Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A touch more on phones

This piece from the Register on what is wrong with the mobile phone industry is quite entertaining.

The N-series must surely take the cake as the world's most ill-conceived range of phones, being slower than treacle, as reliable as Windows 3.1 and clearly designed by a committee of unloved marketing droids.

I haven't used a Nokia for quite a few years, and I certainly haven't used an N-Series, so I can't really comment on that, but the basic point that handsets having lots of functions that are hard to use (and that are weirdly configured and/or disabled to make operators happy) are driving us all mad is a fair one. The further point that I would make is that this is for the rich world only. In the developing world, handset design is much better. Handsets are simpler and cheaper, and the weird incentives to make handsets complicated and expensive are generally not there. So if you go to Africa handset design really is more Nokia circa 2000, and it is a lot better.

However, about my new phone

The K-series Sony Ericssons, otherwise almost perfect phones, have SIM card slots designed to punish the world's nail-biters and tragically have neglected a volume setting for message alerts.

He is quite right. The SIM card on the K800i is a partcularly difficult one to remove, but this is not Sony-Ericsson specific. SIM cards are almost always hard to remove. Here is where operators and handset manufacturers choose not to understand how consumers use phones. SIM card portability was just about the best feature that the GSM phone standard was designed with. Your phone number and phone bill is not associated with the phone, but with this little portable card you can move from phone to phone. CDMA does not (really) have this, and this is as big a reason as any for GSM's current dominance of the global market. It is this big a deal.

However, the whole phone industry pretends that this is not so. They sell you a SIM and a phone together, and they expect that you will use the SIM and phone together whatever you do with it and wherever you go with it. Sometimes they lock the phone so as to prevent you switching SIMs around. (The fact that a huge "unlocking" business has come into being to reverse this practice might have suggested to them that they have their business model wrong, but no). Always, though, they put the slot into which the SIM goes in a very inconvenient position, usually underneath the battery. Even if you will be charged ten times your usual call cost if you go abroad and keep your SIM, they somehow believe you will just pay, and not want to change to a cheaper local SIM. If they charge ten times as much for some service than do their competitor, they will somehow believe that you will pay them this rather than get a SIM from their competitor and swap them round.

But people don't behave like this. At least, many people don't. I have a number of active SIMs, and a number of phones. Which SIM goes in which phone varies from time to time, depending on what service I am using (data, SMS, internet), what time it is (I have an off-peak SIM that gives me practically free calls on the weekend) or where I am (I have an Australian pre-pay SIM that I use when I am in Australia). Sometimes I might run down a battery and I have a spare phone that is charged up, so I will switch the SIM.

But manufacturers make it hard for me to do this. I have to remove the back, remove the battery, get the SIM out of an awkward socket, then reverse the process and switch everything back on again. I don't want to do this. I want it to be simple. Why do they not understand this. If they do understand this, why do they try to change my behaviour rather than cater to what I want. What I want is external slots for my SIM cards. The K Series Sony-Ericsson phones are really good with respect to memory card slots - the memory card slot is external and you just open the cover and push and the spring loaded memory card pops out. (It's a shame that they feel the need to use Sony's proprietary Memory Stick rather than SD cards like everyone else, but that is Sony. It is not a big deal, as the Memory Stick is common enough). Why can't they do the same with SIM cards. It would really make me happy.

Rant off, anyway.


AlanL said...

I got my K800i last year, replacing a Nokia that was three years old and also fairly state of the art when I got it. I get these things because I always for some reason seem to think I might use the fancy stuff, then I don't. I hardly ever take pictures with them, for example. What I like about the K800i, therefore, is it's loud enough to actually have a conversation whilst walking along a busy street (e.g. to inform my wife that I am on my way from the office to the U-Bahn) The Nokia was almost inaudible if there was any background noise at all. It's a telephone, dammit. I need to be able to hear the bloody thing. Nokia have lost their way badly if they have forgotten their fancy little pocket computers usable as telephones.

Michael said...

I have read Nokia has apparently forbidden its employees to refer to phones as phones: they are apparently now "Mobile computers". (Can someone confirm if this is true. If so, silly. Most people have traditionally liked their phones much more than their computers, although this is perhaps changing).

Sony-Ericsson has got the upper mid market right. Their phones are good phones, and their additional features are well enough set up that they are useable. The branding and consumer-electronics savvy from Sony has clearly worked. Apparently their Symbian smart phones are a buggy mess though. (Confession: I haven't used one). Oddly, the best reviewed recent Symbian phone seems to be from Motorola - I wouldn't have predicted that either. On the other hand, Motorola does unexpected things from time to time. The RAZR was a truly stunning piece of design for 2004, and nothing before indicated that Mototola was capable of it. (Of course, nothing since has, either).

Anonymous said...

I have an N80 and get on pretty well with it. I use it for web browsing (it's the first browser on a phone I've seen that handles any web page without wierd formatting); PDA; navigation (Tomtom and a bluetooth GPS); and even to make calls.

The built-in WiFi comes in handy when there's free WiFi out and about. Mostly though, I use this at home. It means I can connect to the little Linux box I use as my music player, and choose songs to listen to from my phone's web browser.

It seems fast enough, and the high resolution screen is nice.

If I bought another phone now, it would probably be the N95, which is an N80 + built-in GPS and a bit smaller.

I agree about the SIM cards, though.

And regarding roaming and business models, see here:


Michael said...

I don't have personal experience of the N series Nokias. I know some people who like them. By reputation they certainly appear to be less buggy than the P series Sony-Ericssons. The N95 definitely does win as the highest spec phone out there at the moment. (I am curious to see how the Motorola Z8 does though. It does sound impressive). Personally I have had a couple of Windows Mobile phones. I have one with WiFi, and also one with GPS via Bluetooth. WiFi doesn't really do it for me. It is very power intensive, and if you have 3G and HSDPA as well, I am not sure it really gives you that much extra (except in hotspots in foreign countries when you have ridiculous roaming charges). GPS is absolutely a killer app though. It is a terrific thing to have, it is hugely useful, and I am sure a huge number of phones will have it within a year or two.

After a couple of weeks I am still very pleased with the K800i though. If it had GPS and HSDPA rather than simple UMTS I would consider it to be just about the perfect phone.

(Well, that and an easily accessible SIM, anyway).

Anonymous said...

I agree about GPS. The nice thing about having it in a phone is that it works while on foot. But the software vendors haven't quite made the most of that aspect yet: Tomtom has a "walking route" option but still manages to get confused when you leave the road or enter a pedestrianised area. Things will improve. There is some software that plots your location on an Ordnance Survey map that I've yet to try.

Michael said...

Yes. I have been running Copilot software under Windows mobile, and the issue is the same. It's great for navigation when I am driving. The pedestrian mode shows where you are on a map and gives a straight line to where you are going, which is useful but not clearly the main function the device is designed for. More thought needs to be put into it.

I haven't tried Nokia's own navigation and mapping software. I would be interested in doing so, although not perhaps at the present price of an N95. I will see what an N95 or similar costs when it is time for a new phone in a year.

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