Category Archives: mobile

The 1″ Gap

Smartphones are phones – devices for one-handed use on the move. They are also devices for consuming information. The restrictions on size by the former, and the requirements for screen real estate by the latter leave a gap between two ideal sizes – and mean that there is currently no device that spans the entire range of uses.

When looking at today’s super-sized touchscreen slabs, one-handed use doesn’t seem to have been a consideration in their design.
This is puzzling in a way. Be it taking a call, hammering out a quick answer to a text, changing a track or checking a map – I want none of these core activities to be restricted to situations where I have both hands free. A mobile should be that – able to integrate seamlessly into mobile use, without the need to pause and put down things before operating it. This, of course, puts restrictions on the size of the handset – which, after all, is mainly determined by the screen size. Anything up to 3.7″ is comfortable for me personally, up to 4″ doable, while something like the 4.3″ of the SGS II is already a stretch. With screen sizes beyond that it’s no longer possible to reach every part of the screen with the thumb. They require two-handed operation. The modern superphone, at 4.7″, is already firmly in that territory of two-handed operation.

But then there are good reasons why screen sizes have grown so much. Browsing the web, watching video, reading books, playing games – most modern uses of our smartphones benefit immensely from more screen real estate.
Small screens limit the amount of information that can be displayed. Even with high resolution displays, they are only a small window on the information space, a frame into which things have to be crammed. It’s not possible to read desktop websites without problems, video remains an at-a-distance experience, and they can’t really replace an eBook reader.
Large screens fix this problem – but not really at the 4.7″ of the modern superphone. Sure, things get better at this size, but the crampedness doesn’t really disappear. They are just a halfway solution. To make the crampedness disappear, we need to add another bit of screen size. My guess would be another .3″ at least. At another .6″, i.e. a 5.3″ diagonal, at the latest, the frame no longer dominates the content. EBooks are a joy, movies acceptable, and the vast majority of desktop websites work without a problem. And while one-handed operation is no longer possible, every adult should be able to comfortably and securely hold  a phone with some screen size between 5″ and 5.6″ in one hand.

So, for the time being, there is a 1″ split between mobile phones that really fit the name by allowing one-handed operation, and mobile handheld devices that allow fully mobile, unrestricted information consumption. The current form factor of 4.7″ superphones trades in the former without really achieving the latter.
I say for the time being since I still hope for the flexible screens and other new display technologies that have been promised to us for seemingly ever. Given these, there is a chance for a device that adjusts for either use without compromise. I’m waiting for a future compact mobile that has a screen that unfolds or unrolls to a larger size when needed. Until then, I guess I’ll be using and carrying two devices.

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@tomiahonen: Windows Mobile & the lack of a migration path

I used to read Tomi Ahonen‘s “Communities Dominate Brands” blog religiously. Stats, stats and more stats, and analysis that took place outside of bubble of the US blogosphere. Now I mostly just skim what has generally turned into a collection of rants about the stupidity of Stephen Elop (though, strangely, never the Nokia board which has signed off on the strategy), the evil of Microsoft, and the general foolishness of believing that the US are anybody in the mobile space. I also used to be active in the comments there, first often in assent, then trying to argue against the more obvious misgivings and factual mistakes.
Now I don’t bother much anymore. But, very occasionally, I still feel the need to comment on something. In this case it’s a tweet from yesterday: “The collapse of MS happened only after MS moronically announced ‘no migration path’ from Windows Mob to Phone7”. The collapse in question here is Microsoft’s market share in the smartphone sphere.

The opinion expressed in this tweet contains two huge mistakes:

It is first of all taking correlation for causation. There is the direct assumption that Windows Mobile was still a viable OS at the time Microsoft announced the switch, and that what prevented users from buying Windows Mobile handsets in the time between the announcement and the launch of Windows Phone was just the announcement of no migration path.
But when you look back at any review of new Windows Mobile device at the time, the main question software side was how well the manufacturer had skinned the device to avoid bringing the user in contact with the system itself. The ideal Windows Mobile device would have been one that completely hid this fact (were, apparently, the HTC HD2 came pretty close). Windows Mobile wasn’t just criticized by reviewers – it was ridiculed, in far worse a way than either Symbian or Blackberry OS have been since. This was universal, not just by the US tech press/bloggers. HTC, as the main quality provider of Windows Mobile devices, had already started to enter the Android Market, and all the other manufacturing partners that Microsoft had were either starting to explore alternatives, or were already on a shift away. Windows Mobile was about to crash and burn no matter what.

The second mistake is assuming that a migration path from Windows Mobile to Windows Phone was an option at all. Migration paths are not a simple matter of decree by the management. They are hugely difficult technical undertakings. Keeping the old enabled while introducing the new doesn’t just add complexity – it multiplies it in parts. The resulting system is universally less perfomant, less reliable, and presents a worse overall user experience than a complete fresh start would have provided. This was doable up to a point with Windows on desktop systems, where each new generation of hardware has always had computing cycles and memory to spare, and the electrical juice to run the extra burden. Processing power, memory and, most of all, battery life are at a premium on mobile devices, so that the extra overhead presents much bigger problems here. More importantly, on Windows for desktops, the input paradigm for the UI has remained constant across versions up until now: mouse-operated pointer control. Migration paths have been a question of under-the-hood technology. Windows Mobile to Windows Phone represented a transition from resistive screens and stylus operation to capacitive screens and touch. This is not just a change of technology, it’s an entirely different UI paradigm. Integrating the old would have meant accommodating these two different input paradigms – which, on a mobile phone, is a recipe for sure disaster. Offering a migration path that enabled the old software to run on the new devices would have accomplished little for the users (just try hitting that 5 x 5 pixel button in a row of three like ones with your finger instead of a stylus), but dramatically worsened the overall experience, and terribly restricted what Microsoft could do in terms of new architecture. There was no way to salvage anything from Windows Mobile without endangering the  viability of Windows Phone in the marketplace.

So: Windows Mobile had to die. That Microsoft made a clean cut and did not offer a migration path is what enabled them to come out with a system that at least has a shot at #3.

PS: regarding the developers, who really were pissed off at Microsoft at the time? Windows Phone currently is the third ecosystem in one respect only: developer mind share. It’s surpassed the Blackberry AppWorld and Symbian, and the new developer tools are universally lauded as the best in the business. There are now more applications for Windows Phone than there ever were for Windows Mobile, and that with the new system at a fraction of the old one’s market share. This was a gamble, but it didn’t turn out as quite the catastrophe that could have been expected.

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Linkage: The Android patent infection

Android’s patent problems have attracted the attention of the mainstream press, and are about to influence actual product availability in several markets.

My take on some of the aspects in connection with this can be found in a post at unwiredview.

 

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Locked into a feature

As I’ve previously said here, it’s often the smaller features that make or break a device for me. The lock mechanism is of these. Since the unlock/action brackets every other interaction with my phone, it’s something that needs to be done right.

The slider on the N8 is exactly the kind of control I want there. It enables me to lock/unlock my phone with a single action. It’s located almost directly under a finger when I hold the phone – so it doesn’t require much movement or effort. Because it is a mechanical slider with some resistance, it doesn’t get triggered accidentally. Operating it gives the kind of nice, haptic feedback that modern phones (especially touch slates) usually lack.

Both the Android and the iOS mechanisms of a button press followed by a slide across an on-screen element are clunky by comparison. Two different actions, two different fingers, two different locations on the phone. They require twice the effort and have twice the complexity. For now, the simplicity of unlocking my N8 is one of the reasons that I’m still locked into Symbian.

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AMOLED for the time

In a lot of ways it’s a toss-up between AMOLED screens and LCDs. The deep blacks on AMOLED screens are wonderful, but the oversaturated colors are not everybody’s cup of tea, as is the fact that less protective layers are needed, and the interface appears as printed on the surface of the device. The sunlight legibility beats most regular LCD screens, but is in turn eclipsed by transflective LCDs. Energy consumption is lower than for LCDs when lots of black and dark colors are used, but when browsing the web with mostly white web pages this advantage is lost. In these respects, AMOLED is a question of usage scenarios, and, more importantly, taste.

The reason I’m firmly in the AMOLED camp is a single feature that Nokia have implemented on their phones with AMOLED screens, and which can’t possibly be replicated on a LCD screen: the lock-screen clock. It takes very few dots to make our pattern recognition kick in and see shapes – in this case a display of the current time. With AMOLED pixels are lit individually, so these  very few dots consume very little energy. With a LCD, where the screen is backlit as a whole, this display of the time would necessitate the screen being permanently on – and kill the battery in no time.

Not having to press a button on the phone to see the time might seem like a small thing, and it is, when taken as a single action. Summed up across a day, a week, a device lifetime of use, it adds up to a substantial advantage. But it’s not just saving a few thousand taps on a button – it changes the nature of the time telling. Not requiring any interaction is a fundamental difference from requiring even the simplest one. It is no longer just a device that can tell you time when you request this information. The fact that all you need to look,  that the time is right there for you to see makes the phone into a real replacement for a watch and a clock.

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Tick-tock – Apple goes Intel & other thoughts on the iPhone 4S launch

Just a few thoughts about the launch of the iPhone 4S, in no particular order:

Tick-Tock

Five iterations of a product are not a lot to base this on, but it seems that Apple has adopted for its design something like the ‘tick-tock’ approach that Intel uses for its processor designs: alternating between a complete change of the product and an efficiency/smaller upgrade.

This is disappointing for all the industry pundits who were getting bored of the old iPhone, and for those Apple fanboys eager for an immediately distinctive upgrade to prove their cool, but to me it shows how Apple want to position the iPhone: as a product that is complete enough, and has enough value to the customer, that they don’t need to devalue the older models each year with a complete change of the lineup. For them there is no reason to enter the race of fast upgrade cycles and the technical spec wars, as they position the iPhone as something outside of the feature-sheet comparison buying decisions.

A good example for that type of comparison can be found at engadget . In the end, Apple count on the majority of users not caring what the precise battery capacity is, but whether a charge gets them through a day, and not whether the front camera has more than VGA resolution, but that they can actually make a video call using it. How utterly out of hand the spec comparison can get, with the necessity to have a category ‘winner’ highlighted in green there’s a chart at gsmarena, where the old iPhone wins over the now one because it is 3 grams lighter. 3 grams are an academic difference, not noticeable to anybody who doesn’t own a precision scale and bothers to actually compare them.

Hardly surprising

On the hardware side the biggest surprise was that there were no real surprises. Faster processor, better camera, more memory – all logical upgrades. The improved antenna was really a necessity. ‘Antennagate’ didn’t really influence the sales of the iPhone 4, but to let the problem remain in the next iteration would have been shameful. The ‘world phone’ aspect is interesting in that it has CDMA and GSM, but of more relevance to Apple in that they can now have a single production model than to the consumer. It won’t make switching carriers in the US, the market where this technical change would matter most, any easier.

Still a phone camera

“The best stills camera on a phone.” is something that has yet to be proven in independent comparisons (yes, that’s the N8 owner in me). My guess is that the increase to 8 Megapixels is Apple’s concession to the megapixel race, and that they would have preferred to just increase the sensor sensitivity. In actual use better low-light performance is worth more to users than higher pixel count. Still, I have no doubt that the new camera is an improvement, and that this is another nail in the coffin for standalone consumer digital cameras below the high end.

Fairy dust

Apple continues to integrate concepts and services that they see as proven on other platforms, and apply the magic of Apple branding speak to them. This time round it’s Google Latitude (and all the other lesser known ones that came before), which has the fairy dust of ‘Friend Finder’ applied to it.

Postcards of children

The marketing fairy dust seems to have failed for the snail-mail greeting card service. In addition to apparently lacking any snappy branding, is did seem confusing for young phone bloggers why this is something Apple would add. Really it’s just a sign of what the iPhone has become: an everybody phone, not something targeted at geeks and early adopters. Among the everybodies, the iPhone users with children who can now send a great photo to the grandparents will be glad. A relatively limited use case? Sure, but it is a service that makes perfect sense for Apple. It’s a simple concept that is self-contained,  feature-complete, easy to use, builds on existing, proven infrastructure (online photo services), and is something that will prove indispensable to a subset of iPhone owners who use it. Plus there’s a very respectable profit margin there.

Computer – execute

My first thought about Siri was just: another attempt at voice search. Then I wondered about the branding. It’s not an ‘i’ service, it isn’t descriptive, using one or more common English words (see the above ‘Friend Finder’). ‘Siri’ is an anthropomorphization of the service. It really is intended to be an assistant, not just a piece of software, and, most importantly, not just voice search and simple voice commands for the phone. In view of this the naming does make sense. You traditionally talk to people, so talking to your phone should involve at least some feeling of this being similar. And if you expect some kind of intelligence in the service’s reactions to your requests, then casting it as something quasi-human is probably going to happen automatically anyway. Just witness the people who ascribe a personality to their voice-guiding satnav units.

Regarding the functionality I’m sure that Apple integrating this means that they’re confident it works well enough for a large number of use cases. In principle there is a lot of value in this. Setting an alarm via voice has a real speed advantage, and things like conditional notifications (the ‘remind me after work’ example) are greater help. We’ll see what else Apple offer in terms of functionality at the moment, and how discoverable what the service can and can’t do is going to be.

The general problems of voice operation remain:

  • The adaptation to additional languages is a lengthy and expensive process. This goes first of all for the speech recognition side of things, but also for the background semantic parsing of the input. A lot of this is sure to rely on sheer volume of previous data to compare to, of human-curated or human-accepted responses, and there’s no easy transitioning this to another language – and cultural context. This is entirely a problem of resources and roll-out speed, but some languages for which localization of the interface has been commercially viable will remain uncatered for.
  • The problem of language variation extends within what is formally seen as a single language.  Germany, for example,  is in fact not really a single market you can address entirely with one adaptation. I studied in Regensburg and students from other parts of Germany (native Germans most of them) often didn’t understand the locals. So people there might equally find that their iPhone’s don’t understand them.  Granted, Germany has a particular high variance in its dialects, but I’d expect there to be equal problems in parts of Great Britain, and in other places around the world.
  • Voice control needs situations where clear recording of audio is possible. Construction sites, factory floors, loud bars, the tube or windy streets are all highly problematic environments. This alone means that voice control can never be the sole input.
  • Voice control needs situations where it is possible to speak to the phone. There are two aspects to this: privacy and social acceptability.
    • I may not want others around me to know the content of my interaction with my phone, or the fact that I’m interacting with it at all (e.g. during a meeting).
    • In a lot of situations it is not socially acceptable to be talking much, it at all: open plan offices (without much telephone activity), at the library, or even in most public situations (think Japan). Further at the moment it might be acceptable to talk to another person, but talking to a machine would be seen as weird.

Taken together this means that the utility of something like Siri will vary hugely depending on the user’s everyday contexts. Somebody who drives to work and back alone in his car and has an office to himself is at the high end of the scale, while somebody using loud public transport and working in a shared, possibly noisy space, will be at the low end. As @disruptivedean tweeted: ‘Siri: designed for countries where people drive a lot & need to talk to devices while at the wheel. Not places with crowded public transport.’

So it remains to be seen how well this works in practice, and for how many people. Personally, I’d really like something like this – but with the addition of a text input box that I can type in in all situations where I can’t talk to the phone. Oh, and a desktop version, too. Neither is problematic in principle, and I guess both will come eventually.

Nothing new on the player front

The iPod touch hasn’t been updated. Together with the introduction a the 64GB iPhone model, this means that the biggest internal iOS storage is no longer exclusive to the iPod touch. An update to 128GB would have been easy technically, and wouldn’t have cut too much into the financial margins with the usual $ 100 price increase for the doubling of memory. Maybe Apple no longer sees local storage as that important?

Ranging from the expensive…

Apple now has a range of iPhones, from the 3GS via the 4/8GB to the 4S with different storage capacities. Does this mean they have the all-conquering Nano, the half-price iPhone? Seen from the US perspective that Apple announcements invariably adopt, they had that before, with the 4/3GS paring: $ 199 and $ 99 on contract. Now they have something unbeatable: an iPhone for $ 0! The iPhone 3GS directly competes with low-mid-tier smartphones like e.g. the Samsung Galaxy Ace or the HTC Wildfire, and it’s going to kill most, if not all of the competition there.

In the rest of the world, where operator subsidies are lower, or not the norm, things are different. Looking at the German pricing (which, as usual, translates the US dollar prices to euros 1:1, meaning a hefty markup even once the sales tax in the US is considered), the 3GS is listed at 369 €, the 4 at 519 € and the 4S as starting at 629 €. (Curiously this puts the 4 with 8BG above the current retail price for the 4 16GB – so go figure. I’ve never understood Apple’s German pricing anyway.)

So if you look at it within Apple’s price range, then the 3GS could be seen as the Nano. It’s more than half price, but it is significantly cheaper than the current model. If the prospective buyer is dead-set on getting an iPhone, then this significantly lowers the entry barrier. The problem is that the widening of the smartphone market is driven in large parts by people who don’t have the money to buy even the entry level iPhone. Plus it doesn’t do anything to convince people not yet committed to iOS, who shop based on such prosaic aspects as screen size and resolution, processor speed, camera quality, the ability to play back any video file they throw at it, or need more integrated memory.

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The new iPhone? – Just one wish…

It’s iPhone day today. While that’s always an important date for the industry, I’m not all that interested personally. Apple products are not for me. This time round I only have one definite wish concerning the new iPhone: it shouldn’t bring a screen larger than 3.7″.

Large screens are certainly great for some important activities such as browsing the web, and for less important ones such as watching video. For all those much more numerous times throughout the day when I quickly need change the track that I’m listening to, or check the time, or actually call somebody, I want a device that I can easily use one-handed. Anything with a screen above 3.7″ falls outside of that category.

With the entire Android world already deep into the collective madness of only 4″ and above screens for any flagship model, the iPhone is the main bastion that still prevents the entire industry from equating a high-end handset with one that has a huge screen. If it goes, my chances of buying something with current, great specs at a size that I’m comfortable with sometime within the next 12 to 18 months decrease a lot. So while I certainly won’t be buying an iPhone 4S/5, here’s to it having the right size for me, to help the chances of me finding another phone that also does.

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