The mobile phone market doesn’t need yet another innovative device design. We’re well-served by RAZRs and Treos and Dash’s (oh my!). But it desperately needs innovation in the smartphone OS area.
[Sorry for parking this in the Java area for now, but technical difficulties leave me no alternative.]
The hype about the upcoming “iPhone” from Apple keeps harping on the hardware design that is sure to emanate from One Infinite Loop. It’s assumed that Apple’s play here is similar to the iPod - wow them with innovative device design, with a simple, intuitive, “for-the-masses” user experience. But I’d much rather see what Apple (or a similar organization) could do to plug a big gaping hole I see in the mobile OS market.
I am a hopeless sucker for gadgets. I have developed an unsurpassed ability to concoct a “need” for just about any shiny new toy. “If I’m ever trapped in a restaurant during a power outage, and I need to finish working on a presentation, and my laptop batteries are all dead, that ultra-light cooking-oil-fueled generator would sure come in handy.”
So when the latest line of Palm Treos were announced (the 750 and 680 models, specifically), I couldn’t resist. After all, my current phone at the time (a Treo 650) was almost 2 years old [gasp]! That fact, coupled with the aforementioned creative justification skills, made it inevitable that I upgrade to the latest and greatest. Unfortunately, that upgrade meant I also had to switch mobile operating systems. I have been a happy Palm OS user for many years, but Palm’s current strategy (along with several other key phone manufacturers) is a clear move to Windows Mobile for its high-end phones, leaving gadget snobs like me with little choice but to make the switch.
As many people had warned me, Windows Mobile requires noticeably more clicks and pushes to get anything done. Menus, a relatively rarely-needed tool in Palm OS, are needed for many more actions (it seems) in Windows Mobile. Windows Mobile has multitasking, long an elusive dream of Palm OS users. But this technical benefit also introduces complications — checking what’s running, switching applications and quitting them requires even more clicks and pushes, unless you add your own third-party utilities to simplify things. This “lack of an easy exit” issue has long been decried by Windows Mobile users. Finally, Windows Mobile exposes its underlying details to the user much more than Palm OS. Applications and data are stored in a file structure reminiscent of desktop Windows (those old friends “Program Files”, “Documents and Settings”, etc. are back), and you occasionally need to make forays into the file system (using the File Explorer) to get things done. At one point, to get a Bluetooth device to work properly, I had to actually set up COM ports on my phone. COM ports! My mind rushed back to the dark ages of IRQ conflicts and device resource hacking. [shudder]
Granted, the new Treo uses the Pocket PC Phone version of Windows Mobile, not to be confused with the Smartphone edition (though Windows Mobile variants are, indeed, inherently confusing). The Smartphone edition has a simpler, more phone-friendly interface, but lacks some capabilities that the Treo definitely needs, like touchscreen support. In addition, some of the painful aspects of Windows Mobile make some sense when you think about where the OS came from, and Microsoft’s strategy for their mobile platform. Some integration and unification of the Windows desktop and mobile environments makes sense from a technical standpoint, and can also be seen as an attempt to provide some “contextual continuity” for Windows desktop users.
But for me, the usual giddiness I feel when getting familiar with a new gadget was tainted by a decent amount of frustration. Eventually, being the devoted techno-weenie that I am, I’ll get over the hump on the Windows Mobile assimilation curve, and I’ll be effortlessly cranking out emails one-handed while waiting to get a coffee at [insert your favorite caffeine vendor here]. This is not bragging, mind you, just an admission of an abnormal affinity for bending my lifestyle to suit my gadgets. Normal human beings would prefer to avoid this learning curve. They want technology to work for them, not the other way around.
This sounds like a job for Apple, no? I mean, what other company has done a better job of navigating similar waters in computer hardware, desktop OS and media player markets? Of course, diving into the mobile OS market is not an obvious business win for anyone, even a clever fellow like Steve Jobs. Orchestrating hardware vendor and telecomm carrier relationships is very challenging, not to mention enterprise service vendors, media firms, application vendors, etc., etc., etc. But if anyone is well positioned to take on this challenge and turn it into a growth opportunity, Apple seems the best suited to the job, right?
P.S. My apologies for posting this in the Java area, but hopefully the blog masters will figure out how to cross-post this to the proper topics…