Phones for Women: Is Verizon’s Bliss misogynistic or just lazy?

May 5, 2011
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We can make dual-core smartphones that last for days and put LEGO into space - well, eventually - so why is it that gadgets for women are generally so, well, rubbish? This week news of the HTC Bliss for Verizon broke, a prototype "phone for ladies" that the carrier is supposedly putting through its focus group paces. The Bliss may not commit the first sin of a "female gadget" by being bright pink, but it does have a (code)name like a gossip mag and, from what we know so far, fall victim to the same needless flaws that generally seem to plague tech targeting girls.

Now, I'm not a woman - though I'm capable of a particularly coquettish giggle if I think it'll score me earlier access to a review device - so perhaps I'm missing the appeal, but the general consensus seems to be that the Bliss is another strange attempt to crack the "female market" by grafting lady-friendly elements onto an otherwise regular handset. It's a ham-fisted approach to cutting up a big audience into more manageable pieces.

A bigger audience means more people who might potentially buy your product. That's why there are more clothes shops for people who are considered "normal" height and build than there are "big and tall", "lanky and broad" or "short and belligerent" stores. However, a bigger audience also means you have to appeal to more people, which generally makes for middle-of-the-road products: no point, after all, in dissuading anybody from buying your phone, or laptop, or TV because you've made it lime green and in the shape of a wolf.

It also puts you in direct competition with a lot of other people, all trying in their own way to tackle the same, broad segment. You can certainly see the appeal of a more focused target: a seven foot man or woman, looking for clothes, will likely pay more for well-fitting outfits, since they're altogether rarer. Problem is, phones aren't clothes, and - despite what manufacturers and carriers seem to think - there's more to them than whether the color matches your eyes or your blouse.

A good phone lets you type messages easily, has a design that doesn't offend your eyes, a balance of screen size and overall bulk that fits with the pocket or bag you intend to keep it in, and comes in at a price that you can afford (or at least justify). Making it pink - or, as Verizon and HTC are apparently doing with the Bliss, a "calming" green - and loading a couple of calorie-counting and shopping comparison apps simply isn't good enough. Cases can address the aesthetic demands, and freely available apps can pick up any functionality slack.

Even HTC's accessories sound naff. The "charm indicator" - which blinks to show calls and other alerts - sounds worryingly like those dangling accessory straps that pick up on your phone's radio and start flashing when there's call or message activity. A "stylish" Bluetooth headset is great, but do you really need a matching phone? Jawbone already make some dashing earpieces, and nobody will know your handset isn't from the same spring/summer collection since it can stay in your bag - after all, isn't that why you're wearing the headset in the first place?

Still, that's why Verizon is believed to be shopping the HTC Bliss around focus groups, and hopefully the women at those groups are telling them something similar: we'll take the phone if it gives us something significantly better than everything else that is out there. Making Android more approachable is a good idea, though not just to pander to some executive's misguided impression of "what a lady wants." The platform has been stuck with the reputation of being the geek's OS, something you'd recommend to your techie friend but perhaps not your parents, and Google - or its more mod-happy OEMs such as HTC - could do worse than look at how to give it some of the approachability that iOS on the iPhone seems to have in spades.

That's not about making a lady's phone, or a child's phone, or a phone for people called Nigel who like Toblerone and 80s jazz music. It's about making a phone that legitimately carves its own niche in the market, that brings something new to the table. Research firm Nielsen found that women are just as technologically aware as men and in fact make more calls, text more, use more social networking features and do more messaging on their handsets; they're also more likely to want an iPhone than an Android-based handset as their next mobile device. Verizon and HTC seem to have identified the right segment to work on, but the Bliss sounds like a lazy way to tackle it.


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