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Telecom gear vendor ZTE will step up its game in the crowded smartphone space next year with an Android-based handset, and Google (s goog) is rumored to be working on its own device. But as the smartphone market continues to heat up, manufacturers are learning the hard way that the key to success in mobile phones lies in the software — not the hardware.
Handset manufacturers are increasingly being elbowed out of the way as carriers embrace developers of operating systems and the apps that run on top of them. Motorola (s mot), for instance, is an afterthought in Verizon’s (s vz) big-budget campaign in support of its Droid initiative, and HTC’s brand is nowhere to be found in T-Mobile’s recent commercial pushing the MyTouch 3G. Meanwhile, Nokia (s nok) continues to fare poorly in the U.S. due largely to its unwillingness to capitulate to American carriers, and smaller manufacturers like Sony Ericsson are becoming irrelevant as they lose market share.
Two phone makers are bucking the trend, though, and they’re doing it by churning out handsets based on their own operating systems. Apple’s (s aapl) iPhone has become an iconic device thanks largely to its intuitive user interface and knockout browser, while Research In Motion (s rimm) continues to gain traction — and mind share — with its BlackBerry, an enterprise-focused handset with software that stresses functionality over fun. Both Apple and RIM are backing their hardware with ad campaigns that put the manufacturer — not the carrier — in front of consumers.
HTC is fighting back with its impressive “You” television commercials, which tout the phone’s Sense user interface and promotes the device’s personalization features. That’s a strategy that will pay dividends as manufacturers become marginalized in mobile, and as software increasingly becomes a key differentiator in the minds of consumers.