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Would you pay more for a customizable cell phone?

There’s an interesting post over at Tech Crunch by my Apple loving (that is true) nemesis (that is not), MG Siegler. It’s a piece on the two weeks he spent with the new Nexus S. Something he wrote struck a chord with me and awakened a question that’s been building up in me for the last year or so. MG writes that the Nexus S had the second best camera he had seen on a phone, the iPhone obviously taking top honors. Now, as much as I love to argue with fanboys, especially disciples of Cupertino, I have to agree: When it comes to taking quality photos, the iPhone is king.

I was blown away by the iPhone 4’s camera when I first saw it. The iOS camera software has always had a knack (comparatively) for getting focused pictures. On the original and 3G models It worked almost well enough to make you forgive the step-behind-the-game resolution and incredible amount of time it took to launch – almost. The 4th revision, however, just nailed it. Definitively disproving the megapixel myth, its pictures were sharp and colors were vibrant and accurate. More so than any other phone out there, including those with 8 megapixels. Take a look at some sample shots.

So what’s my point? If the camera is so amazing and that’s what’s important to you why not just buy an iphone 4 and be done with it? Well, I almost did. For me, the camera is single most important feature on a phone, just barely ahead of web browser. Just look at all the photos you’ve taken in the last year. What percentage were taken with your phone? 50%? Probably more like 80% or 90%. Why? Not to blow your mind or anything, but it’s because you had it with you. When I was choosing a phone to replace my iPhone 3G, I went back and forth between the HTC Evo and iPhone 4. I spent a ridiculous amount of time comparing the two. Most of that time looking at sample photographs taken with the two. One thing was obvious: The iPhone was the camera champ. In the time since I made my decision back in August, I have checked out photo samples from every new phone that comes out and still, nothing approaches the iPhone 4.

I really want a handset maker to put a better, iPhone quality, camera in a phone. So why don’t they? You. It’s your fault. Not you, specifically. Well, maybe partly you specifically, but you, as in, consumers. You don’t care enough. If you take a look at your local wireless carrier of choice you’ll see that the price point for smart phones has been decided: $199 or less. That’s what AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-mobile and all the others have decided you’re willing to pay for a phone when signing up for a 2 year contract. It’s a simple equation; make phones with features that most people are happy with for a price those people are willing to pay. Trying to create phones tailored to every possible user would obviously be impractical.

What about the rest of us? Those who want something better? Right now we have to choose what’s more important. I wanted a big screen and a great camera. In august, when I was looking for a new phone, it boiled down to essentially 2 categories:

1. iPhone 4 – small screen, great camera.
2. Evo, DroidX, Galaxy S and Streak – big screen, average camera

Faced with these options I chose screen size with Android’s flexibility breaking the tie. Now, most of you know that didn’t exactly work out to great for me, I ended up paying the early adopter fine on the Dell Streak. However, the point is not what I chose, but that I had to choose at all. That choice left me with 1 1/2 of my major needs (big screen, but only decent camera) met or about 75% satisfied. If all cars were the same price, would you take one that you weren’t totally satisfied with? Of course not. In that same situation, would you take a car you were mostly happy with and pay extra to upgrade a feature of great importance to you? If they could afford it, most would pay for complete satisfaction. So why, in this world where phones are becoming more and more an invaluable piece of our daily lives, are we not demanding options? By all accounts modern smart phones are like PCs in your pocket. For a long time, most consumers went to a big box store and picked up a prebuilt PC and went home. Now millions of people go to sites like Dell and HP and custom design a machine to their needs and budget. Why not do the same with phones? Is battery life important to you? 3.7” AMOLED screen and a 800Mhz processor. Eye Strain and sending a lot of attachments? 1.2 Ghz dual core processor and a 4.3” screen. Don’t wanna carry around a separate point-and-shoot? 8mp camera module with a high end sensor. And so on.

The machines that come off the line at Dell are probably 90% the same inside, but that last 10% is the difference between being mostly satisfied and completely satisfied. Having a phone you are truly happy with is becoming more and more important as we become more dependant on them. Especially with carriers force us to hang on to them for increasingly longer periods. Of course you’ll have to pay more for this, at least in the beginning. It would require a fundamental change in the design and manufacturing process of smart phones. But you get what you pay for. Just like when building a PC, it will be up to you to balance features against price. Just as the PC market evolved as demand grew, so should the smart phone market.

So you tell me: would you pay more for the ability to customize your phone? How much more would you pay? What would you upgrade? Am I nuts? Leave your responses in the comments or send them to thegmenshow@gmail.com or @thegmenshow on twitter. Let me know if I’m on to something or just complaining.


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