The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.
NEW YORK (
) -- The
Venue Pro may be the most interesting smartphone in themarket today. Before you type that hate mail, note carefully that Isaid "most interesting" and not "best." It is far from the bestsmartphone, but nevertheless occupies a unique position in thesmartphone world today, worthy of labeling it the most interesting.
Let's first establish the basics of this animal: The Dell Venue Prowas released one year ago, running the Microsoft Phone 7.0 operatingsystem. This was upgraded one month ago to version 7.5, the so-called"Mango."
The Dell Venue Pro comes in two versions, one for
and theother for
. The pricing is the most favorable in the market today -- $300 unlocked, and free on a 2-year contract at T-Mobile USA. From what I can gather, AT&T doesn't offer contract pricing. The $300 unlocked price is very favorable compared to anything remotely comparable in the market today.
and become a fan on
I actually conducted my testing on the unlocked AT&T version, with aT-Mobile USA SIM card, so the highest cellular speeds I got were perhaps 200 Kb/s. I obviously augmented this with WiFi, for very fast downloads in many conditions.
There are three things about the basic hardware configuration of thisdevice that every potential buyer needs to understand:
1. This is the only Windows Phone in the market today with aportrait-style keyboard. The basic industrial design has only oneparallel in the market today: The BlackBerry Torch 8510, which
The Dell Venue Pro is larger and heavier than the BlackBerry Torch8510, mostly as a result of the bigger and better screen. As with allWindows Phones, it's 800x480, which bests the BlackBerry's 640x480.It is 4.1 inches, compared to the BlackBerry's 3.2 inches.
To my knowledge, there is no Android in the market in this particularform factor. The closest are the Motorola Pro (
) and XPRT(
), but those have inferior keyboards, and I found their overallperformance -- battery and CPU alike -- to be among the worst AndroidsI have ever tested.
In recommending the Dell Venue Pro, this uniqueness in form factor iskey. Non-keyboard smartphones now constitute the overwhelmingmajority of the market, and even the landscape-keyboards arerelatively few. It is not possible to type on a landscape smartphonekeyboard with one hand when you are carrying a briefcase or whateverin the other hand, and this is one key reason that made the BlackBerryso popular still today, with over 10 million sold every quarter.
For as much as people love the BlackBerry keyboard, some of them arefrustrated with many parts of the BlackBerry software, including thequality and quantity of applications, and their installationprocedure. As a result, one would think that if someone combined aBlackBerry-style keyboard with a better OS, such a device would be ahit. This is why it is so important that we examine the Dell VenuePro in detail, because it occupies such a unique position in thesmartphone world today.
2. The WiFi chip in the Dell Venue Pro is different than that in theother Windows Phones. This is critical because the other ones can,subject to carrier approval, be enabled with WiFi hotspotfunctionality. Sadly, this won't happen with the Dell Venue Pro.Some people may not care, but for others this is a very importantpoint.
3. The Dell Venue Pro has no front-facing camera. This mimics theother Windows Phone devices that were also launched a year ago, but anew class of refreshed Windows Phone hardware from companies such asSamsung and HTC will soon have these front-facing cameras. Again,some people may not care about this, but for other people this is a seriousomission that will be more important now that the Tangovideo chat app becomes available on these new Windows Phone devices inearly November. Over time, same thing for Microsoft's own Skype.
With those things out of the way, I switch my commentary to the thingthat is identical across all Windows Phone devices, as far as I cantell: The software.
Providing a verdict on Windows Phone 7.5 is especially difficult,because the outcome depends very much on who the user is. One keyproblem we have today is that many people are already living insidethe three other major smartphone ecosystems: iOS by Apple, Android byGoogle and BlackBerry by RIM.
If you are already well-oiled inside any of those three othersmartphone ecosystems, the hurdle to Windows Phone 7.5 is going to bemuch more significant than if you are getting it as your firstsmartphone. Let me give you some examples:
1. Google has an amazing set of cloud services, ranging from Readerto Plus to Voice to Talk to Docs to many more things. Very few, ifany, of them are available on Microsoft Windows 7.5. I can only findGmail (duh!) and search. That's bare-bones, and clearly notsatisfactory for anyone contemplating a migration from Android.
Yes, I know, Microsoft has some equivalent services, such as its 25-gig SkyDrive and Office 365, but for anyone who has attempted to usethem, they know what I mean when I say that they're not the same. Ifyou are reasonably deep into using many of Google's services, the stepinto the Windows Phone world is probably going to be unacceptable foryou right now.
2. Even BlackBerry integrates very well with Google's cloud services,including Voice, Talk, Docs, Reader and more. That broadens thepopulation of those for whom a step into the Windows Phone world istoo far.
3. The issues with Apple are different, but could be as important.Aside from the fact that Apple, too, integrates nicely with many ofGoogle's services such as Reader and Docs, you also have the issuewith iTunes. If you're anything like me, you subscribe to numerousvideo and audio podcasts and need them synchronized between yoursmartphone, TV, tablet and PC. I couldn't find any way to make thishappen with Windows Phone, but then again I may have missed something.
The Windows Phone interface is different than the three othersmartphone operating systems. I think the best way to describe it is to say thatif you woke up from a five-year coma and knew about Apple, you wouldthink Windows Phone was actually made by Apple. It's the mostesthetically pleasing interface, including the fonts, colors and othercontrasts.
More important, it's extremely stable and consistent. It hasn'tcrashed, frozen or hesitated on me a single time yet. When was thelast time you found that Microsoft had the most stable OS in themarket?
Here's another important plus: battery life. From what I can tell,it's as good or better than all the other competitors -- iOS,BlackBerry and -- of course -- Android. The comparison with Androidis particularly stark. I got probably three times or more battery life out ofthe Dell Venue Pro than the best Android I have tested.
There are some negatives, when compared to a BlackBerry. Takenotifications, for example. All I want in terms of a notification isto be able to look at the phone, perhaps as much as half a room away,and see whether there is a big red blinking light or not. If it'sblinking, it means I have an email. If it's not, no need to touch orotherwise pick up the phone. How difficult is this?
Another totally crazy negative about Windows Phone is that I can'tsynchronize it with Outlook over a USB cable. Let's say that I havemy address book in Outlook on a Windows PC, and that I use Outlookonly for the address book -- no email or anything like that. I do soperhaps because I'm used to using the categories field in Outlook, orbecause I have more than 25,000 contacts, which is the limit in Gmail.Hotmail's limit is 5,000.
If I have a BlackBerry, I just hook up the USB cable, and itsynchronizes all the fields, including the categories field, and itcan do it with more than 25,000 contacts. None of this very basicstuff is possible with Windows Phone.
Speaking of the address book, you can't sort the entries based oncompany name, as you can in the BlackBerry. Seriously? I just wantto automatically see my contacts based on company name first, theneither first or last name. But no, the Windows Phone does not offerthis obvious setting.
One way of describing the Dell Venue Pro is that it offers aninteresting blend of the other three major smartphone operating systems:
1. The overall consistency and stability of the interface andoperation is most similar to the iPhone.
2. Like Android, there is hardware choice in the market, and thecharger is MicroUSB, just like ever single Android smartphone in themarket.
3. Like BlackBerry, it has a portrait-style keyboard, and if you havea Microsoft Exchange server (most individuals do
), then you cantake advantage of the categories field in contacts synchronizing, andit will do so over Gmail's 25,000 contacts limit -- obviously for theWindows 7 Outlook user.
The question is mostly about the WindowsPhone operating system itself. This particular version in theform of the Dell Venue Pro picks several attractive attributes fromthe three major OS competitors, but is it really a stand-out anywhere,in a way that puts it on top? I don't think that case has been madeyet.
So what do we make of Dell's position in the market with the VenuePro? First of all, this device is not sold in retail, whether at T-Mobile USA or AT&T. The only place I find it is at Dell.com. I went to more T-Mobile USA and AT&T stores over the last year than I can count, and at best 10% of the staff there even knew of the existence of the device. This must obviously be a catastrophe from a Dell sales perspective.
Think about it: Dell has a truly unique and all in all a very, very good product, but essentially nobody knows about it. It reminds me a little of Google's laptops made by Samsung and Acer, the Chromebooks. Outstanding products, but zero awareness among the general population.
We are only one week away from the updated Windows Phone hardwarebeing introduced and hitting the market, and at this point I seeproduct only from HTC and Samsung. This makes me a little worriedabout Dell. Will there be a follow-on product to the Venue Pro, or isDell offering the superb price of $300 SIM-unlocked just because it'sselling out the remaining inventories? Is Dell getting out of thesmartphone business? I have no idea.
Dell could have a total winner on its hand by updating the Venue Proin four ways:
1. Make it thinner and lighter, but without sacrificing battery life.
2. Include a front-facing camera for use with Tango, Skype and others.
3. Include a better WiFi chip, capable of being a hotspot.
4. Offer a version with 64 gig storage, so that it could compete withiPhone 4S.
It is difficult to give the Dell Venue Pro a single grade. There areactually two main scenarios, and relatively few corner cases betweenthem. For some people, it gets a score of 8 or 9 out of 10. Yet, for otherpeople, it gets at best a lousy 4 out of 10.
Under the following conditions, it could be right for you:
- You are relatively new to the smartphone world
- You are not dependent on Google's various cloud services such asVoice or Reader
- You are not an iTunes user
- You have fewer than 25,000 contacts
- You don't need to synchronize with USB cable to your Windows 7 PC
- You don't use videoconferencing services such as Tango and Skype
- You don't need your smartphone to serve as WiFi hotspot
- You will be on AT&T or T-Mobile USA
If all of these conditions apply, the Dell Venue Pro gets as much as a 9 out of 10.
The good news for Dell here is that there are probably a lot of people in the world for whom the Venue Pro is a perfectly suitable device, right now. That is, if they were at least aware of its existence, which 99.999% are not. As for the other people, if Dell and Microsoft could fix only a few things, they would broaden their suitability and appeal.
At the time of submitting this article, the author was long AAPL, GOOG, QCOM, RIMM and NVDA. This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.
Anton Wahlman was a sell-side equity research analyst covering the communications technology industries from 1996 to 2008: UBS 1996-2002, Needham & Company 2002-2006, and ThinkEquity 2006-2008.