Friday, 26 September 2008

The Everyday Smartphone

Appreciating what you've got

Our society is so caught up with consumption that we are always looking forward, to what's new, rather than simply using and appreciating what we've got. This attitude is particularly prevalent in the geek community, with smartphone afficionados salivating over coming models, camera hobbiests crooning about previews of the latest DSLR, and so on.

But, hang on a minute! Isn't the smartphone I bought this year (or even last) more powerful than the computer I was using a decade ago? Certainly it is, and there's heaps of functionality in there to do all sorts of things for me. So let's just poke around our own smartphones and appreciate what we've got, eh?

Join me as I explore the joys of my current smartphone, a Sony Ericsson G900 (a sadly under-rated little treasure).

Getting around the G700/900

First things first: the UI. (By the way, most of what I say here applies to the G700 as well as the G900, and the G700 actually has a better keypad.)

The G900 has both a touch-screen and a fairly normal collection of keys. Here are some tips on how to optimise these:

  • Most menu interactions are far faster using your fingers -- mine are pretty big yet I still find it easy to hit the right menu option. This saves scrolling about with the joypad. Note that most UIQ apps are designed to have all the common commands visible in the menu without scrolling.
    • TIP: to navigate into a sub-menu, just tap the menu item anywhere, you don't have to try to hit the little rightward arrow.
    • TIP: to get to the bottom of the menu just hit the up arrow on the joypad immediately after tapping More. This wraps the highlight around to the bottom of the menu.
  • Switching between applications is easy, since the task switcher icon is in the top, right of the screen, and the screen is flush, you can either use the corner of a thumbnail, or tap with your finger, tapping away from the corner of the screen and then rolling the pad of your finger down and across until it hits the button. Even though it is a tiny icon, it's very easy to press using these techniques, thanks to its position.
  • One problem is that the standby screen isn't in the apps list (this is annoying, and I really don't know why it's not there). However, you can reach the standby screen from anywhere by holding down the back key for two to three seconds. It will switch back to wherever you were in the standby panels.
  • Don't forget the quick-menu in the top, left of the screen (the down-arrow). This is the best way to get to the clock or to play with the connections (eg. turning WiFi or Bluetooth on -- turning them off is easily done from their status-bar icons).
  • Don't forget the message and notes buttons! (I often do.)
  • Make use of the lock button on the side of the phone. I have the phone configured with auto-locking turned off, and I use the lock button to manually lock and unlock the phone. Very convenient.
  • Take advantage of the panels in the standby screen. There are extra panels you can configure from the Settings dialog on the standby screen. My favourites are "My shortcuts" (which I've configured with the main apps I use), the calendar, the messages, and the time. Music is handy, but I tend to use the music app.
  • Some specific widget advice:
    • Most of UIQ can be navigated with a combination of finger and joypad, you will rarely need the stylus (unless you use the handwriting input)
    • Tabbed views and the sideways-scrolling slots in list views (such as in Contacts with the contactable fields in the list view) can be navigated with left and right on the joypad -- no point trying to tap those tiny arrows
    • The time editor widget is easy to change using the joypad and keypad -- don't even bother trying to tap its tiny panes. Press the joypad's select (marked as Done on the screen) to finish editing
    • The date editor is the only widget that I'm tempted to pull the stylus out for. But it, too, is easy to edit with joypad and keypad. Left and right move between day, month, and year. Up and down change the currently selected date component. So skipping forward a month involves pressing right, then up. You can also just type the date -- the widget will automatically move fields as you type.
    • The text editor opens as soon as you start typing, so you don't have to press select to open it up. Remember that pressing Back will cancel any changes, while select will save them

All in all, the G900 is an easy phone to navigate, and the touch-screen gives its UI a nice, open feel, much more fluid than a keyboard-only solution than S60, and more sophisticated than the iPhone.

Built in apps

There a number of invaluable built-in applications. I'll focus on those I use, and give some tips about how to use them.

  • Web.
    • Useful both for general browsing and accessing your operator's portal. I have a generic phone and use 3 in Australia, so I had to figure out the URL for 3's portal, and then I was OK.
    • A bit of trick: since 3's portal only works using their network, and I usually prefer using WiFi around home, I find that 3's portal is innaccessible from home (because the phone tries to connect to it via the available WiFi). The solution is simply to disable WiFi, forcing the phone to use 3's net access. I can quickly turn WiFi back on via the quick-menu in the top, left of the screen
    • I've also used Web for paying tolls during travel and stuff like that. It works pretty well, depending on the site.
  • Which reminds me: take advantage of UIQ's internet groups, which allow you to specify the order in which the phone will try connection methods without any prompting from you. This is something that requires third-party software on S60, so relish it while you can.
  • Messaging.
    • Since I'm on 3, I've got push email via 3's IMAP server. The G900's messaging app supports "Always On push email" (have a look in the More menu under Settings > Email accounts in the Messaging app). This works a charm, and the only irritation is that 3's mailbox is only 2MB, require constant cleaning. I often get emails on my phone before I do on my PC (which only checks once every 5 minutes).
  • Notes.
    • This is handy for taking quick jots. Just be aware that it's hard to transfer your collection of notes around. They can only be beamed one-by-one, and are hard to even transfer between UIQ phones. You're better off using the excellent Quickoffice word processor.
  • Quickoffice.
    • This is a real bargain on these phones: a full version of Quickoffice (not just the reader). This works quite well with a bluetooth keyboard, but you do need to go into the input settings and turn off all intelligence (Main menu > Settings > General > Text input > Input mode > None) or the Bluetooth keyboard won't work properly.
    • Quickoffice is very good for taking minutes (my main use), or notes, and handy for reading simple spreadsheets and documents.
  • Camera.
    • Despite being 5mp, the camera on these phones is not particularly good (the 6220 Classic's is vastly superior). Still, it's good enough for snapshots, and the UI is pretty straight-forward.
  • Time.
    • This is my morning alarm, and is very handy. Take advantage of the work-days setting to set different morning alarms for week days and weekends.
    • Remember to set your home time zone properly (the setup wizard doesn't do that for some reason -- it just sets the current time zone). Having home time zone, current time zone, and zone of interest is quite handy if you travel much.
  • Calls.
    • From the standby screen you can choose Calls from the left softkey. Some people use this instead of the contacts database, which is not a bad idea. From here you can call or message anyone you've talked with (or failed to talk with) recently. Remember that More > Entry details gives you more details.
    • There's also a great feature here: Add call note, that copies the call info into a note which you can then extend. (Of course, the caveats regarding notes discussed above still apply.)
    • Don't forget that going right takes you to filtered versions of the main view (incoming, outgoing, and missed calls).
  • Media.
    • This is a fantastic application, and has received a lot of attention from SE for these phones. The slideshows and photo browsing is pretty cool, and you can use finger gestures to scroll as well as the joypad.
    • I use the music application as my MP3 player. The sound quality has a bit of background hiss, and I miss the W960's bookmark capability, and I'd like genre-based playlists, but apart from that it's pretty good. It even has a coverflow-style browsing mode (go into Music > Albums then choose More > View > Grid -- it's not actually a grid, but a Z-shaped scroll).
    • What I love most about SE's music player is the Play Queue. This is basically an on-the-fly playlist, and works just the way I would expect an MP3 player to work (I had an iPod for years, and it's lack of a play queue drove me up the wall -- playlists are a poor substitute). Remember that you can add any selectable item to the play queue -- ie. a song, an album, or even an entire artist or playlist. Also, take advantage of the AAC+ format's superior compression: 64kbs in AAC+ is almost as good as 128kbps normal AAC (ie. what iTunes uses).
Third party apps

While the UIQ built-in apps have some great functionality, there are some that could be better, and there are some features that are simply missing. This list of third party apps is based on my requirements, and your mileage may vary.

  • Opera Mini.
    • For all the websites that don't work well with the standard Opera (Web, above), Opera Mini is the answer. Not only does it display them well, it is both faster and slicker in doing so. You can get it for free from Opera.
  • Olive Tree BibleReader.
    • This application basically does what it says. The UIQ version is a bit easier to use than the S60 version. A hint: use the joypad when using the Versechooser -- then you won't have to drag out the stylus to hit those tiny book names or chapter and verse numbers. You can get it for free from Olive Tree.
  • DreamLife.
    • This application improves on two core applications in the phone: Calendar and Contacts. (This is, of course, from my company, so while I'll try to be objective, you need to be aware of that.)
    • DreamLife improves on Calendar by linking attendees and locations to the contacts database, and keeping those links live so you can tap on an attendee and be taken to that contact's detail view (ready to call or message them with just one more tap). It also uses a graphical planner view rather than a simple list view, which makes it much better for actually planning your life. Unfortunately it doesn't provide a list view, so while it supports Todo's, it's not great at managing them. It's also waiting for upgrades to support cut and paste and sending of calendars. It supports hierarchical categories for very precise management of the various parts of your life, and includes both colour coding and different alarm sounds for each category. It also makes editing easier with a split-pane context view showing the current day even while editing an activity. (Oh, and full undo-redo support.)
    • DreamLife improves on Contacts by adding a fast filter that allows you to filter the contacts as you type, as well as a smart-find that allows very sophisticated searches. It, too has hierarchical categories, full undo-redo, and a business card look detail view (which is much easier to read and use, especially with the touch screen). Full cut and paste works with contacts, with some pretty cool tricks such as automatic merging (pasting into a second contact will merge the two together) and automatic business card text copying (ie. copy a contact and pasting into a text editor will paste the business card layout of that contact).
    • DreamLife makes contacts and calendar finger-friendly. You can scroll around the contacts list (up and down as well as left and right) using gestures. The calendar supports gestures and tap-and-hold to add activities.
    • You can try and buy it from DreamSpring.
  • Google maps.
    • Now that the My Location is more accurate, this is even more useful. Very useful for figuring out what's around you (using the satellite view), and quite useful for routing, but since Google have lost the routing info to our street, the shine has gone off that functionality a bit. Hopefully they'll get that fixed soon. You can get it for free from Google.
  • Mobipocket Reader.
    • Smartphones make for fantastic ebook readers, at least for fiction (which is just text, and so page size is less important). Mobipocket Reader even has an ebook creator application that runs on the PC and allows any PDF or HTML to be converted to the compact ebook format (just pay attention to copyright, OK?). The reader keeps track of your location in all the books in your library, and makes it easy to pick up reading whenever. I find this great for those times when you suddenly have to wait (such as a visit to the doctor) and haven't prepared anything. You always have your phone with you, so you'll always have books with you.
    • A hint: are giving away SciFi books at the moment. Also is an excellent source of paid ebooks. Mobipocket itself has a lot of free ebooks, too. Don't forget to simply search the web. I found Blinky Bill (an old Australian classic kid's book) including pictures online at Project Gutenburg, and converted it across, including the pictures, to read to my daughter (she loved the pictures).
    • You can get Mobipocket Reader for free here.
  • Escarpod.
    • If you listen to many podcasts, Escarpod is a good app to have on the G900 (where it can use WiFi) to directly download podcasts, and then play them back. While it's a tad unstable, it works reasonably well, and allows you to keep podcasts separate from your music. It bookmarks where you're up to in a podcast so it's easy to resume later. You can get Escarpod for free here.


So, as you can see, with that collection of built-in and third party software, the G900 is a very powerful mobile media and life management platform. And it's also small, robust, reliable (I haven't had a crash for weeks) and cheap.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Carnival of the Mobilists

This week Carnival of the Mobilists is at Next Generation Mobile Content (which has a strangely familiar theme -- good to see I'm not the only lazy blogger around ;-) ).

There's lots of discussion on App Stores (including my post, below), thanks to Apple's latest successes and mis-steps, so check it out.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

The Happy Medium: Building a Smartphone App Store that Works

State of Play for Apple

It seems that the Apple App Store has hit its first real hitch, with the self-interested rejection of applications that potentially compete with Apple's own solutions.

This has, unsurprisingly caused a stormy response. The problem is a combination of factors unique to the Apple App Store:

  1. The App Store is the only channel to market for iPhone apps.
  2. The App Store reserves the right to refuse applications.
  3. There are no guidelines (at all, let alone binding ones) about what sort of apps will be refused.
  4. Refusal occurs at the point of publishing (ie. after development).
  5. There is no appeal process if refused.
  6. The App Store is run by the platform owner (ie. there is a conflict of interest).

This combination of factors creates an extremely unstable situation for developers, because they can invest heavily in creating an app only to have it denied access to the only channel to the end user, for no good reason, with no way to appeal.

Prior to this uproar, the risk of refusal was viewed by developers as relatively low, and the possible return as quite high. Therefore the trade off was considered worthwhile. Now, however, the estimation of risk has rocketed, and the potential return hasn't improved proportionately, so many are reconsidering their investments. This is simply good business sense.

State of Play for Symbian

On the Symbian side, we have quite a different situation.

  1. On Symbian phones there are no barriers to applications for many types of applications (but not all types).
  2. For more sensitive applications, Symbian Signing is the only barrier to applications.
  3. Symbian Signing is run by the OS vendor, who is not the platform vendor (ie. Symbian doesn't sell phones, or even make them -- Symbian has no vested interest, and there is no conflict of interest). Symbian Signing has strict, public processes (not perfect, but at least they're there, and they're improving).
  4. Applications are sold via one of four broad channels:
    1. self-distribution (via own website, etc.)
    2. online distributors (currently limited to two major ones: Handango and Motricity, although Nokia uses a third for their shop)
    3. operator shops
    4. bundling on device (eg. Quickoffice is bundled on most Nokia and SE phones)

So, the Symbian world has low risk of an application being actively blocked from reaching the user, but as you can see, it also has a low chance of an application making its way into the user's consciousness.

Why do I say an application struggles to come to a user's awareness? Well, look at the distribution channels the Symbian ecosystem offers. Apart from bundling on the device (which is reserved for a very few applications), the channels are scattered and inneffectual. Here in Australia I have seen Apple's TV ad (during prime time), promoting the app store. When will I see such an ad from Handango or Motricity? How come I've never seen Nokia or Vodafone advertising their app store? (In fact, I saw a TV ad for a new S60 device last night, and it merely advertised one feature. Given that the device was the 6210 Navigator, I'll let you guess which one. There was no indication whatsoever that this device was extendable in any way.)

For more commentary on this issue, see All About Symbian here and here.


Both of these situations need solutions, and quite urgently.

I think Apple needs to separate the App Store out as a separate company, so that there is no conflict of interest. It needs to publish clear guidelines and follow them strictly.

Symbian needs the Symbian Foundation to step up to the plate and create an app store with all the good features of Apple's (easy to use, well advertised, cheap for developers, source of all quality apps). The Foundation should do this rather than Nokia to avoid conflicts of interest and to allow the store to function for the whole ecosystem (not just the Nokia bit). This could also be a good source of funding for the Foundation, if it's properly managed (Apple claims that their 20% cut is merely covering their costs -- if so, all I can say is that their costs are ridiculously high).

One last point: Apple are evaluating apps on the basis of the impact they have on users or companies. Symbian Signed evaluates apps on the basis of the impact they have on the device or network. I think the former is really impossible to evaluate, and Apple is foolish to even make the attempt. Therefore the proposed Symbian Foundation App Store should merely evaluate the latter (impact on the device/network). Since this is already done by Symbian Signed, we already have a mechanism for determining whether to allow apps on the store or not, and we can simply focus on improving this.


23/09/08: This excellent post from John Puterbaugh (via this week's Carnival of the Mobilists) gives a much broader overview of the distribution system for mobile applications. However, all this new information simply reinforced my ideas shared above -- I still believe that Symbian (and Apple) can improve their ecosystems via the changes I have suggested.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Final thoughts on 6220 Classic vs. G900

Well, the 6220 Classic has been retired, and I'm back to the G900. Here are some parting thoughts.
  • I was expecting a lot out of Sports Tracker, and was sorely disappointed. It never once held onto the GPS tracking for more than ten minutes, and once it lost it, could not reconnect without stopping the activity (which prevents you getting statistics for your whole session). This was different behavior from Nokia Maps, which is very reliable.
  • This flakiness (yes, I know it's a beta -- so is gmail) and variable results were a common characteristic of my experience with S60. For example, I wanted to try out the Conversations threaded messaging app on Nokia's beta labs site. Unfortunately, there's no FP2 version, the the old versions simply don't work on FP2. Considering that messaging, contacts and calendar don't seem to have been upgraded much (if at all), why doesn't Conversations work?
  • Nokia's input method is a bit easier for me than SE's, but either one is very clunky compared to something like a P1i (or, presumably, an E71).
  • S60's calendar is truly atrocious -- the update from the new E series phones is sorely needed.
  • TV-out looks like a useful feature, but unless you're using the 6220 as a media player, or you're very hard of sight, it isn't really.
  • The 6220 Classic feels solid in the hand until you put it to your ear (or it does for me). Then the way it's held to your ear makes it feel very flimsy. The G900/G700 always feels pretty solid.
  • The 6220c crashed probably about once every three days for me. The G900 very rarely crashes, although it does do a deliberate, but unsolicited, reboot every few days (to "free up memory").
  • The 6220c only does auto-keylock from the standby screen. Dodgy.
  • The 6220c's screen really is gorgeous.
  • Nokia's PC Suite is more user friendly than SE's, but also more unstable.
  • Even after all these years, the S60 keypad-only UI still feels suffocating to me, and I prefer the more open pastures of UIQ 3. I'm looking forward to S60 Touch.

It will be interesting to see how the Symbian Foundation platform develops. I'm thinking about ways that UIQ 3's better features can be integrated into S60, and I'll be blogging on that soon.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

New Carnival of the Mobilists

The latest version of Carnival of the Mobilists is available at Mobile Point of View.

Check it out for the latest in mobile ruminations, including my comparo of the 6220 and G700/900.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Usability comparo: Nokia 6220 Classic vs. Sony Ericsson G700/G900

There have been a number of reviews of both the Nokia 6220 Classic and the Sony Ericsson G700/G900 twins. One of the better 6220 reviews is at The Register, while a comprehensive feature-list of the G900 is available at Mobile Me. If you want to read about the feature sets of these two phones, these are appropriate reviews. (Although Mobile Me gets the details of the G900's camera wrong, it is a 5MP autofocusing, fixed focal length camera with goodies like touch controlled focus area, and digital anti-shake. The G700 gets a 3MP fixed-focus camera instead.) However, I'm interested in usability, and it is on this basis that I want to compare the SE twins with Nokia's device.

Hardware and value

First, are these devices comparable? Certainly they are: in Australia I can get the 6220 on EBay for a little less than the G900, and for about a quarter more than a G700. How about in feature set? Well, the G700 is obviously the loser, but it's more than A$100 cheaper, too. The 6220 has a great camera, A-GPS, HSDPA and TV-out. The G900 counters with WiFi, and both SE's have a larger touch-screen. In terms of the physical packaging, I find the G700 easiest to use, with a good keyboard and joypad design, with the 6220 and G900 tying for second.

So in hardware terms, the 6220 seems to soundly beat the SE twins. However, this is where usability comes in. If you use even a subset of the 6220's capabilities (and I tend to use an awful lot of them), you'll find that the battery hardly lasts a work-day (ie. eight hours). This is borderline unusable for me, since the 6220 ends up not being a mobile phone. If you did a lot of driving and had a car-charger, this might be OK, but it's really an achilles heel for a mobile phone. It means I simply can't take my 6220 camping, or the like. For that I'd need the vastly bulkier N95 or the like.

There's another problem with the 6220: RAM size. After well over a year of large-memoried SE devices (P1i, G700/900), the 6220's limited RAM comes as a shock. Why do I have to go around and shut down applications to free up memory, anyway? Ridiculous. S60 is showing its seams here. The SE devices gain a huge usability advantage here (after the serious burning SE received on the P900 and then again on the P990).

Another shock was the network management. Why do I have to keep on telling applications which connection to use? And what on earth is this stuff about running out of connections? I've never seen that on UIQ, so it's clearly not a limitation of the OS. On the other hand, once connected, the HSDPA is fast, and has excellent reception (I use 3 here in Aus). But the G900's WiFi more than makes up for the lack of HSDPA. For a start, my ADSL connection is much cheaper than my 3 data cap, and for truly large things (like maps, podcasts, etc.) I really don't want to be paying for them. And the WiFi is faster (a bit). Finally, the G900 can automatically select WiFi when it's avaliable and fall back to 3G when it's not (something that requires 3rd party software on WiFi-enabled S60 phones).

So in terms of network connectivity the UIQ devices rule the roost (although the G700 probably ties with the 6220 due to the lack of HSDPA).

How about software?

System wide issues

S60 on the 6220 seems a little snappier than UIQ 3 on the G twins. This is particularly noticeable in, for example the Messaging app. While UIQ 3 takes a noticeable time to refresh its message list (about 0.5 of a second with a short list), S60 shows no refresh lag at all.

Both UI's have useless eye-candy effects that should be turned off immediately, since they don't help with usability at all. Both are deeply skinnable, which is both a positive and a negative.

UIQ allows each view of most applications to be zoomed (and the zoom setting remembered) to three levels. S60FP2 (feature pack 2, the version on the 6220), allows three levels of zooming across the whole UI. The UIQ approach is both theoretically and practically superior, though the S60 approach is better than previously (which had no zooming at all). In my experience, zooming is important to usability, since both eyesight and expectations vary considerably from user to user.

All of these phones have standard phone keypads, so a text input method of some type is required. The UIQ phones, of course, add handwriting and on-screen keyboards into the mix. The 6220 is limited to its T9 implementation. The superiority of the UIQ phones is amplified by the fact that many S60 applications inexplicably disable T9 in their input boxes. This drove me up the wall on S60 2nd Ed, and I can't believe such silliness hasn't been fixed! (For example, there are many input boxes asking for my name, eg. for an email account, which won't let me take advantage of the fact that my name is in the phone's T9 dictionary.)

Of course, UIQ isn't ideal, either. It's keypad input method has some truly frustrating quirks, such as the inability to guess at words (just refusing to accept more input, or reverting to digits), along with the crazy way the cursor won't go back into words (treating the whole word as an atomic unit and skipping over it). The 6220 also redeems itself with much better handling of a bluetooth keyboard -- the G twins force you to delve into Settings to turn off input methods all together. None of these devices is a patch on the SE P1i in terms of input.

Navigation and controls

Switching back to S60 after several years of using UIQ devices was not easy. S60's joypad/dual softkey navigation is clumsy, slow and frustrating compared to the richness of UIQ's navigation. It takes a while to remember all the S60 shortcuts (like the hangup key to go back to standby), and even then S60 is vastly inferior to the directness of UIQ. UIQ 3 really comes into its own on the G series phones, with their five-way joypad combined with the dual softkeys (which are present as both real and virtual keys on the G700 and virtual only on the G900) and back button.

Areas where I really appreciated the touch screen on UIQ 3, compared to S60, were:

  • navigating around grid views (such as the main menu)
  • marking items in a list (actually UIQ 3 implements this better even using just the keypad -- and S60 is worse than it used to be, thanks to the loss of the pencil key)
  • scrolling through long lists (eg. emails), where touch allows dragging the scroll thumb
  • activating on-screen status icons to bring up controls (eg. the bluetooth status icon on UIQ brings up the bluetooth app -- in S60 you have to dig into the menu, unless it happens to be on the standby screen; another good example is the camera applications with lots of on-screen controls rather clunkyly accessed in S60, but directly accessible in UIQ)
  • Hierarchical menus (quickly navigated by finger, slowly via joypad)

In addition to these benefits of a touch screen, SE has added a very useful lock/unlock button.

UIQ 3.0's control set of two softkeys and a back button is much preferable to the lack of a back button on UIQ 3.3 (and S60). However, there's not much we can do about that -- SE's next devices where going to be lacking a back button, anyway...

Finally, in terms of controls, UIQ's method of always changing volume in response to the volume controls makes more sense to me than Nokia's "hidden" approach.

Screen layout, etc.

UIQ 3 and S60 have a lot of commonality when it comes to screen layout. They both use three softkey spaces (in S60FP2) at the bottom of the screen, a thin status bar at the top, and a thick application bar below that, containing icon, tabs or other view controls, and a title. Both can use these areas in various ways, though, as mentioned, UIQ can use them to initiate commands as well as showing status. (For example, DreamLife uses the application icon as a command button for a context menu.)

UIQ 3 introduced an incredibly flexible listbox framework (that I really hope makes into into the Symbian Foundation platform), which allows for two truly useful features:

  1. Expansion of the highlighted selection. Thus the currently highlighted item in a listbox could have several lines of information, while the rest of the lines have only one (such as a title). This combines compact display of lots of information with details in the list view (without having to jump to the detail view). S60 has no equivalent, though the S60 application set try to compensate by allowing navigation between items in the detail view (using the left and right direction keys). This meets the second design issue (showing lots of details while being able to navigate between items), but fails at the first (showing many items).
  2. Navigation within "slots" in the highlighted item. In other words, the highlighted item can show a slot which contains multiple items, which can then be navigated between using the left and right direction keys. UIQ 3 uses this, for example, to display all the contact details of a contact while still in the contacts list view. The user can quickly flick through the different contact details in the slot, and then action (eg. call or message) a detail right from the list view. S60 (in the latest E series devices) tries to emulate this with a right arrow "context menu", but this is a much more limited mechanism.

Apart from this difference, S60 and UIQ 3 end up acting fairly similarly (even though the underlying technology is quite different). UIQ 3 is a bit more consistent, but it needs to be, because its interface is a lot richer (and thus potentially more confusing).


Both platforms have a fairly extensive set of standard applications. The 6220 soundly trounces the G twins in application range, though, with the location-based apps adding a whole set of applications that don't even exist on UIQ yet. Nokia maps is pretty impressive, the 6220's GPS locks on within seconds from inside my house, and keeps a pretty good signal. So far the routing has been OK, though not as good as my car's GPS. S60 also supports podcasting natively (though on a WiFi-less device it's not really that useful to most). Finally, S60's web browser is pretty impressive, although the way that it interacts with Nokia's own services is severely sub-optimal (why does the dictionary app send me to a page that requires scrolling down and to the right in order to download what I wanted?).

But that's where the good stuff on the 6220 ends. Everything else is inferior to the G twins. The standard PIM apps are inferior (poorer displays, inferior usability, inferior feature set); messaging is inferior (no HTML rendering, no push IMAP, no way to forward bluetoothed files); applications are scattered in mysterious places on S60 and fragmented into pieces (eg. Nokia Maps, GPS data, and Landmarks are all separate applications, in two different folders); UIQ's browser works better at least half the time, especially with mobile sites; the G twins' office suite allows editing without spending another A$100; and S60 can't import multiple calendar entries or contacts in a single message, and neither can the PC Suite's editor, so how do you transfer data without loosing information to a sync database?

The overall impression I got from the 6220 was a profusion of features presented in a confusing and slightly flaky fashion (especially with how it interacted with the numerous Nokia services). Add to that the fact that the 6220 has frozen about four times in two weeks, compared to the G twins' two or so times in the last four months, and things don't look so good.

However, Nokia's PC Suite is much better than Sony Ericsson's, both in terms of features and in terms of performance.

The 6220 has some pretty impressive third party software, however much of what I've installed has equal or superior UIQ 3 versions. S60 is probably better in this area, but it really depends on your individual needs.

I was initially very impressed with Sports Tracker from Nokia, which uses the GPS in a very useful way (to track your movements allowing analysis). However, so far I haven't been able to get it to complete a trip without dropping the GPS signal. And once it's dropped the signal, it can't pick it up again without ending the trip and starting a new one (meaning that you have lots of chunks of incomplete data). Very frustrating, and this needs to be working before this is really a useful tool.

The lack of WiFi has really constrained me in many ways with the 6220, so I imagine the N95 would be much more useful to me, personally.


The differences between UIQ 3 and S60 FP2 are not merely cosmetic. There are some real usability issues with S60 that remain after several generations, which points to poor design understanding on Nokia's part. However, Nokia is able to put together impressive hardware at a good value price. They just need to work on battery life and RAM size, and learn a few lessons from UIQ (such as its listboxes and a straight-forward touch interface), and the Symbian Foundation will have a good foundation to work from (no pun intended).

Providing a clean, coherent set of applications for a Symbian Foundation phone shouldn't be too hard, but is an important oversight on Nokia's part. Apple's example of a simple, clean set of applications should be emulated, not ignored, and UIQ 3 does better at this at present.

In terms of which phone to use, I'm torn between the 6220 and G900: the 6220's A-GPS and location app's are wonderful, but its battery life and clunky UI are really annoying. The G900 is a lot easier to use, and much more flexible. I'll check back in a month and say what I've ended up doing.

Update: Music Player

Having lost my borrowed iPod 20GB, I've decided to switch to the G900 as my MP3 player. Thus I've explored the music player on these two phones a bit more. Here are my findings. This is actually a three-way comparison between iPods (mostly the non-Touch versions), the G900, and the 6220.

The G900 has two weaknesses in music playback:

  1. Like all flash-based players, it has limited capacity, in this case to 8GB. Still, the 8GB is only A$90 or so, so it's quite cheap assuming you already have the phone (an 8GB iPod Nano is well over A$200). The 8GB can also be used as a memory stick later.
    The 6220 is exactly the same as the G900 in this area, except its card costs A$80.
  2. The sound performance is not great. There's a distinct hiss behind all music (no high-frequency components, but it's quite loud). This is borderline, but given the benefits I'm prepared to put up with it (especially considering that my listening conditions are rarely ideal anyway). Also, there's no "gapless" music playback, which irritates me.
    The 6220 has better sound quality, but falls down by having a pretty weak volume level. Gapless playback is not supported by the 6220, either.

The strengths of the G900 are:

  1. The music player component of the media player are excellent. The only missing feature is playlists based on genre (with the S60 player has). The ability to view, edit, and navigate around the play queue while it's playing (and even save it to a playlist) is brilliant. The cover view works at least as well as the iPhone's cover view. Other navigation is all quick, intuitive, pretty, and takes advantage of the keypad to allow searches, etc. I like the way you can operate on whole artists or albums, or drill down -- it's very powerful and flexible. Much better than the iPod interface (at least the pre-Touch version), and better, too, than the 6220's competent setup (with the exception of genre playlists).
  2. The ability to use a headset from the W960 with my own earphones is great. The remote control headset from the W950 is even better. An adapter for third-party headphones is just as easy to get for the Nokia -- not so sure about remote controls, though. The two are equivalent in terms of bluetooth solutions (and substantially superior to an iPod).
  3. The SE media manager software allows recoding when transfering files to the phone, which is very handy (esp. since AAC+ can get much better quality at the same bitrate than the iPod's AAC, and better also than WMA). Nokia's music transfer solution can do the same, but is substantially less polished (unlike the rest of Nokia's PC Suite), and less flexible. Apart from the encoding issues, neither solution is as good as Apple's iTunes (though iTunes inability to sync with multiple computers and its encoding limitations limit its usefulness).
  4. Just carrying the G900 (or 6220) is much more compact than even a Nano plus my phone.

Friday, 19 October 2007

The Potential of Smartphones

So often in the mobile phone business, people have approached these devices as merely mobile versions of immobile technology. Thus the "mobile web", "mobile mail", "mobile phone", and so on. But what if we approached smartphones from the perspective of what they are, what they can do, and what we could do with that?

An example of a technology that is completely "home grown" to the mobile community is SMS. This was not a planned service in the same way as MMS or WAP -- the operators and handset manufacturers did not carefully design and market SMS. It was simply a capability available on the phones and network that suited people's needs, and so it took off. (Note that SMS was not "mobile instant messaging", it was simply a messaging facility for operator use which turned out to work wonderfully peer-to-peer. It's mode of operation is, in fact, quite different from IM, and it is only recently that efforts have been made to fit it into an IM type of UI, such as on the iPhone.)

So what could we come up with in the future, and how do we go about it? Or do we have to rely on accidents?

I think the first thing we need to understand with this approach is exactly what a phone is, and how it fits into people's lives. So let's tackle that one first.

What is a smartphone?
If you are intimately familiar with smartphones, you can skip this section. Still, it's fascinating to take stock of just how much functionality modern smartphones pack into them, and to think about the uses of that technology independent of the actual features.

A smartphone:
  • Is a small computer with substantial CPU and memory resources
  • Carried almost everywhere
Smartphones have:
  • Relatively small screen (sometimes touch sensitive)
  • Small keypad or keyboard
  • Built-in phone, for telecommunications with other people
  • Microphone and the ability to record from it
  • Speaker and the ability to play music and sounds
  • Usually a camera (or two) with the ability to capture stills and video
  • Internet connection which is usually, but not always, available
  • Bluetooth connection which can detect and communicate with neighbouring devices
  • Infrared connection which can communicate with neighbouring devices
  • Positioning information, available via cell ID or built-in GPS
  • Databases for contacts and calendar information

Some smartphones have:

  • Light sensor
  • Motion detectors (eg. iPhone, Nokia 5500)
  • Near field RFID units (eg. mobile Suica)

What can we do with this?

So, the question is then, what can we do with the (fairly impressive) bundle of functionality that millions of users carry around with them every day?

Well, some ideas are pretty straight-forward:

  • Use it as a PDA (to keep contacts, calendar, and notes)
  • Use it as a mobile web browser (slowly starting to become viable as screens get bigger and, more importantly, CPUs get fast enough to present the web in readable ways on a small screen)
  • Use it as a mobile email terminal (RIM has been particularly successful in this area, although something like an E61 or P990i/M600i on an operator-provided IMAP push service is just as good, and much cheaper)
  • Use it as a constantly-updated weather chart
  • Use it as a navigation unit, with maps, current location (via GPS), dynamic routing, and even dynamically updated traffic status
  • Use it as an e-book reader

What's obvious about these ideas are that they have all been transferred from devices that already exist. PDAs, web browsers (on desktops and laptops), email, online weather, GPS navigation, and e-book readers are all technologies that have been around for quite some time. Putting them on a smartphone certainly makes them more accessible, and thus more useful, but doesn't really transform the way they integrate with people's lives.

Are there other ideas that can be built from the smartphone's capabilities itself? Yes, of course there are, and here are some we've seen:
  • Lifeblog: using the camera, location and time information, and recording snippets of your life along with some comments on it, creating a multimedia "life blog".
  • Sensor: using bluetooth and a personalised profile to discover and meet people in your
    immediate vicinity with matching interests.

The problem with these ideas, and why they haven't taken the market by storm, is that there really just curiosities. They don't meet a real need. How many people complain that they don't have a sufficiently rich record of their lives? Not many.

New ideas

Are there other ideas that take advantage of the capabilities of a smart phone and meet a real need? I think there are many, and I'll talk here about one, which I would love to see implemented.

Imagine a service on your smartphone which took advantage of its computing ability, its knowledge of your location, and its connection to the internet. Imagine that you could specify a destination and a desired arrival time, and this service could go off and discover all the ways you could get to that destination at that time, then present you with the options, and then book your chosen options, and finally remind you about when you needed to get moving to get there, and guide you through the process.

For example, I might want to fly from my home on the Gold Coast, Australia, to a hotel in Hong Kong. The software would start by attempting to find a route from start to end. Once it knew this, it would attempt to find services on this route, starting with the most irregular and expensive (ie. the flight from Australia to Hong Kong), and then work down to the simplest (eg. getting to and from the airports). Then it would present me with a range of "best-case" options (no point confusing me with lots of almost-identical options), and I would choose what I wanted for the various legs. Remembered preferences (for example, I prefer the train over driving) would make the choices easier by prioritising them so my most likely choices are the first ones I see. Finally, it would take my choices, book them for me, and keep the e-ticketing information.

Then, when the time came to make the trip, the software would remind me when to start (maybe by putting appointments in my calendar), would present the e-ticket information when I needed it, and would guide me through the confusion of interchanges, and so on.

All of this information is available on-line today. All of the technology required to do this is available. Much of the infrastructure, such as mapping and routing technology is freely available for this type of "mash-up".

What's missing is a good UI running on the phone, which integrates well with the phone's capabilities (its small keyboard and screen, its calendar database and positioning technology), and provides fluid, friendly interaction.

There are obvious add-ons to this service, such as the ability to find and book accommodation given your parameters and choices. An even more powerful addition would be the ability to carpool with others who are heading in the same direction. Sharing aggregate data with transport providers could even allow them to improve the quality and efficiency of their services.

Mass market?

The question is, are these types of services useful for many people? Do they have mass market appeal?

If the purpose is to plan large-scale trips like Austalia to Hong Kong (or even interstate within large countries), the answer would have to be no. However, if the technology can handle small-scale trips like meeting someone in an unknown pub at a certain time, then this is far more useful to the general user.

The tipping point is based on usability and price. It has to be easier to use the phone to discover, book, and schedule your trip than it is to do it yourself. If you are looking at a regular trip (such as a commute), it's unlikely that you'd use such technology, unless it gave you benefits such as carpooling or a discount ticket (from the transport provider to encourage use of such services so that they could better implement their services). But an irregular, but still planned trip using public transport -- such as a weekend outing, or a meeting with the mates or for work -- presents planning and information gathering demands that a smartphone could easily perform.

Personally, the idea of being able to quickly and easily find my way to a meeting, without wasting time at connections or stressing about figuring out the best way there, sounds like a dream come true.

The key to these ideas

Perhaps the key to this approach is to understand the smartphone as an "invisible" tool. A tool that is simply the conduit for desires and information. The idea I've mapped out can include peer-to-peer functionality (with carpooling), which many believe to be a key to success, as well as information and service delivery.

This is the beauty of smartphones: they can span so many "worlds" that they can do all sorts of exciting things. Let's not just create "mobile" versions of existing, desk-bound services, let's try to create truly unique services with the capabilities available right now!