Shadow appears on iPhone trail
Seattle Times technology reporter
When Apple launched the iPhone with AT&T in June, other carriers started scrambling to find something to match it.
Today, T-Mobile USA is unveiling the Shadow, a phone that may not be too far off the mark. It has a big screen that slides up to reveal a keypad and has software with eye-catching graphics.
But the similarities stop there. T-Mobile Chief Executive Robert Dotson said the Shadow is the beginning of a new direction for the Bellevue company.
Dotson rarely speaks publicly about the company, and especially not about details of product launches, but this one is different — the Shadow is a huge bet placed on the carrier's future.
The phone is a key part of an initiative launched a year ago to change T-Mobile from a low-cost provider to a company that sells premium services. That's a dramatic change from the brand's past association as the service that gives consumers the biggest bucket of minutes for the lowest cost.
Its tagline, "Get more," was delivered by celebrity spokeswoman Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Last year, the company began to change its focus when it kicked off an ad campaign called "Stick Together" that emphasizes people's relationships.
As part of that, it launched myFaves, a service that allows T-Mobile subscribers to make unlimited calls to their five most important people.
The process has not been easy to implement. Dotson said it has required bringing in talent from the outside, reorganizing the product-development team and spending significant money on resources and new employees.
The crucial move was to go beyond what Nokia, Samsung, Motorola and other handset makers typically have provided for T-Mobile's inventory. Year after year, new-model phones may include higher-resolution screen, different colors or a music player, but rarely do their designs start from scratch.
"It's a lot more work," Dotson said. "It's new capabilities and it's new employees. It's changing the dynamics and the infrastructure that's required by us to be successful in the market. It's not about how to maintain; it's about how do you go to another place in the communications space."
So Dotson hired Leslie Grandy, from Apple, to head up product development for high-end devices.
"Did we target someone from Apple? No. Did we target someone that had the consumer orientation and who was spicy as heck at making things happen in a difficult world? Absolutely," Dotson said.
His first challenge for Grandy was this: If you could develop a phone, what would it look like?
The conversation started while flying back from the Consumer Electronics Show last January. On the way home from the Las Vegas event that features thousands of square feet packed with the latest gadgets, the two brainstormed and drew diagrams on pieces of paper. Once they returned, the discussion continued on white boards.
They made a list of requirements for the phone: It needed to be small — no larger than a BlackBerry Pearl — with a large screen. There would have to be an easy way to navigate menus — maybe a track wheel — and it shouldn't include a full keyboard, which could be intimidating.
Grandy added that there needed to be a fidget factor, so that the phone was not just utilitarian. It had to be fun.
"We are not trying to replicate an iPhone," Dotson said. "It's a great product and they've done a great job, but it's an experience built around me. It's a self-indulgent product where I can sit down and have all the experiences that are important to me."
Instead, he said, the Shadow is about the people who are most important in your lives. "It's a we-, it's an us- phone."
Grandy started working on the concepts immediately with HTC, a Taiwanese handset manufacturer that has offices in Bellevue, and Microsoft's Windows Mobile team.
Three weeks after the flight, Grandy gave Dotson an early design sketched out by HTC. Six weeks later they had a prototype and, in June, the phone was being tested. The process took only nine months.
"My intent was to look two years out, and say, what does an ideal phone look like, and build back from that," Dotson said. "But then Leslie came in and asked why would you want to wait two years when we can make it happen right now?"
As intended, the hardware was designed from scratch. One difficult aspect was adding the keypad found on the BlackBerry Pearl. It's called a 20-key, and has two letters on each key instead of the three found on a numeric cellphone keypad.
HTC had to license the technology from Research in Motion, maker of the BlackBerry.
Another challenge: T-Mobile wanted a special graphical user interface that looked more fun and colorful than other Windows Mobile phones that tend to look the same. That required T-Mobile to hire a team within Microsoft.
Grandy said what made it easier for her was that she had never built a phone before (at Apple, she was senior director of online stores). "The thing that helped was not knowing what you can't do," she said.
After all of the work, the result is much like an adult version of the company's Sidekick, a device popular among youth and celebrities.
The Sidekick, developed by Danger, has cute icons and a cool swivel screen. A full keyboard makes it easy to send e-mails and text messages.
Dotson said the Shadow was designed to give adults the same easy-to-use features without having to end up with a BlackBerry, which is more for the business user and emphasizes data, not personalities.
If that's the intent, the Shadow — selling for $199 or $149, depending on calling plan — appears to exceed the goal.
A string of icons runs the length of the screen's left side. The first one is a link to myFaves, where pictures of your favorite people stare at you.
A smooth scroll wheel allows you to toggle among them. Once you click on an individual, you can choose how to contact the person — e-mail, text message, phone call.
Grandy said so many phones today are focused around functions, then people. First you pick an application (e-mail or phone), then you choose the person.
That difference is also noticeable in the call log.
Phones today usually list all of the calls you've made and received. The Shadow log is organized by people. For instance, under one of your faves, it will show your log of phones calls, e-mails and text messages, all in one location.
Despite these softer features, the phone is a high-end device.
There's a full Web browser, Wi-Fi, a 2-megapixel camera capable of taking video and a music player. It can sync with Microsoft Outlook and has stereo Bluetooth.
It allows four instant-messaging clients: AOL, ICQ, Windows Live Messenger and Yahoo Messenger.
The big bet
As the fourth-largest U.S. carrier, T-Mobile USA is depending heavily on the Shadow to be a success, helping to add to its 27 million subscriber count.
To be sure, the phone is in its first generation, and Dotson promises there'll be more down the pike. T-Mobile will continue to innovate on the platform by hiring more product developers, he said.
Today, the subsidiary of German telecom giant Deutsche Telekom has 35,000 employees nationwide, including 4,000 in the Bellevue area.
"We've taken that bet," Dotson said. "When we say we've made a change to enhance relationships in lives, that's embedded into a philosophy. And to deliver that experience, there has to be innovation and development. It's a very different place than what we've been in before."
It is also a very different bet than what the rest of the industry is taking.
"They are saying, how do I put appendages on communication, how can I put TV onto a phone," Dotson said. "Forget TV. We are going to push and innovate at a high rate of speed, and we think with that focus we can make it happen in half the time as our competitors."
Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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