Monday, 24 September 2007

What I want from a mobile phone, redux.

Way back at the start of this blog, I jotted down, for the purposes of thinking out loud and for my record, and just in case anybody who actually work for a manufacturer stumbled across it and thought "Oh yeah..." (no, I have no delusions of relevance whatsoever), my demands of my next mobile phone.

Since then, many things have changed.

Not my requirements, but my opinion of the tools that will fill them.

So I thought it would be good, while I'm struggling to get any work done thanks to over-use related neck, shoulder and back pain and, to be honest, a small hangover, to revist my list, starting with the non-negotiables:

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 no longer willing to consider Windows Mobile, for the simple reason that it uses synchronisation technology which, apart from being Microsoft-only, keeps being changed. Symbian is still good, and Linux may actually have a decent selection of available applications when it comes time for me to make my choice, with Motorola using it, Palm developing (still) a Linux-based interface and Trolltech soldiering on with QTopia for phones.

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. That basically means HSDPA. No point in not using the industry standard.

WiFi. More commonly referred to as WLAN. 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 (coverage maps only tell half the story. I think we're hidden behind hills). 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 or go through my RSS feeds and maybe even write erotic fiction on Google's servers without paying my mobile carrier for the privilege and without worrying about the signal dropping out halfway through.

A really good text editor.No, not word-processor. Text editor.

An SSH client. Why not? The cool-factor alone is worth it.

Touchscreen.The power I'm asking for 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, Nokia more so and Symbian apparently (thanks to Nokia) likewise. I still want a touchscreen.

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. And don't even think about mentioning touchscreen software keys. I'm not interested. My keys need to have tactile feedback. All you iPhone junkies can piss off.

The ability to slip into my pocket. This is difficult to reconcile with a screen wide enough to comfortably display webpages usefully and with a keypad that's useful for large amounts of text input: 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 a keyboard fold out, good. If that makes it thicker than my wallet, bad. I would quite happily use a jacket pocket but I live in Brisbane and wearing a jacket is, to say the least, unusual. I want it to look like a phone, feel like a phone, and take up as much space as a phone. In this post-RAZR world, the bar has been set quite high - My SAmsung A701 may frustrate me at times, but I sincerely believe that it's the best piece of mobile design I've yet seen and I use it for email and text entry. Kudos go to Blackberry for the Pearl and Sony-Ericsson with the M600/P1: Both companies found ingenious ways of getting QWERTY keypads onto rationally-sized phones by halving the key count, fitting two letters onto each button.

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 the file system and clock settings 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 (which means: Windows Mobile, no sale).

Once upon a time I scoffed at this, but the convenience value of having it available means that you may as well. And I may as well specify 2MP minimum, while I'm at it.

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.

The optional, but nice, stuff:

The ability to use Google Docs through whatever the built-in browser is.
Unfortunately, I doubt very much that supporting web word-processing is anywhere near the top of any sort of priority list of any of the developers. It doesn't even make the grade for some desktop browsers.

A QWERTY keyboard. This used to be non-negotiable, but now I'm not so sure. A good predictive-text system coupled with the standard mobile key layout serves me well with the text editor I am currently using, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the easier navigation (you try hitting one of 26 keys as quickly as one of 10) actually improves speed and convenience (balanced by having to cycle through options on many/most words). There are three hundred different ways of doing QWERTY in a mobile package, 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'm also willing to consider the unusual predictive system used by the two-letters-per-key Blackberry Pearl, as well as the two letters per rocker key arrangement debuted by Sony-Ericsson on the M600i and carried over to the much improved and rather tempting P1.

GPS. Well, why not? I can already use Google Earth, why not a proper GPS system? Nokia (among others) will already sell you several phones 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. On which note: My partner and I are looking at bluetooth motorcycle intercom systems, and getting spoken directions from my mobile would be kind of cool :)

So what do I like? I like Palm's reputation, but have to wonder when they're going to do anything interesting again, which means: When the hell are they going to have their Linux-based OS ready? I like the P1 (a lot), but can't help but notice that it lacks HSDPA. Plus, I'm not sure about the keypad yet. I like Samsungs, particularly since they are using Symbian S60 a lot recently, but I'm wary after finding so many little points of incompleteness in my current phone. Plus, they're doing a lot of sliders, and I'd prefer flip for a non-QWERTY phone. I don't trust LG quite enough to buy their mobiles yet, but Motorola are growing on me, particularly since using Symbian neatly sidesteps their main fault: A bad user-interface reputation. Which leaves Nokia. A few months ago I started getting the unnerving thought that Nokia, a brand I prefer not to touch because they have all the flair and style of Volvo, may be the only people who know how to build a complete phone. I really hope they're not. Just to spoil things, the first Nokia I really was interested in, the Symbian-powered N76, is not HSDPA and the very neat split-QWERTY E70, apart from being as sexy as accountancy, has the same limitation.

That's still not a very detailed list - unfortunately, cutting out Windows Mobile as an option removed most of my short-list, even if I'm now looking at non-QWERTY devices. On the other hand, each of my previous phones have lasted me two years, so I've still got a year for the marketplace to improve. I'm confident.

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