Wednesday, 2 May 2007

What I want from a mobile phone

We have finally reached the point where a mobile phone can replace a laptop. No, really, I mean it. It's now possible. Honest.

3G telecommunications technologies including HSDPA and EDGE make mobile broadband finally worthy of the name. Windows Mobile might actually be worth buying (and I say that with great reluctance), Symbian continues to evolve and Motorola is cautiously selling phone-PDAs running a Linux system. J2ME turns mobiles with a non-sophisticated OS into platforms almost as powerful. On my mobile I have Opera Mini, GMail, Google Earth (I'm not kidding), a very swish ebook reader and I would have a J2ME application to synchronise my calendar with my Google Calendar, but I can't install it because it complains about security certificates. Which I can't update. Bad Samsung, bad!

So this is my list of what my next mobile will contain. Most of it is already available for the same price I paid for my current non-PDA phone less than six months ago, although not all at once:

A proper PDA OS. This can be one designed for a mobile, or adapted for a mobile, I don't care. If I'm going to put this much thought into this useful a device, I don't want to try and cobble all the extra functionality on using J2ME, as good as that is. I am willing to consider (shudder) Windows Mobile, but if it comes to a tie I will buy Symbian on the strength of being Symbian, and descended from my favourite PDA company, Psion.

Broadband networking. This is a no-brainer: If it can't access, through whatever carrier I will be using, really fast downloads, there's no point in having most of the rest.

WiFi. I have, sitting at home, a wireless broadband router that services my partner's laptop very well from anywhere in the house (as the house is a 19th-Century Queenslander with thin wooden walls, this is not surprising). I also, at home, have basically no mobile reception and certainly not enough to be able to download any data more complicated than a scratchy voice signal. I want to be able to connect to the Internet via the broadband landline connection I'm already paying for, and check email or download ebooks or find out movie times without paying my mobile carrier for the privilege and without worrying about the signal dropping out halfway through. The ability to use Google Docs properly will also make this essential. I am baffled as to why
Sony-Ericsson's intriguing but ultimately incomplete M600i lacks WiFi and believe everyone else is as well.

The ability to use Google Docs through whatever the built-in browser is.

Which will preferably be Opera.
I use Opera on my current phone even when I know that it has to exit and hand over functionality to the built-in Access Netwave browser to download files. It's just better.

Touchscreen.This much power almost requires a touchscreen to be useful. Scrolling through complicated web pages a link at a time will convince you of this if nothing else will. Admittedly, Opera has got this half-sorted. I still want a touchscreen.

A QWERTY keyboard. There are three hundred different ways of doing this, some of them hideously ugly and inconvenient-looking, but consensus seems to be settling on tiny keys in a classic candy-bar one-piece layout, with a phone that doesn't even have to be much wider than the one I've got now, or a slide-out or fold-out landscape-mode wider keyboard which may or may not be easier to use. I've written large tracts of text on a Psion Revo QWERTY keyboard that people with small hands can touch-type on (I have seen this happen) and even on the distinctly thumb-only keyboard of my Sharp Zaurus SL-5500, which is not much bigger, and certainly no wider, than current offerings from Palm and Blackberry. At this point, I'm willing to consider options. I don't want the Blackberry Pearl system of two letters per key and predictive software to guess which letter I meant. If I'm going to do that, I'll just use T9 on a conventional number pad. I'm prepared to consider the two letters per rocker key arrangement on the M600i (it at least shows ingenuity)
, but not on that phone as it currently stands.

Hardware number and navigation keys. PDA-style phones that have a huge touch-screen and a slide-out QWERTY keyboard are all very well and good, but I want to be able to use it like a mobile. It's convenient, it works, it can be done one-handed.

The ability to slip into my pocket. This is difficult to reconcile with the above, and with a screen wide enough to comfortably display things like Google Docs: Witness current high-end Blackberries and Nokia's non-fold QWERTY phones. But the only people who need to hang things off their belts are soldiers, police officers, tradesmen and executives with defensive, gadget-based self-esteems. I will also accept iPod users who need to have the controls and earpiece cord easily accessible. If the mobile needs to use tricky engineering to make the keyboard fold out, good. If that makes it thicker than my wallet, bad. I would live with using a jacket pocket but I live in Brisbane and wearing a jacket is, to say the least, unusual. This is another reason I'm annoyed at how incomplete the M600i is, and why the drool-inducingly potent P990i just won't, much as it pains me to say this, cut it for me.

SyncML/OpenML. I'm serious. This is an industry-standard, open synchronisation framework which allowed me to not only back up my previous Sony-Ericsson T630 to my Linux desktop, but manipulate it and send SMS message from the computer as well. When that phone died it did so at such short notice that I didn't have time to examine my options as closely as I would have liked and didn't check this on my ultimate replacement, the otherwise extremely nice Samsung A701, assuming that it would be installed. Big mistake. No SyncML, no sale.

Once upon a time I scoffed at this, but the convenience value of having it available means that you may as well. Strike two against the M600i.

Media player.
My current phone serves me well for MP3s, given how little I feel the need to listen to them (and, working on the phone for a large portion of the day, the time). I'm not even sure if it's possible to buy a phone that can't, these days.

JSR75. This is only if the phone has J2ME installed (which is also almost a given). JSR75 is a package of optional functionality for J2ME which includes file-system access, PIM apps access and camera access. On my mobile it's there (sort of) but, well, buggy. I don't feel like using a great technology if it's been crippled by leaving stuff out.

GPS. Well, why not? This is optional, but nice. I can already use Google Earth, why not a proper GPS system? Nokia (among others) will already sell you a phone that will do this, and eagle-eyed watchers of the recent Casino Royale will have noticed Daniel Craig getting directions from his product-placed Sony-Ericsson. Pity he took his eyes off the road to do it. (N.B.: The M600i I keep mentioning was the white phone used by Vesper Lynd).

So what do I like? I like what Palm have done with modifying Windows Mobile, I like the M600i if only it had better navigation controls, a camera, WiFi and I could use the keypad. I'm also interested in the Samsung Blackjack but, after how much my current Samsung annoys me with its incompleteness, I may not be in the mood to give them a second chance.

That's a disturbingly short list at the moment. On the other hand, each of my previous phones have lasted me two years, so I've still got a year and a half for the marketplace to improve. As a bonus the M600i is now selling for less than I paid for my current merely clever phone, although the Samsung Blackjack only barely tiptoes under the four-figure mark. I've got another year. I'm confident.

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