Motorola touts technology for making calls clearer

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

NEW YORK -- Motorola Inc. says its new "Crystal Talk" technology improves the quality of calls hampered by background noise.

The effectiveness of the feature is up in the air. But the marketing advantage from such a claim could benefit the world's No. 2 handset maker at a time when it could use all the help it can get.

"I think it's important and significant to brand basic voice," said Avi Greengart, a handset analyst for research firm Current Analysis. "I've been shocked that no one has thought to say, 'If you buy our phones, it will make better phone calls."'

Even as handsets move toward brighter screens, higher-resolution cameras and faster connections able to download music and video, there remains a strong desire to get the basics of a phone down. Demand would be high for a device that alleviates the need for consumers to slam their phone into one ear and plug their index finger into the other to block outside noise.

Network coverage and quality is the top issue for consumers choosing a wireless carrier, edging out customer service quality and pricing, according to a survey by market research firm Compete Inc.

Call quality isn't traditionally a marketing message used by the handset makers, but Motorola could use a shot in the arm. The Schaumburg, Ill.-based company has struggled recently to push its higher-end phones because its Razr has essentially been relegated to a giveaway phone, or one consumers can get for free when they sign up for service.

As a result, the company has struggled to win customers over with its newer high-end phones, many of which share the same look and themes as the original Razr. But a feature like improved call quality could do a lot for customers justifying a higher price for a new phone.

"If they can convince people to pay more for Crystal Talk versus a non-Crystal Talk phone, they win," Greengart said. "I think it's a brilliant strategy."

Still, industry observers warn unless Crystal Talk significantly changes the call experience, it may face a backlash from consumers. "That's one of the challenges of this feature," said Miro Kazakoff, an analyst for Compete. "They have to enhance the experience in a way people notice."

Motorola hopes Crystal Talk will give it a strong selling point as it pushes its new Razr2. Over the past few months, the company quietly slipped its Crystal Talk feature into a few models, including the Krzr clamshell phone and Rizr slider phone. But it didn't formally talk about the concept until it unveiled Razr2 at the company's Mobile Experience conference in May.

During a video presentation at the conference, race-car driver Danica Patrick made a phone call with the device amid the vrooms and engine growls of a virtual racetrack and garage. Crystal Talk boosted the volume of Patrick's voice while eliminating the background buzz.

Razr2, the successor to Motorola's popular ultra-thin Razr, will be the first phone to use Crystal Talk as a major selling point when it hits the market in July.

The company has patented the technology and believes it will differentiate its products from rivals. "We believe it is something that's different," said Tracey Koziol, vice president of the mobile devices business for Motorola.

The technology is said to significantly filter out and reduce ambient noises. A series of algorithms in the digital signal processor distinguishes between background noise like cars or chatter and the caller's voice. It then amplifies the voice.

"When it is delivered to the earpiece, you're hearing a clear articulation of words," Koziol said.

The phone can also pick up how much background noise is on the caller side and boost or lower the volume accordingly to compensate, which can significantly cut down on people shouting "What?" into their handset.

Koziol said that the competition typically just boosts the volume.

Muzib Khan, who heads product management and engineering for the Seoul, South Korea-based Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. U.S. telecommunications unit, disagreed. He argued that arbitrarily increasing the volume on a handset could damage the caller's ear.

Instead, Samsung has researched placed directional microphones to more accurately pick up the caller's voice. Another feature allows a person in a crowded room to whisper into the phone but still have the voice go through loudly on the other end. Khan said the features have been in Samsung phones for a few years.

"There is real technology behind it, and any of them can be coined into a nice marketing catchphrase," he said. "We haven't done that, and won't unless there is something that's clearly distinguishable."

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