Smartphone, Schmartphone

Symbian recently announced that its OS has powered 100 million phones. That’s not bad – it’s a lot of licences – but then, mobile phones shift around a billion units a year now. But a phone with Symbian isn’t any old phone. It’s a smartphone.

A smartphone is a cross between a PDA and a mobile. It does all the typical cellphone stuff that a plain old dumb featurephone does – take and display photos and video, record sound, play music, send and receive text messages and emails, play games, store your address book and calendar, let you load additional applications.

Oh, and call people, if you’re a bit of a luddite that way.

On top of this, smartphones can browse the Web – not crippled half-assed efforts like WAP and iMode, but the real Javascript-driven, Flash-based HTTPS Intarwebs. That is, if the site doesn’t detect you’re on a phone and obligingly cripple itself so you can’t actually use it. (Well done, Amazon!) Smartphones let you view and edit documents from your PC, run advanced apps like GPS, handle push email from your office complete with attachments, stuff like that.

So if Symbian is so good at all this – three times as much as all its rivals put together – how come dumb phones outsell smartphones ten times over?

Because a smartphone is a PC in your pocket. I’m on my second. First was a Nokia 7710. And yes, it runs Symbian. It’s a direct descendant of the Psion 5 series of 1990s PDAs: it has a big, near-VGA res screen and pretty much the same GUI as the Psion – and the Nokia 770 Internet tablet gadget, come to that. But it’s a phone, so it has no keyboard. Only the 7710 doesn’t have a keypad, either, so you have to dial numbers and enter texts by tapping the screen with a stylus – or retracted biro or fingernail or chopstick or whatever’s to hand once you lose the built-in one a month after you buy it.

It’s just like having a tablet PC, only smaller. It can do almost anything – run VOIP apps or instant messenger, I can write my own code for it, all that sort of thing. And also like a PC, it takes five minutes to boot, slows to a crawl or crashes when overloaded, has a folder-oriented point-and-click WIMP interface and needs to be recharged every night.

People see it’s a whizzy phone, ask for a look, and then recoil from the icon-filled double-clicky interface. (Forty-eight apps on the opening screen.) I can send a text in less than half the time on my old 6310i, which incidentally also runs for about a week on a single charge.

But it’s so damned useful that I was wedded to it. My life was in there, as it used to be in my Psion. But it was a lousy replacement for a Psion – slow, unreliable, short battery life, no keyboard, tiny hard-to-read screen. It’s also a lousy phone: big, clunky, unreliable, short battery life, slow-running and both complex and slow to operate. But the pairing is hard to resist.

Thing is, on my Psion, I could write on the move. I can’t on the 7710. Even if I balance it on my £80 folding Bluetooth keyboard, merely sustained fast typing is enough to crash the phone.

So I bought a cheap old Psion netBook on eBay. Big bright colour screen, great keyboard, gigs of CF, battery life of a week, and surfs the Web via Wifi. It’s great for writing on the move, but it’s too big to carry around just in case I might need it.

Next, I replaced the Nokia with an HTC Universal – an Orange SPV M5000, also known as a Qtek 9000 or an O2 XDA Exec or a T-Mobile MDA Pro.

Interestingly, the phone and the netBook (strictly, a 7Book, i.e., a Series 7 with a netBook ROM DIMM) share a number of design features: StrongARM-family CPU, clamshell design, miniature QWERTY keyboard, 640*480 VGA-res colour touchscreen LCD, expansion via solid-state cards, wireless networking and infrared, ROM-based OS designed for usage on the move & sync to a PC, including limited file compatibility, and so on.

Yet the late-1990s netBook is in almost every way a better, cleaner, simpler design, with a more flexible and pleasant UI. The WinMob device, despite more than twice the speed, nearly 10x the memory and far more functionality – phone, Bluetooth, integral Wifi, still camera + video camera and so on – feels cobbled-together and very poorly designed and integrated. I adore its functionality – it’s a smartphone, camera, MP3 player and usable WLAN Web terminal – but boy does the implementation suck! I had heard that Windows Mobile 5 was finally getting reasonably polished. Yeccch! If this is the polished, refined, 5th-generation product, I really hate to imagine what its rougher predecessors were like! It’s appalling!

Understand, I’m not criticizing the form factor of the phone. A subnotebook-sized cell phone would be very silly. It would be better if it was Nokia Communicator sized and shaped, to be honest, but even so, its tiny keyboard is utterly dreadful, with a remarkable profusion of design howlers. The hotkey to launch IE is right next to the tiny space bar, so every few words you type, you flip into the web browser by mistake. There are no “<" and ">” characters, so HTML is right out. There’s no Control key, so you can’t cut/copy/paste, but there are irritating hotkeys for various programs built right into the main alphabetic cluster. There are 2 pairs of make/break call buttons, which screams thoughtless design.

The simplest change would be to move the app hotkeys onto the screen fascia, in accordance with standard handheld PC design. Oh, and bin the duplicate call/hang up keys, while moving the dedicated buttons on the hinge to somewhere accessible with the machine open or closed. There’s lots of wasted space around the edge of the screen it would get them out of the alpha cluster, and with the space thus freed up, the keyboard could gain a Control key, a right Shift key, maybe even an Alt key and a right-mouse-button key like a real Windows machine, and still be more spacious and better laid-out!

While I’m at it, the rocker button duplicates the functions of the cursor keys and “OK” key. (Sometimes you hit Enter to select, sometimes “OK”. They’re different. Hit OK in the wrong place, it closes the app. Only the [X] in the corner doesn’t really close the app, it just puts it into the background.)

But no, honest, it’s Windows. If you know desktop Windows, you can work this. Yeah, right.

And with all this, the smartphone has about half the battery life of the Psion, with a big fat extended battery fitted.

I don’t mind that it’s a big, chunky device – I’m a big, chunky guy. I do mind it’s too small to put many of its excellent features to good use, though.

So I’m back to square one – carrying 2 devices around. And an MP3 player, too, a phone memory card just isn’t enough.

At least I can add new apps to the Universal and the Psion – and I have. I couldn’t on the 7710, though, because it runs Series 90, making it incompatible with apps for Series 60 (the keypad-driven Symbian phones) or UIQ (the touchscreen-driven Symbian phones) and only barely intermittently compatible with Series 80 (the Nokia Communicators, with their smaller, non-touch-sensitive screens with hardware buttons and keyboards). Naturally, Symbian can’t run Psion apps, either, just like Psion 5s couldn’t run Psion 3 apps.

Symbian, like its ancestor Psion, does not get the point that an operating system needs to be a platform: something horizontally compatible as well as forwards and backwards, to make a open market worth exploiting. As my colleague Peter Fletcher once put it, it needs to learn the philosophy of kaizen, continuous improvement: that its new products must improve over its old ones in every way, with no retrograde steps.

Are the newer successors of the Psion 5mx or Nokia 6310i better in every way?


A phone needs to be robust, tough and reliable. It is going to get dropped. It will get used in the rain. It will get taken to the pub and banged around. It needs to last for ages, be large enough to be usable but slim enough to fit into a trouser pocket inconspicuously. And it needs superlative voice and data comms, because that is its primary purpose. It must be fast and simple to use, not a morass of menus.

A PDA needs a better-than-VGA screen that can rival a laptop PC, a big keyboard that can you can type quickly upon, cheap and capacious storage – ideally solid-state – and basic multimedia. But it must be much smaller and cooler than the skinniest subnotebook and with a battery life to last a long weekend. It needs to do the main core functions of a laptop – office productivity, connectivity and a bit of fun – but without the bulk, the complexity or the power drain. It needs to be simple, fast and very reliable.

And these two devices need to talk, seamlessly, so that I can manage my address book on one but sync it to the other, so that in a crisis I can read my email on the phone and pick out a reply.

These are conflicting requirements. One device cannot do both well. Either can be simple on its own, but forcibly merge them and this simplicity is lost.

I want a Psion 5 with the specification of my HTC Universal: half-gigahertz ARM or better, a colour screen – the one from the Nokia 710 would do nicely – expandable with cheap standard MMC or SD cards but still able to take CompactFlash, sporting USB and Bluetooth and Wifi. It needs a headphone socket so I can use it as my MP3 player – the original had external play/record/pause buttons anyway, all I need is fast forward and rewind and a headphone socket and a volume knob. It only needs to fit into a jacket pocket, so that it can retain a screen that can render webmail clearly with no horizontal scrolling. It can live in a case most of the time, so if necessary, it can have a nifty tablet-style swivelling screen to keep the industrial designers happy. Do this right, it’s also a pocket video player and usable games console for free.

Since Symbian has lost the plot, if it ever had it, I guess it’ll have to run Linux.

For my phone, I don’t want a colour screen that can’t be read if the backlight is off, nor a camera nor a music player nor “themes”. I want a big bright clear screen that can be read sitting on a desk with the backlight off, showing lots of lines of clear text. I want big buttons operable when walking or strap-hanging on a train – not mini-QWERTY! I want it to reach from my ear to my mouth, because that is the way human anatomy is arranged. I want a battery life of a few days not a few hours. But, because it’s 2006, I don’t just want GPRS and HSCSD, I want 3.5G and EDGE and quad-band. I want fast reliable data as well as voice, anywhere in the world, over USB and infrared and Bluetooth.

What I don’t want are hinges or flips or slidey-out bits, because they’re too fragile. Make it big enough for the screen to be readable (ear to mouth, remember) and that leaves plenty of room for a big, long-life battery. Its main functions – phone calls, texting, address book and calendar – need to be blisteringly fast and easy to use. It needs to be slim to fit in a pocket, not a squarish brick. Even Blackberries are becoming like this now, after all.

So long as these things aren’t compromised, it can have as many other multimedia toys as the designers’ cocaine-fuelled imaginations can conceive.

Teenagers are well-served with lifestyle/leisure devices already. Leave them to it, they’re happy.

There is a need for devices for adults, for middle-aged business people with aging eyes and uncoordinated thumbs, who don’t want to wear earpieces like extras from Star Trek. We need simple, efficient, reliable devices that we can get work done with.

The future is meant to be an improvement on the past.

P. S. All right. If I must have a smartphone, then I want the big bright VGA-res touchscreen of a Zaurus or Universal – or at least the letterbox-shape EGA-res screen of a Nokia 7710. I want keys – the Siemens SX1 had a clever take on this, putting the numbers beside the screen instead of below. Screen-only phones are a pain and so are tiny thumb-boards. Predictive texting isn’t hard. Let’s have numbers!

The other buttons – voice dialling or memo, volume control, power on, things like that – can go round the edges or something.

Oh, yes, and it needs to work in portrait mode and landscape mode, and switch instantly between them. Recent Palm devices and the Sony-Ericsson P800/900/910 managed this – it can’t be that hard. Even my old Zaurus SL-5500 did it once I switched to OpenZaurus.

But really, I think two brains are better than one.

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