first off, its important to note that the north american (ie. US and canada is even worse) market for cell phones is totally different than that of europe or certainly asia. i think US/canada is the only place on earth where you cant buy a phone separate from the carrier. its certainly not the status quo in most other places.
that being said, im in full agreement that most phones out there are indeed crap. i picked up a super thin samsung in Hong Kong a while ago for just this very reason (i think a similar model is now in the US). Samsung X820.
its now busted (yep, that thin is great in the pocket, but not so good if you fall asleep on the sofa and crush it), and have been looking for a replacement for some time. everything here from the carriers is junk.
i think its telling that while the US market is dominated by “subsidized” handsets from carriers, but that people will actually pay a premium for an iphone. i recently bought one on a trip to the US, and paid a small fee for someone to unlock it, but ive seen them for sale here in canada (and tons on ebay/craigslist) for anywhere from $100-300 more than retail costs (and the unlocking software is now actually free online!). proves that a good product can change a business model at the very least.
as for nokia, i was a big nokia fan for the longest time. my first 3 phones (this goes back about 10 years, mind you) were nokia, and i always loved the great UI, indestructible build quality (i once accidently dropped mine from a two-story balcony and it only suffered a minor crack in the faceplate, which was replaceable), and of course they pioneered the customization thing…
now however, in addition to having a crazy amount of SKUS with little product differentiation, there isnt a single handset IMHO that is small, decent and even remotely competitive with the best from samsung, moto (although they are also kinda junk, at least they are small), LG, or of course the big daddy of them all, iphone.
honestly though, the cell market here is so terrible, in part because of the power of the carriers i think we can only hope for some change…it will be interesting to see what google android does…
PS. yes, i think the iphone is truely as good as everyone says. i’ve wanted one since it came out, and have very high standards, and its even better than i expected. i honestly cant believe i have this thing in my pocket that does everything, and does it all so well. and speaking of UI, the iphone doesnt even come with a manual, and after playing around with it for 1 minute I was able to figure everything out and use it as i expected. thats UI design for you!