanwhile, Palm is not the only smartphone maker signing up Apple expertise to boost its developments. RIM has hired Don Lindsay, who spent nine years working on Mac OS X and iLife at Apple, and was more recently director of Microsoft’s now defunct LiveLabs project as well as working on Vista. He will take the new role of VP of user experience at RIM, possibly signalling changes to the BlackBerry look and feel.

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