I’m really impressed with all the new wireless handsets that have come to market in the past year-from the iPhone to the latest BlackBerry to the new Centro (as well as many others). All higher-end phones are getting more features and are able to do a lot more than just a year or two ago.
But, even with all these advances, there are still major issues regarding ease of use that have not been addressed. I currently have three phones: an Apple iPhone, a RIM BlackBerry 8820 and a Palm Centro. Each has some advantages but also some disadvantages when it comes to ease of use. Let me point out some of the ease-of-use issues involved to give you a better idea of why ease of use matters so much in mobile.
The RIM BlackBerry has a wonderful new 8800 series with a stylized shiny surface, improved keyboard, integrated GPS and Wi-Fi. However, the BlackBerry user interface is based on a very basic menu system that evolved from early renditions of the BlackBerry. It’s solid as a rock technically, but not nearly as easy to use as the Palm-based Treo and Centro or the iPhone.
I have included some companion figures in this column to demonstrate a number of key ease-of-use features side by side. It may appear that I’m picking on the BlackBerry, but it’s simply not as easy to use as the Palm Treo and Centro or Apple iPhone. RIM clearly needs to update its entire UI with a more robust, easy-to-use environment that will compete better in the market-perhaps using Linux as a core.
The Palm Treo and Centro have been stalwart when it comes to ease of use for the past five years. Palm has always focused on requiring the minimum number of keystrokes to complete a task. The entire menu system is very intuitive and the speed dialing options are better even than those of the iPhone. Notice also that Palm-based devices color the numeric key pad differently on the alphabetical keyboard to assist in dialing, but more important is the display of a standard 10-key numeric keypad. Apple does this as well on the iPhone, but RIM doesn’t on the BlackBerry-or, if it does, I couldn’t find it.
How RIM, Palm and Apple Handle UI
Probably the easiest system on the market to use is the Apple iPhone. The user interface is natural-meaning, most people can figure out how to use it simply by looking at the display and selecting what they want to do. But, while it’s clearly the easiest system to use, I’ve included a couple of examples of where Apple didn’t get it right-at least not yet.
Apple needs to adopt more of a Web UI style outside the Web application, with a “back arrow” in the upper left. This needs to be done so that you can always go back a level from wherever you are in the system interface by hitting the back arrow-just as you do using Web browsers like Microsoft Internet Explorer. And while the iPhone’s on-screen keyboard does present word completion options (very good), you don’t get the tactile feedback you do with a physical keyboard. Thus, I believe that Apple will create an iPhone with a real keyboard at some point.
The Windows Mobile platform is currently running on Palm (700w), Samsung BlackJack and Motorola Q, among others. Its UI is okay, but you have to launch applications through the Start key-which is similar to Windows on the desktop, but somehow seems unnatural on a handheld. What Microsoft has done in Version 6 is make a lot of integration seamless so that it does more for the user. However, Windows Mobile just doesn’t seem to be as easy to use as the iPhone or Palm-based products.
What to Expect
It appears that users somehow adapt to a particular device even though it may not be natural or intuitive. Take the once popular RAZR. The five-way key made users crazy trying to remember what each one did at any particular time. Users seemed to like it when it first came out because it was so thin and had a lot of market momentum. But, just a couple of years later, the entire handset world moved on to much more intuitive, graphically pleasing and powerful interfaces like that of the iPhone.
Going forward, we expect to see more work done on making handheld systems even easier to use than they are today. We’ll see more service integration so that one application will seamlessly integrate with another. Setting up appointments in your calendar while you’re in e-mail is still difficult (so far, Motorola Good Technology seems to have done this the best). And getting true, seamless synchronization between the important information on your desktop, the Web and your mobile handset is still very difficult to achieve-although folks such as those at Soonr are working on solving that problem.
In 2025, people will look back at the handheld systems we used in 2008 and wonder how we ever put up with them. Voice recognition, integrated services and very intuitive interfaces will be the norm-not the special cases that they are today. Thus, ease of use is and will continue to be very important in the mobile field. Kudos to those who have made so many breakthroughs in this area over the last couple of years. But we look forward to seeing all major platforms become much easier to use in the next few years.
J. Gerry Purdy, Ph.D., is vice president and chief analyst with the Frost & Sullivan North American Information & Communication Technologies practice. As a nationally recognized industry authority, he focuses on monitoring and analyzing emerging trends, technologies and market behavior in the mobile computing and wireless data communications industry in North America.
Since joining Frost & Sullivan in 2006, Dr. Purdy has been specializing in mobile and wireless devices, wireless data communications and connection to the infrastructure that powers the data in the wireless handheld. He is author of Inside Mobile & Wireless, which provides industry insights and reaches over 100,000 readers per month.
For more than 16 years, Dr. Purdy has been consulting, speaking, researching, networking, writing and developing state-of-the-art concepts that challenge people’s mind-sets, and developing new ways of thinking and forecasting in the mobile computing and wireless data arenas. Often quoted, his ideas and opinions are followed closely by thought leaders in the mobile & wireless industry. He has a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Stanford University.
J. Gerry Purdy can be reached at email@example.com.