Two Hands Good, One Hand Bad

By eweek  |  Posted 2003-03-28

Two Hands Good, One Hand Bad

The Danger Inc.-designed T-Mobile Sidekick has won praise for its gimmicky twist screen and integrated applications, but has been overlooked for breaking both with conventional PDA and phone design. Thats because while processors get faster, memory gets cheaper, and screens get bigger and brighter, input relies on that aspect of the human-computer interaction that evolves the slowest – the human.

The original Palm Pilot, with its vertical orientation and stylus-dependent input, was the first effective handheld companion. It inspired a string of knockoff market flops and eventually some officially licensed market successes courtesy of Handspring and Sony. When Microsoft stepped up to the plate with its first "Palm-sized PCs," it too mimicked the basic Palm form factor, but became intent on making as much of the device as accessible from one hand as possible through a mandatory jog dial and side buttons. However, these products and their Pocket PC progeny still rely primarily on the stylus for text entry.

Incredibly, that hardware design mandate has survived even as designers – particularly Microsoft – have touted multimedia and productivity applications that make the original Pilots look quant. One defense has arisen as handhelds have sprouted voice communication features. The rationale goes that if a phone can be used with one hand, so should voice-enabled PDAs.

Yet, while Graffiti and its more natural successors like Jot have served as good bandages for healing the wounds associated with poor handwriting recognition, it is time to move on. The thumb keypads that appear on devices such as Blackberry, Handspring Treo, and T-Mobile Sidekick arent the ideal text-based method, but they demonstrate that the thumbpad is now the input method of choice for the North American market.

And what has become of that vertical orientation, modeled after the 59-cent drug store memo pad? As PDAs sprout better video and larger color screens, they – like other media-rich devices from HDTV to the Game Boy Advance – will have to respond to the need to offer a "wide-screen" experience favored to mirror more naturally the human field of vision. Its a far smarter orientation for email, Web browsing, and photos. Nokias N-Gage should prove an interesting contrast. Its screen has a vertical orientation while the device has a horizontal one like the original Game Boy Advance.

Wide and Crazy

Looking at the thumbpad-enabled PDAs on the market today, its clear that the best approach is to "go wide." The Blackberry and the Sidekick have implemented compact form factors that allow reasonable typing speed in a pager form factor. Handspring is still striving for one-handed usability with Treo, but its keyboard has landed just on the border of usability for larger hands.

Then there is the overengineered Sony Clie "N" series; these high-priced handhelds have gone to such great pains to preserve the "one-handed" experience that they introduce a clunky "twist-and-reorient" paradigm. Elaborate reconfiguration processes are the domain of robot toys, not highly fragile devices often used within six feet of lethal impact with the pavement.

Convergent device users really demand a product that can function well for one-handed communications usage while quickly and easily moving into landscape data mode, like the computer monitors we use every day. Danger is almost there, but its lackluster phone functionality compromises its vertical functionality while its limited hardware strips it of media prowess. Manufacturers must decide if they want to be entertainment or communication devices; mobile design challenges are too daunting to create PDA panacea.

Wireless Supersite Editor Ross Rubin is a senior analyst at eMarketer. He has researched wireless communications since 1994 and has been covering technology since 1989.

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