Dell's Venue Pro: Distinctive? Yes. But Will it Sell.

Dell's Venue Pro wins the prize for the most unusual smartphone in the new Windows Phone 7 (WP7) line-up from four manufacturers.

It comes with a durable Gorilla Glass 4.1 AMOLED touchscreen display, and offers a vertical slider form factor that reveals a physical QWERTY keyboard.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer distinguished the Venue Pro by singling it out as the lone "ruggedized" smartphone at the Monday launch event for the company's new mobile OS.

But the question remains whether such hardware distinctions can help Dell, a smartphone newcomer, gain standing in a very crowded market.

After Ballmer's comments on Monday, a Dell marketing representative demonstrated just how resilient the Gorilla Glass is. She took a ballpoint pen in one hand and repeatedly bashed the sharp end into the display of the Venue Pro.

"Wow!" was the reaction from a small throng of journalists nearby. The screen didn't appear to be blemished from the "attack," which was not caught on video because cameras were not allowed inside the venue.

Aside from that feat of display strength, however, some analysts and reviewers were confused about how popular the Dell Venue Pro might prove to be with customers.

Part of their concern is that Dell seems to be selling hardware durability, almost as if Venue Pro device were going to be used as a semi-ruggedized device by delivery personnel and service workers, as well as the rest of the work force.

Yet, they said, if the device is intended to be semi-rugged -- and possibly used by customers with large hands and fingers -- then why are the keys on the slide-out keyboard relatively small? (They're actually bigger than keys used on many smartphones, especially most BlackBerry devices -- square in shape and raised in the center so a quick texter can find them more easily.)

Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner, called the new class of WP7 devices generally "pretty good," but added that the Venue Pro will likely be challenged because vertical sliders generally haven't sold well.

Dulaney noted that using the Venue Pro with one hand means with the keyboard open a user can't touch the top left and top right of the large touchscreen with a thumb. Obviously, that means some users will resort to two-handed operation.

He also said that having Gorilla Glass may make the display durable, but doesn't qualify the entire device as "rugged" by Gartner's definition.

It's too early to judge how customers might react to the Venue Pro, which will be sold in November through T-Mobile.

Dell has posted a blog from Bill Gorden , Dell's smartphone general manager, that notes the Gorilla Glass ruggedness but then describes the device as for "everyday people with a diverse range of full and busy lives... Dell designed the Venue Pro to be a multi-purpose always-connected device to help people be more efficient, always connected and entertained."

Dell seems to have opted to customize its WP7 device because Microsoft has limited how it or any other vendor can add enhancements or overlays to the WP7 user interface, analysts noted. In that sense, hardware distinctions could be used to give one WP7 device an edge over another.

"Dell is still trying to get into the smartphone market, so they are experimenting with form factors and such things as Gorilla Glass," noted Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC.

Gorilla Glass , an ultra-hard glass substance, was invented by Corning Glass about 40 years ago and should eventually find its way into numerous smartphones because it is scratch resistant, durable and sensitive to touch for touchscreens, Llamas noted.

Corning has already supplied Gorilla Glass for other computing devices, including the Galaxy S series of smartphones from Samsung, according to the Corning Web site.

Dell currently has less than 1% of the share of the U.S. smartphone market, and is using the new WP7 operating system and unusual hardware to gain attention, Llamas added.

Dell also recently began selling the 3.5-in. touchscreen Aero smartphone, based on Android , which runs on AT&T for $99.99 with a two-year contract. "Dell doesn't want to be an also-ran in the smartphone space, so the way to make a strike is to lead with something really compelling."

It helps Dell, as a smartphone newcomer, that it has landed AT&T as a wireless carrier with the Aero and, soon, T-Mobile with the Venue Pro. But how Dell and the carriers market those devices will make the difference in sales, Llamas said.

"It's a crowded smartphone market out there," Llamas noted.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com .

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