Ruminations on the Smart Phone

I’ve got a fairly large bone to pick with the smartphone as a device. I started out with an MDA 1 from HTC from TMobile running Windows Mobile 3 as my first “real” smartphone. I had a WinCE device previously but it wasn’t a phone. There’s an important distinction here – phones are different from tablets and pocket PCs and such because the task of being a phone has to have immediate preemption no matter what else the device might be doing. This makes any offering on any device consider the idea that the UI must be streamlined enough to be a phone first, and whatever else you want to do secondly. Anyway, this was back when there was enough standard issue C in a device my skills were at least relevant. Me and Tmobile got sort of buddy buddy over in their forums which, while plagued with spammers and me-toos, are fairly open in terms of what’s discussable. Nowadays things like rooting and whatnot come with big tags warning you it’ll void your warranty, but I think anyone who’s afraid of voiding their warranty or service plan is simply going to run over the phone with the car and claim it was an accident. Back then (2003-ish) it was really open to discussion and the company was simply fascinated with the idea that users might actually do something with the phone and not hardware engineers like HTC or “developers” like MS.

I never got into palm. Taking the paragraph above into consideration, maybe palm had the better idea. The phone does one thing at once and therefor when the phone comes up, it knows exactly who to kill to get resources. Every palm OS was different while Windows Mobile, while quirky, was mostly the same thing. Windows Mobile was Windows Mobile, Win CE was Win CE, and then Windows Mobile 5 came out and that was the breakpoint for an entirely new thing. I’m sure people will disagree with me. I felt the iphone wasn’t open enough. When I talk about open my specific rub for iphone development is the threading model. Mysteriously the iphone is limited to four threads per app. I’m not sure if they ever fixed this, but it’s just a bizarre requirement. I have a deep respect for anyone willing to play ball with Apple as a result. The idea is downright strange from a computing perspective and MS more recently did it with the desktop OS. I think it speaks volumes for what level of bullshit the users are willing to put up with and I think that the slow adoption of Windows 7 and the nonadoption of Vista speak volumes for the user experience towards a device. On a smartphone you might not notice the four threads requirement. On a table PC you probably will because the tablet never escaped the PC part of it’s name. On a desktop you will notice it entirely, which I think is why Apple is doing well and will continue to do well. The phone looks like the desktop, they run similar apps. The apple tablet runs the phone portion of the OS and apple users are more comfortable with the idea of a device rather than some shade of PC. Microsoft will always be microsoft and branded itself as a business company after the war with Lotus and therefor MS users expect MS products to be shades of a PC. This is why windows mobile 7 is going to flop. Is it technically astute? Yes. It fixes a lot of the issues Windows previous had getting smaller. Does it look like a business device? No. It looks like a Nokia product. Its not speaking to the MS Target Market. For the same reason Blackberry can’t rebrand itself (aside of the fact that BEX is garbage) as anything more than a business device, attempts by MS to be a non-business device probably aren’t going to fly. Your kids don’t give a shit about Microsoft, but they know the apple logo by heart.

This article cares to disagree. They think a reboot is what’s needed and they pick the bone that everything looks like an iphone. I personally don’t think that everything looks like the iphone, I think we’re stuck in the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Menus, Pointers) UI if we realize it or not. Even if you dress something up with new colors or a cartoony look, we’re generally putting out icons in a grid, and we like it. The list UI is available on android, but it tends to fall by the wayside with every casual user I’ve talked to once they install their first application. Cellphones get lists. Smartphones get icons. Cellphones use keypad input. Smartphones have a keyboard. It’s only natural then that we go back to the XEROX PARC idea of icons in a grid. It’s not a MS thing, it’s not an apple thing, it’s not even a Linux thing, it goes all the way back to where we get the X in X-Windows from – XEROX’s UI. We haven’t come up with anything better. We’re sort of getting there, the new widget thing MS is doing with Windows Mobile is sort of cool, but it’s basically a question of “How do I put six windows on the screen and keep them readable”? That’s what the widgets are – they’re very small windows. It really makes me nostalgic for Window Maker. See the little widgets on the right? Each one of those is telling you something while still being about the same as the widgets on any of these smart phones. By the way, that screenshot is from 2001, back when the matrix was cool.

Has the UI changed? No.

We’re still using little postage stamp sized windows on a little envelope sized screen. We might tie into “big boy” services like office, but fundamentally people’s model of the smart phone is that it’s a small computer. The google phones do well because they avoid this idea, the apple phones do well because their users have already seen this on an iPod, and the MS Phones will fail utterly because the UI doesn’t scream “small computer”. MS’s zune is dead. The XBOX doesn’t really talk to anything without a total PITA setup process involving running back and forth between the XBOX and a computer connected to the web, and the whole thing is conspicuously missing a USB cable. Mac people don’t have problems sharing media or networking because it plugs in over USB. Connect the cable, get to work. MS still wants to run the network (not sure why) and that’s above the interest level of the average home user. Bits and pieces of the MS Empire may do well, but frankly the Windows Mobile 7 phone simply isn’t what people expect at this point out of a smart phone.

Where’s the innovation? “You’ve done an awful lot of complaining, Knarr, and very little fixing!”

Here’s the UI of the future, folks, you read it here first. The home screen is going to work on the entire idea that phones are now messaging devices. The last complex application here is going to be the webbrowser, simply because the web was built for PCs and people expect Frontierville on Facebook to look just like it does on their PC. The idea of a “mobile version” is just crap. People hate it. You fire up frontierville on your phone and you want to plant some damned corn, you don’t want to see “FACEBOOK LITE”. The UI of the future is going to be the home screen being the most immediate task. Got a message? The home screen will look like an envelope. You can flip through envelopes to see a series of contacts who messaged you like a rolodex, you click on it to open it and you can read the messages like sheafs of paper or, gasp, individual e-mails! Got a phone call coming in? I want to see the dialpad with the caller ID on it. Why? Because if you’re talking to your friends you’re not looking at the phone, but if it’s the bank calling and they want you to press 2 to speak to a mortgage rep, I hate having to fish around for the keypad. When someone’s calling or you’re calling someone, just display the caller ID until you pick up (or dismiss) and then bring up the dial pad. I hate displaying facebook statuses and crap like that, I’m holding the phone up to my face and talking to someone, not holding it out so I can read the screen. Have a list of applications? Take a queue from the cellphones (or MS) and have a Start menu or “applications menu” which lets you flip through categories. These are typically games, office, web, utilities and configuration. The icons thing, while quick, has got to go. However, I’ve always been a keyboard crusader, and I’ve always liked hotkeys. Why not make your cellphone UI have Hotkeys? You can either yell “start, apps, office, word” or you could use your finger to write S, A, O, W. It already does finger drawing recognition and there’s very little chance of butt dialing with this scheme. Contact lists can be the same way, write letters for Phonebook, Family, Parents, and then Frank, or dad. You get the point. We have this idea of small windows which do one thing, but then we overcomplicate the UI. While bitching about the icons thing for lack of innovation is the right idea, the problem is a problem of input and not presentation. Presentation isn’t going anywhere new until we get holograms, and even then it’ll probably be cubes and not squares. Input is always changing.

Innovate the input, then exploit the hell out of the new methods. The UI should follow the interaction with the phone, not dictate it.

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One thought on “Ruminations on the Smart Phone

  1. Pingback: Steve Jobs on Android « CGA in a VGA World.

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