Test driving the handset

For every customer who wants to fiddle with a phone before buying, Mobile Complete may have the answer. It launched an online handset simulator today that allows you to run your intended purchase through the motions before you shell out your cash and sign your contract–or even visit the store for that matter.

Mobile Complete is launching its beta site tryphone.comwith four devices, including the iPhone, with the idea of getting its simulator embedded into retail sites, review publications and even carrier online portals all over the Web. To the right is the new Sprint LG Muziq. Try hitting a few buttons (it moves!). Admittedly it isn’t the same as tinkering with the real thing. You can’t prank call your ex-girlfriend, and not all of the functions are active, but it’s a tolerable substitute. And it certainly beats hiking down to the Sprint store and staring atpowered-downphone with a cardboard mock-up of the idle screen.

For those of you unfamiliar with Mobile Complete, it runs a remote device-testing lab that allows application developers to test their products on a handset virtually, not through an online simulation, but through a sort of tele-testing engine that lets a developer interact with a live phone thousands of miles away. Controls linked to a Web portal interact directly with the phone interfaces, and the phone’s voice and data connections come from the same wireless connections as a device on the street. All the action is beamed back to the developer by wireless video feed.

The consumer test site isn’t the same service Mobile Complete is offering to developers–renting time on a specific phone in the lab ain’t cheap. But it’s an interesting approximation. Mobile Complete isn’t trying to present the phone in itsmarketingglory. Instead it shows the devices, warts and all. It has created a phone-version of a crawler that goes through and maps the functions of each device. It then records each interaction on digital video and renders them on the Web whenever a user hits a button.So you know just how many steps it takes it access your contacts or download a Web site. Try going to its mock-up of the iPhoneand downloading one of the Web sites available in the Safari browser: There’s some waiting involved–just like the real iPhone on AT&T’s edge networks.

So is this the end of the carrier store? Will customers now eschew the pushiness of sales people and the hassle of crowds if they can both test and buy their handsets online? Well, probably not just yet. There’s no approximating the real device in your hands, and Mobile Complete has a few kinks to work out. Not all of the phone functions on the four devices on TryPhone.com appear to be mapped out just yet. But it is a beta, after all.

Mobile Complete CEO Faraz Syed said his company plans to quickly populate the site with all makes and models of phones and pair them off with the connections of their appropriate carriers. Syed’s goal, however, isn’t to create an independent review site or Mobile Complete’s own retail portal (though TryPhone.com will start collecting referral fees when it launches commercially). Rather he wants to license this technology to online retailerslike Amazon and ultimately to the operators themselves, who could definitely use something more than a low-rez photo and list of specs to market their devices online. Syed even envisions the platform as a post-purchase tutorial application carriers and vendors can use to educate their customers on the increasingly complexity of their phones.

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