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High-tech phone battles heating up

It’s the attack of the iClones.

No Apple competitor is likely to replicate what Steve Jobs did with so much panache: combine a wireless telephone, a music player and a Web browser with boundless hype. But companies such as Verizon Wireless and Sprint are trying, with their answers to the iPhone.

Many of the iPhone competitors will probably be released during the first quarter of 2008, but by then, Apple will already have moved the iPhone several steps ahead, said Tim Scannell, president of Shoreline Research in Quincy, Mass. The fact that the iPhone is now more affordable also helps defend it against competitors trying to gain market share on cost, he said.

As partners LG and Verizon Wireless prepare to release their version, the Voyager, in November, they’re betting they can provide a more user-friendly product.

One of the Voyager’s most striking features is the keyboard. Like the iPhone, it has an on-screen, virtual keypad. But flip it open, and inside there’s a miniature QWERTY keyboard. Touch screens can be finicky, and the keyboard will provide an easier, more tactile experience, said Sheldon Jones, a Verizon spokesman.

The device uses the 3 gigabyte EV-DO technology to connect to the Internet, faster than the 2 gb EDGE network available on the iPhone.

The Voyager plays music, but the device itself only holds 30 songs, compared to the iPhone’s 2,000. To expand, the customer can buy a card that expands it up to 4,000 songs.

That feature will help keep the Voyager’s price down, since people can pay for as much music memory as they need, Jones said. The price of the Voyager has not yet been set. The iPhone sells for $399, down from its initial price of $599.

Verizon has the benefit of a higher-speed network, and may appeal to those not comfortable with a touch-screen keyboard, Scannell said. But the marketplace these days is less than kind to non-iPhone music phones, he said.

Verizon is “fighting against that ‘you-have-an-iPhone-and-I-don’t-have-an-iPhone conundrum,’ and that’s going to be difficult,” Scannell said.

Verizon’s Jones said a large part of the iPhone’s popularity comes from marketing, not a superior product.

“Apple does a great job of marketing. But there’s one deficit there,” Jones said. “Apple does not know the wireless industry. We know the wireless industry.”

Mark Siegel, spokesman for AT&T, which partnered with Apple to offer the IPhone, said the iPhone sets a new standard for ease of use and functionality.

“That has spurred our competitors and other device manufacturers to take a fresh look at what they do,” Siegel said. “That is a good and healthy thing. Innovation breeds innovation.”

Sprint released its LG Muziq around the same time the iPhone was released. It has a built-in transmitter that can send music to a car stereo, and does over-the-air downloads. It sells for $99 with a two-year agreement.

There are other appealing products on the market that do some of what the iPhone does, said Kent German, senior editor for the technology Web site CNet.

The Sony Ericsson W580 “has a decent music player in it,” German said. It has a function where, with a flick of the wrist, the music track changes. “It’s a tad gimmicky, but it’s kind of cool.”

German said he also likes the second-generation version of the Chocolate Phone, LG and Verizon’s MP3 player with a numerical keypad..

There’s also the Samsung Upstage, a two-sided device the user flips back and forth between music and the phone. It sells for just $99 with a two-year contract with Sprint.

And the Nokia N95 has a strong media player, a good Internet connection and a camera that’s “way better than the iPhone,” German said.

“There’s not one device right now that is going to offer everything the iPhone offers in a way the iPhone offers it – the design, integration with Apple, compatibility with iTunes, which is what people really want,” German said.

But he said he’s still not sold on the iPhone itself, noting its slower Internet connection speed, low-tech camera, inability to send picture messages and failure to use Stereo Bluetooth.

“For the music phone to end all music phones, it should have these things.”

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