What Phone Is Right For You? 2 – But First…

A brief note before we get into the details of the competing phone “ecosystems” – You don’t have to buy a phone that has downloadable apps of course, even now. Virtually every manufacturer still sells plenty low-end models that come as they are, and they are by no means lacking necessarily in features such as cameras and Web browsers – in fact they are often referred to as “feature phones”. They just don’t allow the installation of software, except perhaps some limited games and utilities using Java. Phones like this can represent great value.

But I assume you’re all here for the fun stuff.

What Phone Is Right For You? 2 – But First…

A brief note before we get into the details of the competing phone “ecosystems” – You don’t have to buy a phone that has downloadable apps of course, even now. Virtually every manufacturer still sells plenty low-end models that come as they are, and they are by no means lacking necessarily in features such as cameras and Web browsers – in fact they are often referred to as “feature phones”. They just don’t allow the installation of software, except perhaps some limited games and utilities using Java. Phones like this can represent great value.

But I assume you’re all here for the fun stuff.

What Phone Is Right For You? 1 – The Scene

Image via Wikipedia
It's really time for a new one

As I was saying, it’s never been as hard to choose a phone as it is now. This is far from a bad thing though; we’ve never had so many incredible choices. Phones have changed almost beyond recognition, from fairly straightforward communication devices into something we don’t even quite have a name for yet.

Certainly the term ‘smartphone’ no longer seems adequate. Though there were earlier experiments¹, the smartphone came into its own all of ten years ago now, when the mobile phone and the PDA were successfully merged by companies like Nokia and Microsoft. The magic ingredient: A proper operating system that allowed you to install software.

Since then, other functions have accrued continually. Cameras, Web browsers, e-mail, media players, Bluetooth, GPS, Wi-Fi… Keypads became tiny to make room for Internet-friendly screens. Some – Microsoft in particular – introduced touch interfaces, but made them so crowded that they had to be navigated with a PDA-type stylus. The smartphone seemed full to the point of bursting.

Then Apple made the next great breakthrough, by introducing an interface that was not only sensitive to broad gestures, but which was utterly reconfigurable by whatever program was in use. At a stroke they solved the problem of the smartphone trying to be too many things, by reinventing it as an almost neutral object that could be reconfigured for an endless variety of tasks.

At the same time, they realised that what was essentially an Internet-connected iPod was a fantastic tool for selling things to people; music, video, the software “apps” it would run, and the services those apps could interface with. It was a goldmine. The other main players were slow to recognise this; Nokia and Microsoft so tardy that eventually they had to join forces. Only Google, the one with no previous involvement in phones, could see what was happening and knew what was to be done. They produced Android, now the leading rival to the iPhone.

But far from the only one; there are four or five competing systems, all with their strengths and weaknesses. So though we have great choices, they are real choices. Where once we might have chosen based on fairly trivial factors like appearance, buying a phone now means buying into a system – an ‘ecosystem’ as some call it – of software apps and services. It’s quite a commitment.

By weighing up the strengths and weaknesses of the various offerings however, it shouldn’t be too hard to tell which is the one that suits your needs. These we will look at in more detail tomorrow.

  1. The first real smartphone? Probably the Simon from quiet innovator IBM (pictured above). It may have been an ugly brick, but it was an ugly brick that was years ahead of its time.

The Future Called Me On The Phone

The drawing to the right could use a little explanation. No, it doesn’t actually make any sense. Yes, that is a pink rabbit staring at the sun for absolutely no apparent reason. It’s just a random doodle, and it has to be admitted, a pretty crappy one.

What distinguishes it is the fact that I just drew it on my phone. I can’t quite believe it; to get a pen-like line like this on any electronic device would be impressive enough. Yet even a first attempt compares well to drawings on this blog done with a high quality graphics tablet.

But to be able to do that on a device I can carry around in my pocket – a device I can also use to edit and publish the drawing to the web, and make phone calls sometimes, well to me it’s a dream come true.

Have you guessed what it is yet?

First, Some Phone Nostalgia

Recently a friend asked me for advice on choosing a phone. It was hideously difficult – I don’t think it’s ever been harder to pick a phone than it is now. I miss the days when you couldn’t go wrong with a Nokia.

My first ever phone was a Motorola M3688, which was as charming as it was inept. Its sole apparent advance over Motorola’s previous model: It had a flip to cover the keys. It didn’t fold in half, you understand. It just had a plastic bit to cover its big rubbery buttons that you had to flip down if you wanted to dial. It served no clear purpose whatsoever, but that was the sort of design frippery that wowed us at the turn of the century. I can’t be sure now, but I think it may have swayed me to choose this one over the splendid Nokia 5110. A lesson to designers and marketers everywhere: shit sells.

It was massive by modern standards. Nowadays I keep my phone in my front left pocket. If I did that with the M3688 it looked like I was pleased to see everybody. Despite the mass though, they were vulnerable. If you dropped one, it flew into pieces. Though admittedly once you reassembled it it usually worked again. (They were less resistant to moisture; in the end I lost mine to submersion.)

After this it was Nokias all the way, or almost. The great 5110 (stolen), followed by what I consider to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing phones ever, the 3210, which also brought predictive texting (also stolen). This was followed by the 3310; though a lot less appealing in looks this introduced a raft of great features like vibrating alert (still have, still works).

But then I took a wrong turn, and bought a Sony Ericsson – the V600i. Now I am possibly being unfair; the problem with swapping between Nokias and Sony Ericssons is that they are so similar. It is the tiny differences in key layouts and so on that you will find too irritating to bear. But on the whole this wasn’t a very successful phone. Every plus had its concomitant minus. It was very attractive and impressively compact, but the keys were too small and – stupidly – glossy to use comfortably. It was my first camera phone, but at 1.3 megapixel resolution it was barely worth having. It was a 3G phone – the first affordable one on the market – but its tiny screen, weak camera and hopelessly basic browser meant there was really nothing you could do with that fast data.

Vodafone seemed to think they could get us streaming video – to 1.8″ screens. My devious plan, in the days when 3G or even GPRS data modems were still expensive business toys, was to hook it up to my laptop to feed my Internet addiction when I couldn’t get Wi-Fi. But I hadn’t done the research; though it could get 3G data, and though it had a data transfer cable to connect it to a PC, it couldn’t share the connection over the cable. Dumb bastard. (Still have, though I can’t find charger.)

My first actual smartphone was a Nokia N70. It ran the Symbian operating system, and could do real smartphone stuff like syncing contacts and calendars. I know, not impressive in this age of apps, but a huge leap still. At last it could be used as a tethered data modem, but 3G modems with much better data pricing were now coming out so there was little point. (Stolen – though only after it had been retired to spare phone status.)

And it was a good enough camera phone to get me hooked on the spontaneous kind of photography the things allow; soon I wanted a better one. The 5 megapixel Nokia 6220 Classic was that, plus it added GPS to the mix and finally made Web on a phone comfortable. In almost every respect this phone was really an N82, one of Nokia’s top models, squeezed into a smaller and (visibly) cheaper package. The only real sacrifice was Wi-Fi. In brief, a good mid-range smartphone at a great price.

And thus, irrelevant.

The dinosaur metaphor is irresistible. The landscape they once ruled has changed suddenly and utterly. The comet of course was the iPhone, and Nokia are left blinking and wondering what the cold white stuff falling from the sky is. Compile a list of the ten best-loved phones today, and there might not be a single Nokia on it. It isn’t that they got worse. I would argue in fact that Nokia still make the best phones, as phones. Their problem is that a lot of people don’t want phones any more. They want repurposable social connectivity stroke mobile media Swiss army… things. What are they even? The phone is evolving, and it’s not yet clear into what. Nokia certainly didn’t seem to know.

But never mind what’s next for Nokia. What the hell phone am I going to buy now?

First, Some Phone Nostalgia

Recently a friend asked me for advice on choosing a phone. It was hideously difficult – I don’t think it’s ever been harder to pick a phone than it is now. I miss the days when you couldn’t go wrong with a Nokia.

My first ever phone was a Motorola M3688, which was as charming as it was inept. Its sole apparent advance over Motorola’s previous model: It had a flip to cover the keys. It didn’t fold in half, you understand. It just had a plastic bit to cover its big rubbery buttons that you had to flip down if you wanted to dial. It served no clear purpose whatsoever, but that was the sort of design frippery that wowed us at the turn of the century. I can’t be sure now, but I think it may have swayed me to choose this one over the splendid Nokia 5110. A lesson to designers and marketers everywhere: shit sells.

It was massive by modern standards. Nowadays I keep my phone in my front left pocket. If I did that with the M3688 it looked like I was pleased to see everybody. Despite the mass though, they were vulnerable. If you dropped one, it flew into pieces. Though admittedly once you reassembled it it usually worked again. (They were less resistant to moisture; in the end I lost mine to submersion.)

After this it was Nokias all the way, or almost. The great 5110 (stolen), followed by what I consider to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing phones ever, the 3210, which also brought predictive texting (also stolen). This was followed by the 3310; though a lot less appealing in looks this introduced a raft of great features like vibrating alert (still have, still works).

But then I took a wrong turn, and bought a Sony Ericsson – the V600i. Now I am possibly being unfair; the problem with swapping between Nokias and Sony Ericssons is that they are so similar. It is the tiny differences in key layouts and so on that you will find too irritating to bear. But on the whole this wasn’t a very successful phone. Every plus had its concomitant minus. It was very attractive and impressively compact, but the keys were too small and – stupidly – glossy to use comfortably. It was my first camera phone, but at 1.3 megapixel resolution it was barely worth having. It was a 3G phone – the first affordable one on the market – but its tiny screen, weak camera and hopelessly basic browser meant there was really nothing you could do with that fast data.

Vodafone seemed to think they could get us streaming video – to 1.8″ screens. My devious plan, in the days when 3G or even GPRS data modems were still expensive business toys, was to hook it up to my laptop to feed my Internet addiction when I couldn’t get Wi-Fi. But I hadn’t done the research; though it could get 3G data, and though it had a data transfer cable to connect it to a PC, it couldn’t share the connection over the cable. Dumb bastard. (Still have, though I can’t find charger.)

My first actual smartphone was a Nokia N70. It ran the Symbian operating system, and could do real smartphone stuff like syncing contacts and calendars. I know, not impressive in this age of apps, but a huge leap still. At last it could be used as a tethered data modem, but 3G modems with much better data pricing were now coming out so there was little point. (Stolen – though only after it had been retired to spare phone status.)

And it was a good enough camera phone to get me hooked on the spontaneous kind of photography the things allow; soon I wanted a better one. The 5 megapixel Nokia 6220 Classic was that, plus it added GPS to the mix and finally made Web on a phone comfortable. In almost every respect this phone was really an N82, one of Nokia’s top models, squeezed into a smaller and (visibly) cheaper package. The only real sacrifice was Wi-Fi. In brief, a good mid-range smartphone at a great price.

And thus, irrelevant.

The dinosaur metaphor is irresistible. The landscape they once ruled has changed suddenly and utterly. The comet of course was the iPhone, and Nokia are left blinking and wondering what the cold white stuff falling from the sky is. Compile a list of the ten best-loved phones today, and there might not be a single Nokia on it. It isn’t that they got worse. I would argue in fact that Nokia still make the best phones, as phones. Their problem is that a lot of people don’t want phones any more. They want repurposable social connectivity stroke mobile media Swiss army… things. What are they even? The phone is evolving, and it’s not yet clear into what. Nokia certainly didn’t seem to know.

But never mind what’s next for Nokia. What the hell phone am I going to buy now?

Be Vewy, Vewy Quiet…

The woman in my life is asleep beside me. She’s had a long day. First working all Saturday until late, then a bus journey of three hours. To see me. I feel privileged; spoiled even.

It’s been a very full day. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to write much. Later I hope to fill you in on the further travails of the Very Sick Computer. Also, I have an announcement to make: I know which is the best phone.

Hint: It probably isn’t what you think is the best phone. But I hope to write a guide to help you choose the right one for your needs and desires.

Good night

Be Vewy, Vewy Quiet…

The woman in my life is asleep beside me. She’s had a long day. First working all Saturday until late, then a bus journey of three hours. To see me. I feel privileged; spoiled even.

It’s been a very full day. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to write much. Later I hope to fill you in on the further travails of the Very Sick Computer. Also, I have an announcement to make: I know which is the best phone.

Hint: It probably isn’t what you think is the best phone. But I hope to write a guide to help you choose the right one for your needs and desires.

Good night

The Last Paper Column

This will read a little strangely. It’s unedited from the version as it appears in the paper.

Alas This is Fake
The Paper Gives Me A Decent Send-Off

This is the last Micro Cosmopolitan in the City Tribune. I’m leaving the paper. After sixteen years – can you believe it? So much has changed over that time. Why back then there was a Fine Gael/Labour government.

I’m going to miss it badly; in particular, being able to say “I write for a paper”. There was something grand about that. But the world is changing, rapidly. Instead of being a columnist, I’ll be a blogger. Instead of it appearing once a week it will be several times a day. Instead of writing on Wednesday for you to read on Friday, it’ll be instant comment on events as they happen. There will be cartoons too, and you’ll be able to have your own say.

I gave you the address before, but now there’s a new and much shorter one – “I doubt it”. Simply type I.doubt.it and you go straight there. Neat, no? Just dots between the words, no W’s or nothin’. And if you don’t like going to websites you can receive it by email for free. Those of you without computers may find that you can read it perfectly well on your phone.

Otherwise though, you’re stuck. This is the sad fact about the way things are going. You won’t have to buy a daily paper, but you’ll need a machine. In the time I’ve been at the Tribune, the publishing industry has changed out of all recognition. I am fortunate perhaps to have started back when we were still something you might recognise as a “classic” newspaper. I actually brought my column in on a piece of paper, held in my fist. Someone had to type it out again. That almost seems crazy now.

1995 wasn’t quite back in the age of typewriters though. The paper had Macs, and I had a primitive sort of word processor you would point and laugh at now. There was just no way these two computers could communicate with each other. Two years later, while doing volunteer work in South Africa, I started e-mailing my stories. I soon had a computer of my own, and though I couldn’t yet afford an Internet connection – and certainly, not a Mac – I was bringing my stories in on floppy disk. And now… Well, we’ve cut out the paper altogether.

I mean, the whole newspaper.

The business is going through a crisis. On one hand it’s being squeezed by new media; I get a large proportion of my news from blogs, from upstart online-only papers, even from Twitter. Now it’s the papers that can’t afford to buy Macs. The oldest mass medium can and will adapt, they have the core skills that are essential for gathering and recounting the news. But they have to find new ways to make it pay, and they need to do that now – right in the middle of the worst recession since the war.

You support those skills when you read the print version of the Tribune, so I hope you will continue to get it – even without me. And do tell all your friends who stopped buying it while I was here.

http://I.doubt.it – Think of me whenever you hear a politician speak.

Love and out,

Richard Chapman

Microsoft and Nokia: A No-Win Situation? (Part 2)

NoWin CartoonYesterday I speculated that the smartphone market could devolve into a straight fight between Apple and Nokia-Microsoft. This would depend of course on people actually liking what the latter two companies have to offer. If they manage to combine the best of what they can do, the results should be impressive. But will they? Until the first phones come out, which will be October at the very soonest, we can only wait with bated breath. Windows Phone on Nokia has a lot to live up to.

Or perhaps, to live down. At a stroke, this deal effectively eliminated not only the world’s most popular smartphone OS, but also a promising alternative.

There were reasons for this. Symbian, with its pedigree stretching back to the very first handheld computers, was unwieldy when compared to the radical interface-orientation of its new rivals. To take one example, an operation as trivial as creating a screen icon for a newly installed app required digging down through menus within menus to find one called, of all things, “Standby Mode”. That just wasn’t good enough anymore.

To deliver a slick modern experience, Symbian needed to be drastically rebuilt. Nokia dithered about this, working on both an improved form (Symbian^3) and its slated successor (MeeGo) in parallel. And so ended up with one system that was serviceable but unimpressive and another that was impressive but unserviceable. Meanwhile, Apple and Google were eating their market share alive.

But there was another company that knew its smartphone OS needed to be replaced, and it pulled the trick off with surprising alacrity. This of course was Microsoft.

The case for simply adopting the software giant’s solution seems compelling now, but few predicted it. Even when former Microsoft executive Stephen Elop became Nokia’s CEO last September, rumours that he planned to move his old office furniture in with him seemed merely mischievous. Abandoning their own OS development would be a move Nokia could never take back, and so lead to almost irrevocable dependence on a company that had up till then been a bitter rival.

It was only with the recent leak of Elop’s harsh memo that the hints became impossible to ignore. In it he used the metaphor of a “burning platform” – as in, you don’t jump into the cold ocean until you realise your oil rig is on fire – to illustrate just how drastically Nokia needed to change. But the language was hardly even coded; platform in computing terms means the combination of hardware and operating system a program runs on. In fact Nokia had only recently rebranded Symbian as the “Symbian Platform”. The writing was on the wall for an OS that, with its roots in the Psion Organiser of the 80s, is almost a cultural artefact.

But it may be missed by more than just a few sentimental geeks. A mobile OS from the start, Symbian was designed with security and frugal energy demands as priorities, and decades of development have given it considerable depth. Too much perhaps, if you’re trying to find a particular facility within its maze of menus, but there is little you might want a phone to do that isn’t there. And this includes many features that are not yet in Windows Phone 7. Well-loved old ones, like tethering, swapping data cards, full multitasking, compatibility with a vast range of media formats. New ones well in advance of its rivals, like USB On-The-Go which allows you to connect a phone directly to flash drives and hard disks.

Features that may never return if, like the iPhone, it is developed primarily as a system for delivering services and digitally managed content. Unless much happens between now and the first Nokia with Windows, former Symbian users may consider it limited and disappointing. Don’t be surprised if they dub it the No-Win.