Monday, 9 January 2012

fantasy vs reality (smart phones)

or perhaps desire vs requirements

pre: scriptum

For the overly sensitive I am not suggesting my phone is better than yours. I am actually only attempting to challenge the implicit assumption of current expensive touch screen phones that it may not be the case that your phone is actually much better than mine. Though I suspect that in itself is distressing.
A criticism of this article is that it compares phones which are not properly smartphones. My responce to this is that the phones under comparison here are the Nokia E63 (which some may not call a smart phone) and a focus on my experience with the Samsung GIO which is most definitely a smartphone.

I've resisted making this post for some time, but after a conversation with an old friend I realised that perhaps I'm not the only one thinking this way and that perhaps I can afford to be the only one in my circle of friends who thinks this way.

My first question is "why do you buy a phone is it to make phone calls? Is it to communicate?" or is it to have access to other things?

Basically I'm bloody sick of everyone pushing "smart phones" onto me, which are often enough not any smarter than my existing phone.

For instance I have written blog posts, taken the images for it and posted that to the web from the above Nokia (this post for instance) while outside walking about.

I decided that the best way to solve this question (for me at least) was to stop fiddling with other people's phones and "go live" for a while with one of my own.

Now I knew that there would be a time to 'adjust', so while I was going to be sitting in hospital for a while (a week, month or so ago) I would have time on my hands and could reliably undistractedly be spending time to fiddle with and get acquainted with a new phone.

So I bought an Android phone (Samsung GIO) and handed my Nokia over to my wife (who would be needing / wanting access to communications like phone, SMS, WWW, email, Facebook, Skype ... blah blah blah).

The short answer to this is that within the 2 weeks I used it I went from wanting to like this phone to selling it and going back to my Nokia.

This should also be said up front that Nokia deserve a good hard kick in the pants for munging up their marketing on this and other E-Series phones. They've done such a pitiful job of selling this phone that I had no idea how good it was until after I bought it and compared it to others.

Now I'm no stranger to mobile computing which sort of started back in the 90's with PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants) . I've had 3 iterations of Palm (currently still using an elderly Sony Clie) since 1997, made use of Laptops for my travel computing for over 12 years and live and work on the internet as much as the next IT sort a fella.

US Robotics Palm Pilot 5000

Now I have a number of friends who love (well, often also love~hate) their iPhone / Android phones. One of my friends (and fellow bloggers) has a compelling site into what sort of advantages can be had in image processing on the iPhone where editing and capture are combined on the one device. Check out his blog here. I can certainly see the advantage of a phone where it has combined an acceptable digital camera; as I have been long aware of the truth behind the old adage that
the best camera in the world is the one you have with you at the time you need it.
while not up to the standards of an iPhone 4s I can say the camera in the little Samsung was quite acceptable (though neither is a decent substitute for a decent camera)

First: what did I like about the new generation of phone?

Larger screen (but that's a double edged sword), you sure have more space to put your icons for your apps and to get to your apps (and I installed a few) was easier and allowed me to set up a home screen as I would on a PC ... sort of a miniPC.

Graphical presentation, the very sexy smooth feeling of the "gravity" feeling of slipping through a list or a page with a swipe.

But all these features just don't balance out if the thing doesn't work as a phone properly, right?

So what didn't I like about my new "smart phone"?

This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor does it go into detail on why. But, well for starters the phone coverage wasn't as good as my Nokia ... nor was the voice quality, hands free quality or Bluetooth headset functionality.

Battery life .. if you're not always plugged in, its dreadful. Heck, even my Palm (always marketed as a desktop extension) would last for months on AAA batteries or weeks on AAA rechargable. My new Nokia "Smartphone" lasts for 2 or 3 days and my older Nokia (plain old phone) lasted easily a week.

Then next thing was I didn't think it was that smart.

Now read this list below carefully and consider that coming from my Nokia E series phone which already did:
  • email (including PUSH email)
  • basic WWW (just a small part of the internet)
  • Calendar (and integration with Google)
  • Contacts that can be accessed immediately (and integration with Google)
  • internet podcasting
  • internet streaming radio
  • MP3 playback
  • Bluetooth A2DP (which connects and plays music on my car as well as does handsfree)
  • voice dialing (without an internet connection)
  • voice reading of SMS and email (without an internet connection so I can listen to SMS's through my hands free BT headset while driving)
  • QWERTY keypad
  • integrated Maps and Navigation
  • camera (tres basic on my model)
  • Quick Office (spread sheets on the phone)
  • PDF reader
without so much as downloading anything.

It leads one to ask "what more do you need"?

It was a bit of a challenge to identify much about the Samsung Android which provided much more smarts than my older one.

If you look at it another way, phones like the Nokia E-Series, Blackberry, iPhone and Android are all providing the same sort of functionality. They connect to the internet, have decent data rates, have applications which integrate with both the phone system (camera / gps) and TCP/IP connectivity.

It all comes down to how its UI is packaged and what the consumer thinks is smart.

So there wasn't much left to add into this equation for me except "touch screen" bigger screen and faster CPU.

While the Samsung did open the door to stuff like Angry Birds or some nice fun apps it was a usability nightmare in so many ways.

Usablity issue - input

Give your touch screen phone to some one who has never used it. Its quitelikely they'll hang up the call by mistake, change what is active on the screen, perhaps delete something. People who are used to touch screens have learned that you have to be careful with it and often simply forget about this.

Watching someone typing on a touch screen can be amusing. They have to carefully cradle the phone so that they can hold the edges, and dart their thumb down taking great care as to not touch anything else by mistake. Its quite difficult to use one while walking and you certainly can't ergonomically hold it and type on it. But that's ok as most users don't type much on their touch screen smart phone.

I can type quickly and reliably on my computer, the T9 keypad on my older phones and on the QWERTY on my Nokia E63, but no matter how much time I put into it I just kept making errors AND having maddening difficulty in editing them. A bit of looking on the net reveals its not just me, its a whole world of people out there having trouble with this.

While there are some success stories out there with respect to text entry (like this article) for each success there are probably 100 other sites giving tributes to the poor auto-correct that touch screen phones give.

One site (which seems to fit my own experience) , that seems to have nothing vested in the outcomes gives the rates as being higher for iPhone users while speed of entry was about equal.
iPhone owners entered text as rapidly as QWERTY owners on their own phones. However, iPhone owners made significantly more Texting errors on their own phone (5.6 errors/message) than both QWERTY owners (2.1 errors/message) and numeric phone owners (2.4 errors/message) on their own phones.
(full article here)

Instead what struck me with the touch screen phone (I'll be calling it "New Smart Phone" from now on as my Nokia is just as smart and IMHO touch and screen size was the only significant difference) was the complete lack of tactile feedback in using the phone and the lack of control in editing because of the lack of physical navigation keys.

This is a significant point form me as one of the things which drove my move to Palm was that I didn't want the keyboard dominating the device (as it had on earlier keyboard devices like my Sharp Organizer). On my Palm a tiny portion at the bottom of the device was the pen input area and the entire screen was touch sensitive.

The Android phone I used however lost most of the screen visibility when you began entering text, and only displayed a couple of lines of context. Not as good as the Nokia, while the Nokia has a smaller screen it doesn't have to dual task the screen thus requiring design and presentation changes. Many times when using the Samsung the buttons needed (like Send) would disappear of the screen and you'd have to swing the phone around a few times to go from portrait to landscape just to get the button back.

Holding the phone an typing on it was a pain. I mean if you just want to type out:
yes, be rnd in a yic
its fine (although I wanted tic, and it isn't worth trying to re-edit that). But the nature of the touch screen meant that you can't accidentally bump anything (even with the merest of pressure with these capacitive screens) without blowing your input. The Nokia on the other hand allows your thumbs to even support the phone while you type, you can even feel where one letter starts and the other ends.

I soon learned that the touch sensitive was as much of a curse as it was a benefit on the Palm.

For instance you would pass the device to someone and they would delete or change something by just touching it accidentally. This same issue was as ever at work on the Touch Screen Phone as it ever was on the Palm. I could go on about the UI issue, but I think that its only suited for usage where you are able to focus on touching what you see and you only engage with the device by touching big coloured things.

If you're vision impared I suggest also looking at the voice advantages of the Nokia.
So if you don't mind what you write and can sort out the problems later then its all fine and dandy ... shat me to tears however.

Usability Issue - Reading the screen
Size matters, so I was also attracted to the larger screen, which I expected to add usability.

So while a bigger screen seemed to be a better idea, in reality it didn't work out for me as when web browsing I found as many sites which did not render as readably (despite trying 3 different browsers) on my Samsung as they did on my Nokia - despite the Nokia having the smaller (by half) screen. I suspect that this has to do with packing the pixel density too high for the screen size.

This got me to thinking, am I expecting the phone to do more than it really can? I mean if I wanted a laptop sized screen I could get a tablet (like an iPad) which gives me usable pixels rather than puny pixels. Sure the iPhone 4s looks very sexy but I need a magnifying glass to really see how much better that looks. The 640 by 980 pixels of the iPhone 4s screens sure looked nice, but the print ended up being so small I couldn't read it when rendering fonts at max density.

Already the iPhone is getting on the large size (funny how we used to prefer phones to be small and convenient) and I think that going larger would be pointless.

Oh I can hear the objections already, but then I'll put it to you another way. The Dell Streak has a much larger screen, but becomes a larger device as this vid demonstrates.

despite having a larger screen and being a pretty good touch screen phone people have not flocked to it ... I'm guessing the cumbersome handling has something to do with that ...

its a portal to your hip pocket

Cloud computing has a number of benefits but just in case it wasn't clear or obvious if you're not on the internet you can't access it. Now for some people being unable to get 3G signal is as frightening as not being able to get air.

Strangely enough I find myself in locations where there isn't 3G and thus I don't have access to Google maps while I still do have the Nokia OVI maps which my Nokia came pre-installed with. So as long as my GPS can see a satellite I can navigate, but of course the New SmartPhone can't do a thing.

So if you want to do anything with these New Touch Screen smart phones you have to have a steady stream of data to do it.

Most of the people I know rely on WiFi hotspots and home WiFi to supplement this, meaning that their phone becomes less functional when they leave home. Unless they're willing to pay and are in an area which provides that service.

Speaking of service and costs, you'll need to look at your phone companies billing methods, as here in Australia at least billing per MB is not uncommon. This means that if your phone:
  • makes a connection
  • uses data
  • closes that connection
you are billed for 1MB even if you used 0.027MB (which is about what a email check or skype handshake will require)

I ran Skype and email on my new phone for 5 or so hours and it sucked a shockingly large amount of data. Not that the phone thought so, in fact the phone thought it had only consumed 117KB or so. The phone company on the other hand billed me for over 50MB of data (good thing my plan has 4000MB supplied).

To make things worse, you can't set the phone up to chose which apps connect to what data source (can on the Nokia) or even to do something polite and ask which data source they should use or even if they can.

My Nokia on the other hand has a connection manager, which allows me to decide to connect and holds the connection open for apps that request it. Because of that a typical 5 hours use of Skype and email on 3G can be 1 or 2MB

But all of this seems to fit the average users technical levels / willingness to learn and the Telco's desire to charge.

The Telco wants to sell you on a system which ensures a revenue stream for them.

I want a phone that:
  • makes calls,
  • sends text messages
  • extends the realm of communication to include some other web services like email, Web, Facebook, Twitter and a few other things.
  • give me access to calendar and diary

While I was sitting browsing my mail in the hospital, I got an email from my friend which had a cartoon seemed to sum up this situation.

Heaps of guys just fantasize about marrying a "model", probably as many chicks drool over movie stars. The fact that some other woman may be even tempered, great with kids, cook well and even help balance the budget is overlooked in comparison to the "hot babe on a banana lounge by the pool".

Many seem to be obsessed with what is fashionable and how it will look to others if they are seen together.

I think that's a bit of how it is for many "New Smart Phone" users (which is not to say all of them).

For many it seems that having a reliable functional device which goes the distance is secondary to the user experience (a bit like that old anti Mac ad)

Try using your "New Smart Phone" for a few days away from power and see how it goes. Even with 3G turned off, no WiFi, no SMS and only an hours worth of calls in the day my Samsung only lasted 18 hours.

My Nokia does something like a 3 or 4 days in such usage.

I understand that some of my friends will now view me in rather similar light to the way that some groups view you announcing you like football (that'd be soccer to some Australians) or that you're gay.

bottom line

If you want a phone to be a phone
  • make phone calls
  • to allow you to send and receive email,
  • do a bit of web browsing,
  • take some photographs, and maybe email them or MMS them
  • play music
  • access social media like Facebook and Twitter
and you don't want to
  • spend a lot of money on the phone,
  • wish to use a lot of data
  • be always worried about it running out of battery
go get a Nokia E63 for $99. Put the extra bucks into an iPad or something.

It could be said that the main problem for phones like the E63 or the Blackberry is that they don't look right. People who use many of the touch phones would try to tell me that their phone is easier to get at X Y or Z feature than mine is. Well my response to that is only because they're more familiar with their device.

Sure you may have access to some features more easily (like evernote) on the New Smart Phones but then you could always go grab a 10" tablet and have the same thing with a much more usable screen area.

In my view a New Smart Phone which is bigger and costs more than a phone and a tablet, isn't such a hot choice.

Is it to be seen as stylish? If you were after a set of running shoes would you go for a pair like this?

they sure look more stylish and sexy?

Lastly I'd like to leave you with this quote from a site comparing the Nokia E72 to the iPhone:
Part of that experience is hampered by usability confusion, likely a non-issue to those staunch Nokia addicts who are upgrading to the E72 from its well-esteemed E71 predecessor, but which presents stumbling blocks to those fresh to the platform. Little things, like managing WiFi network and cellular connections, were less obvious than Android, webOS and the iPhone OS make it; mockingly obvious to those familiar with the ways of S60, but a headache to everybody else.

Or to put it another way ... were less obvious on Android and iPhone after having come from various PC's and Nokia. Its strange how if you grow up with something you think its intuitive, but forget all what you've had to go through to get to where you are.


Charles Maclauchlan said...

Hi Chris:
Thanks for the mention. I've been thinking about this post and must say that I understand it completely. In fact I think i will make an entry on my blog about it.

A lot depends upon what a person will use a "phone" for and how much one must pay for it. My use is quite different from yours. My son whom I call Science Boy (he's a geologist) thinks a lot like you. He uses the "oldest pocketable cell phone known to man." Whenever it finally breaks he complains bitterly until he finds another just as feature limited and then he's happy. I can add this type of phone to my account for $10.00 mo so it's practically free.

I on the other hand absolutely love my pocket camera / world connection device and find voice calls an often as not I have it in "Airplane Mode" which disables the phone.

Hope you're recovering properly.

obakesan said...

Hi Charles

recovery is doing well. I can now walk through the soft sand on the beach without feeling like I'm dying or about to.

Had to mention your blog because it (and others found easily from it) exemplify what I see as the advantages of a unified device.

If only there were no compromises (and my arms aren't long enough for the small screen these days)

You'd laugh if you saw the phone I swapped out just recently:

Still, having access to 90% of what exists on the internet is definately "pareto principle" on this phone.

I am thinking of getting the E72 just for the better camera however. From the sounds of it you'd almost be well enough off with an iPod that had the camera and software of that 4s (get a cheapie phone and leave it turned off ;-)

Cameron Murray said...

Interesting stuff Chris. Phones, and peoples' attachment to them is becoming very personal - almost tribe like (Android v iPhone tribe).

I have a couple of points to add.

First. My parents long for old phones with big buttons and text and no features. As I found out when I bought them a 'new' phone recently, there are people on ebay making a living buying, repairing and selling old indestructible Nokia phones like the 1100. Sort of a niche market there.

My personal experience is going from an old Nokia to an iPhone 4 (yes, I held out till Dec 2010 before upgrading from a 'brick' to a smart phone). Now, it is indispensable. It takes a little time to learn just how functional it can be, and there are Apple-isms to deal with. But now, I can't stand old phones like the Nokias I had for years! And even some of the new non-smart phones are such a pain I wouldn't use one if it was free.

My feeling is that these days it is the software functionality and ease of use that makes a phone practical.

And, most importantly, there is a trade-off between the breadth of functions, and ease of use. Different phones cater to different users on this scale (e.g., iPhone is very easy to use, but is functionally more limited than other phones).

Anyway, thought provoking article.

obakesan said...

wow, talk about quality to quantity ratio in the comments. Two comments and two thought provoking responses.

I'm beginning to suspect that I need to cover this topic in more depth than I have.

Particularly Cameron, when you said:
"And even some of the new non-smart phones are such a pain I wouldn't use one if it was free"

raises so many issues to me such as functionality, user interface design (efficiency of design comes to mind too) and proprietary operation of the OS.

When it comes to the definition of "smart phone" its almost like its changed from a functional view to an 'experiential' view.

Perhaps this is a poor analogy, but: I do a lot of things with software for a living. Mostly I work in Windows 7, but quite often there are things which really are better done with a commandline from a Unix box shell prompt.

Clearly the problem for the Nokia I have is that its OS is dead and no further development is being undertaken there, but that doesn't immediately mean (to me) that the iPhone is inherently the better OS.

As Charles mentioned (perhaps more clearly than me) user requirements (what you want your device to do) vary widely. Just as surely however so too does user acceptance of of the device based on appearance and marketing.

When it comes down to communications functionality there is very little that Android, iPhone, Blackberry or Nokia offer. All connect to the internet (email, www, apps which use IP to communicate), all have loadable software and do telephony tasks too.

I guess what I'm feeling is that everyone wants a power saw, which is fine and dandy, but sometimes a hand saw will cut that bit of wood faster and with less effort - even if it doesn't look sexy doing it.

I would like to think that as time goes on that software improves. Certainly I see more rich software developing and evolving on the market place (stuff such as Charles discusses on his iPhone blog and much more). However I also see tin tacks functionality remaining static, bugs unfixed or even vanishing. Back in 1997 my Palm Pilot had a Diary, Memo system that was hierarchical, an address book and a ToDo system which was both hierarchical and prioritized by date. Heck it even did email (via dialup modem). So it seems weird to me that I can't yet find any device that which can replace what my Palm did.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Bullion Baron said...

"A lot depends upon what a person will use a phone for"

I think this hits the nail on the head.

I use phone call functionality a lot less regularly than I use the messaging or web functions, so the larger screen on the Samsung Galaxy S2 that I recently upgraded to suits perfectly. I can stand on the train, hold the phone at arms distance and still read the morning news/blogs.

I came from a phone with physical keyboard (N900) and up to that point I swore by them, but a week with the onscreen SGS2 keyboard (used horizontally, I do struggle hitting right letters if vertical) and I was convinced.

I also found the inbuilt GPS on the SGS2 extremely useful when recently travelling in Europe, paired with some navigation software (CoPilot8) it was a "must have" when in difficult to navigate cities. We saved hours and saw a lot more than we would have otherwise by having something tell us where to go.

The battery drain on the unit is pretty disappointing, but you can get larger batteries to counter this (still probably won't achieve the 3+ days use of older phones though).

You do raise valid points obakesan, for the phone user who wants call quality, all in one functionality and a smaller device for convenience then older phones like the Nokia E series might still suit some people better.

obakesan said...

BB, its most interesting that your view comes from using a N900, which has many of the same features as the iPhone (particularly the 3G). I would be quite interested to find what it was that made the Galaxy 2 stand out over the N900 if you have time.

200ok said...

I think you've run into a lot of the downsides of touch screens, there.

Battery life has always been a tradeoff on these things, ever since the Nokia N95 came out and people were shocked to realise they'd have to charge it *every day*. These days, so long as it reliably gets through one day it's considered ok. To put it another way, expectations are based on an urban lifestyle where you simply aren't away from power. You want to go bush, you want my old Motorola Razr which liked to be plugged in, oh, once a week maybe.

I think you'd have been infinitely happier with my last phone, an HTC G1, or the HTC Desire Z - they have qwerty keyboards.

I am currently using a Samsung Galaxy S2 and while it's awesome, my input rate has plummeted compared with the G1. I would have got the Desire Z except it won't work on Telstra - and if you live in Sydney and like some level of connection, you have to go Telstra.

I think in some ways smartphones fall down by trying to be everything. People currently think we can have one device to rule them all - hence people squinting into the glare as they try to read books on iPads. Instead of buying a frickin Kindle which whips iPads for reading.

I get a lot of crap from friends for doing things like having a phone book in the house and a refidex in the car. But I've learned to treat smartphones and ipads as the unreliable conveniences they are. I think many people would do well with a "feature phone" in their pocket and an ipad in their backpack.

Still, I'm rather enjoying the real estate of the S2 and so far I'm not going anywhere near my data cap (not that I've been tethering a lot). Guess I'll let the experiment run a little longer ;)

writergenn said...

Hi Chris

It's an interesting post - your smartphone conundrum goes to the heart of the problem of HCI that has bedevilled every new technology since dials were put on radios.

It's often the case that a technology that tries to change the game does so at some initial functional cost. As you rightly point out, this seems to be the case with smartphones. The basic functions of smartphones are handled better by some of the older units. Personally I still think my old Razr was way better than my Galaxy S for making and receiving phone calls. However the Galaxy does so much more that it has become an indespensible part of my work.

The beauty of the smartphone is that it opens up the device to functional customization by the user in a way that is beautifully simple. Just as the first pc's were hopeless typwriters, their ultimate success was in their ability to eventually do whatever the hell you wanted.

As you yourself said - it depends on what the user wants. I recall that Steve Jobs once said that it's no good developing what the customer wants, because when you deliver it they want something else (or words to that effect). The android and iphone environments allow the users to be creative with the device. And that's what I love about them. Its not just that its so much more than a phone/camera/browser, its that there are some many new apps appearing every day that some clever bastard has dreamt up, most of which I did not know I wanted until I hear about them. For example I now regularly use the phone as a document scanner when on the road, and I use it to watch movies on flights, and to read books, and to do the NY Times crossword. Yeah, the Razr was a better phone, but the smartphone grows with you over time and now I couldn't imagine going back.