What Phone Is Right For You? 6 – Paradigm Shift Hits The Fan

Siemens "Fernscheiber 100" teletype....
Humble, and Deeply Unattractive, Origins

Though the iPhone changed personal computing forever, its significance was not immediately grasped even by Apple’s competitors – perhaps particularly by them. Sure, the likes of Nokia and Blackberry probably appreciated the threat it represented in the high-end smartphone sector. Almost beyond doubt, Google saw the potential it had to control a huge slice of the market for Internet services. Microsoft would have recognised a major new extension of Apple’s many-tentacled marketing strategy.

What may have taken longer to sink in was the fact that Apple was taking them all on at once… As the iPad and its imitators demonstrate, the iPhone was harbinger of a new and very significant generation of devices – one that would break personal computing free from its clumsy origins.

For half a century, computers have followed essentially the same design paradigm. This is strange when you think about it, because they could really use almost any. All the operator is doing fundamentally is putting numbers in and getting numbers out, there must be a million ways to do that. Many were explored in the early years: dials, punched cards, paper tapes, patch cables, levers, bells, rows of switches and lights. The possibilities were endless – and deeply unstandardised.

Then some pioneer had the brilliant idea of using a teleprinter. You may not even remember these, they’re now almost extinct, but the teleprinter (also called teletype or telex) is essentially a networked, motorised typewriter. You type on your terminal, the one at the recipient’s end rattles off a printed message. The bright idea was to wire one of these up to a computer so its keyboard could be used for input and its printer for output. Using a pre-existing technology not only meant a big cost saving, but harnessed a recognised interface metaphor that users could grasp immediately. Replacing the printed paper display with text on a TV-like monitor made it all the more familiar and friendly. This metaphor was so effective that it has basically gone unchanged ever since. Even devices as svelte as the iMac or petite as a netbook are, under the skin, just fancy telex machines – like a shape-changing alien from a SciFi cartoon, unable to prevent hints of its true nature showing through its disguise.

There have been attempts to break the mould; perhaps the most effective was the use of pen input on devices like the PDA or Tablet PC. But that was just swapping the restrictions of one metaphor for those of another. What Apple realised was simple but profound – you could design a device without metaphor. Let the application in use dictate the interface; the device itself should come with as few restrictions or presuppositions as possible. Beyond the necessary limitations of form factor – it must be this size if you want to carry it as a phone, this size if you want to read comfortably and so on – it should be as reconfigurable as possible. Thus the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad family is a device as rich in possibility as we have ever had, and perhaps ever will until we figure out how to make shape-changing hardware.

But just because it’s revolutionary, that doesn’t necessarily mean the iPhone is the best phone you can get. And while some rivals still seem to be in shock even now, one company was ready to respond to and rival Apple’s innovation. One company may already be beating them at their own game.

What Phone Is Right For You? 4 – The Business End

Let’s deal first with the fact that there are two kinds of Windows phone. Microsoft got into the smartphone business early on by adapting the OS they had created for PDAs to be phone-capable. This ran mobile versions of their Office applications, designed to integrate seamlessly with a workplace PC. Useful to some, but of little interest to the general public – especially as the intentionally desktop-like interface makes it the least finger-friendly OS available. The latest version of this is Windows Mobile 6.5, and you are not likely to want it unless you have specific business needs.

Appreciating that the iPhone had changed the game completely, Microsoft came out – surprisingly quickly – with a whole new OS. They started afresh, with one eye firmly set on a pleasant user experience, and the result is an interestingly different interface made up of ’tiles’ that both indicate the status of and act as shortcuts to services like e-mail, SMS, Facebook and calls. Argument will rage over whether it is aesthetically appealing, but it is clearly highly usable.

What else does Windows Phone 7 have? Pretty much everything the iPhone does actually, including an integrated market for music and video downloads. But though this may make it seem just an imitation of the Apple product, a Zune to their iPod, it does have some real advantages. Microsoft are better at games. Each Windows Phone 7 device is a little gaming console, connected to their Xbox Live service. And of course they have taken care to retain their key strength: mobile versions of the Office suite of apps.

So it’s like an iPhone but with some great advantages. Where’s the catch?

Well the big one: it’s not finished. Aside from the fact that there are far fewer apps yet than for iPhone or Android, it’s lacking features that fans of the old Windows Mobile or of Symbian take for granted, like full multitasking, video calling, VoIP (Skype, etc.), cut-and-paste, or tethering (using it as a broadband modem with a laptop).

Intriguingly, similar features were also lacking in the first iPhone. So it’s expected that they will be added fairly quickly. But unless you are a business user with a pressing need for Microsoft Office, it might be better to wait and see what happens. Things should really get interesting when the first Windows Nokias come out next year.

But if you are a business user – or if you just fancy a touch of that urban professional chic – you’ll also be considering the BlackBerry. Manufacturer RIM first made it big with those two-way pagers that send and receive text messages. (Remember them?) This genetic inheritance shows in the fact that BlackBerries as a rule sport full qwerty keyboards and are designed to integrate with your corporate email system. They’re trying to escape the business ghetto too though; the number of apps available is shooting up, and they’re advertising on TV. But for the general user it’s hard to see any real reason to prefer it over its rivals.

Except one: BlackBerries can make an unbroken encrypted link all the way back to their home base, wherever in the world that is, preventing any possible interception of communication. Which is why some governments have banned them as being far too useful to spies and criminals – or to dissidents.

Which, you have to admit, is cooler than most.

Well that’s the businessy stuff. Tomorrow let’s look at phones we might really buy.

Windows Phone 7