18 December 2009

the confusing world of phones

When did phones stop being phones?  There are plenty of phones where making a phone call isn't the easiest thing to do.  Some modern phones don't even have physical call and end buttons any more!  You can even get phones with cameras in them that rival some of the best point and shoot cameras (okay, not really, but they do claim the same megapixel count!).  Just look at the list with some well known examples...

  • music phones
    • LG Chocolate/Sony Walkman Phones
  • camera phones
    • Samsung 12MP
  • navigation phones  
    • Nuvifone (didn't say it was any good
  • social networking phones
    • Sidekick or INQ
  • personalization phones
  • safety phones
  • Windows XP phones
  • advanced feature phones
    • Samsung Instinct or Nokia Series 40
  • green phones
  • TV phones
    • anything with MediaFLO

    And of course there are smartphones in various flavors that can do just about anything you can imagine - remember "there's an app for that!".  Right now the war of the blogsphere and PR is all about the latest and greatest features, functionality, industrial design and services that can be offered on the device.  If the discussion isn't about the latest features on the iPhone or what new crazy feature is in the upcoming build of Android or how Palm is going to re-re-invent the market, then it's about the trouble of Windows Mobile and how it's loosing market share like crazy.  The funny thing is that for the majority of people these phones can already do pretty much anything that they want. 

    The question REALLY should be -- do people know what they want to do with their phones?

    Some research from a few years ago on how people use technology in a mobile environments, came away with a particular finding that many users want to a) communicate and b) be entertained.  Obviously a phone should be all about communicating - whether it's voice or text.  With the addiction to email, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, the desire to stay in touch is clearly desired.  Entertainment on the other hands is a mixed bag.  For some it's about reading posts on Facebook, for others it's listening to music, watching a TV show, reading blog postings or playing games.  Since user's desires can often change and they are different from one user to another, most smartphone architectures simply allow users to pick and choose from a large (generally overwhelming) library of applications that can enhance their experience by providing them with the "entertainment" options they might desire.  While this provides the greatest flexibility for the manufacturer (OS provider) and lots of flexibility for the end user, it also make it harder to have a great customized solutions.  At the end of the day, the user has lots of little uncoordinated applications (different UIs, data sets and capabilitites) to deal with.  Many users will be absolutely delighted since they've never had these capabilities before, but for the mass of users, they don't want to spend all the time tinkering with their mobile device to get the applications they desire. 

    One way to address this issue is to create shells.  HTC has done this with TouchFlo and Sense and Motorola has created Blur.  These shells with tie together a variety of different features that users often desire and can be great.  In the past however, particularly on Windows Mobile, the cost of adding a shell was performance and depth.  Many of the devices suffered from performance problems and were just too slow when the shell was running on top.  Also the shell generally doesn't go deep enough.  It covers maybe 80% of what the user might generally encounter, but then they get dumped into the core of the OS for the last 20% which can be an even worse situation than not having the shell at all - since the interface constructs can be widely different.  

    Perhaps the optimal way is to allow the device to become self-configuring with a rich user interface that can adapt to the different functions that an individual user desires while integrating those functions.  For example if I'm listening to music on my phone and want to share the song (or information about the song) with my friends, why not make the ability to post that information to Twitter directly available from the song?  And if my friend responds to that posting wouldn't I want to have that information available with the song as well?  If instead of thinking about each individual application as a separate item, they could be combined into meaningful activities that span the entire usage of the device, wouldn't that change the way we interact in a positive manner?

    There's a lot of work to do in the phone market -- you have to start somewhere...

    1 comment:

    Evan said...

    Need to figure out how to do some better formating... my bulleted list looks horrible :-(