A lot of people spend their time thinking about how machines should present information and a control interface for humans, the so called user interface. There is an increasing need to improve the UI as our devices consolidate and merge. A couple of years ago the portable phone (in reality a voice modem) was equipped with a personal digital assistant (PDA, for those who forgot what it meant). Then the digital camera joined the same screen real estate. And then the camcorder. This past year the music player and web browser. Next year TV, GPS, and mapping functionality.
The jury is still out on whether convergence will continue and mobile phones become the ultimate in-pocket-Swiss-army-knife-machine. I believe that the form factor will be what sets the limits and determines whether the functions should be split into separate devices, and nothing else.
First you make it..
So onto the UI-paradigm then. Nokia revolutionized mobile phone usage with their NaviKey concept. The 3110 sported a key in the middle, the’get-on-with-it-button’, two arrows keys to swap function and a ‘clear key’ for back or delete. The phone became simpler and faster to operate, with only large text, and one clear option. Today all phone manufacturers have adopted this thinking one way or another. In this way, the user interface paradigm has been standardized, much like the way the play/pause/rewind/forward paradigm has been for media players.
..then you break it!
But it is time to think differently. These disparate functions crammed inside the phone should of course fulfill the basic rules the converged paradigm, but not all the rules. Look at the ‘take picture’ function of the camera. Does it have anything to do with the mobile phone and all its list menus? No. Then don’t force it to look and feel like one. Sony Ericsson has made an excellent choice in their new CyberShot series! The camera application looks and feels lika a camera, and not a mobile phone. This takes time to adapt to; the first Nokia with camera even had a menu you could fold up and select ‘take picture’.
The more there are established paradigms out there the less reason there is to invent a new one. The UI can be the same, but adapted to add the benefits you have from the other functions, for example a context menu with ‘send to blog’ or ‘send as MMS’. These adaptations make the functions add to each other in a 1+1=3 kind of way.
I believe we will have devices divided into these functions pretty soon, all looking part mobile phone and part their own:
- Talk (the most fundamental function and still the king)
- Organizer (calendar, timer, alarm, etc)
- Media (music player, picture browser, etc)
- Share (messaging, blogs, etc)
- Camera (looking just like any point-and-shoot camera, plus the adaptations)
- Web (looking just like on the PC – just the web, again with adaptations)
- Downloaded Applications (which will look like the service on the web they represent, but inherit the basic UI-paradigm of the device, for example a picture browser with Flickr content sown into it.)
When product planners will think of future devices they should pick and choose from this toolbox and select a form factor. For example: a ‘Business device’ will have Organizer and Web as their two main themes and have a QWERTY-keyboard and a large screen, a ‘Life recorder’ would center around Media, Share and Camera, and a ‘Portable Web device’ would have Web and Downloaded Apps as the two big features. And some devices will try to combine them all into a Swiss army knife and bet on the so called professional pioneers, a.k.a. tech geeks.
Mobile phone retail shops are under-utilised today. They could be used to sell not only phones, but mobile data services as I argued previously, as long as these services are presented in a visually familiar and ‘tangible’ form. Another idea for making a difference at retail shops is this: the mobile phone health index.
The idea struck me when I was using my new Nokia N73 without a hands-free and was worried about how much I was microwaving my brain. I wasn’t sure what is the SAR index of the phone (SAR = Specific Absorption Rate, the quantity that describes absorption of handset radio waves by the head) and I thought it would be nice if I had known that before buying the phone. Turns out that the N73 emits a maximum SAR value of 0.92 or 1.13 watts/kilogram (depending on the version) according to Nokia’s website, compared to the maximum value of 2.0 permitted in Europe and 1.6 permitted in the US. It’s not that bad, but it could be worse.
What if I could find about the SAR values before buying my phone? What if the retail shop where I bought my phone showed me information on the health index of all the phones ? Most people I ‘ve spoken to about their phone use are concerned about the health risk from a micro-microwave next to your head. It’s not that easy to find the information and interpret it.
All handset manufacturers certifying their phone through regional authorities (e.g. FCC) are required to compute the SAR index. From a quick search, both Nokia, Motorola have dedicated webpages listing the SAR value of all handsets. CNet has a section of its website dedicated to cell phone radiation levels, including SAR levels for phones from major handset manufacturers selling to the US and a list of the 10 phones with the highest SAR values. The Health Protection Authority in the UK also has an excellent explanation of what SAR is and what it means in layman’s terms.
By displaying the mobile phone health index (based on SAR values), handset retail shops could indeed make a difference in the eyes of the consumer. If I ‘m concerned about my health when using my phone, I ‘ll go to the retailer that can educate me about what phone is safest for me to use. Here’s a sketch of what it could look like: an information card next to each phone, displaying a ‘mobile phone health index’ (the higher, the safer the phone is), based on the inverse of SAR values. Naturally, the retailer can never tell you whether your phone is safe or unsafe (they ‘ll need to hire many more lawyers for that), but they could indicate how safe your phone is based on the internationally agreed and readily available SAR index.
The health index would make a major difference to retail shops (both operator-owned and independent shops), which currently have little differentiation among them beyond price and brand colour. Over time, displaying a health index for phones may become commonplace, but for the first 6-12 months it would make a major difference in the eyes of consumers, and a major ‘first’ that a retail store chain can brag about.
Open source software has existed in mobile phones since Motorola’s Linux-based A760 was launched in early 2003. Open source has come a long way, from an early experiment in mobile Linux three years ago, to an accepted strategy today for increasing product value by engaging external communities.
Linux-based software stacks for phones are the leading form of open source software (OSS) today. An array of vendors has crowded the marketplace with Linux software offerings, including MontaVista, WindRiver, Trolltech, Purple Labs, Open Plug, A la Mobile, Aplix, OpenMoko, and Mizi Research. However, OSS stretches way beyond Linux. Recently Sun, Microsoft, Nokia and Adobe have announced or renewed their commitment to open source, too.
One could say that open source software has been making waves in the last few months. Aside from Informa’s Open Source in Mobile conference that took place in Amsterdam in early November, there has been a recent flurry of announcements on open source software:
- On November 28 Trolltech announced that it would provide software productisation services to OEM and ODM customers in the form of Greensuite. Specifically, Trolltech’s professional services division will be providing full integration and testing services on a complete stack of software components, whilst offering a choice of components and UI customisation. The stack will comprise of Trolltech’s Qtopia software as well as select third party applications including browser, messaging, multimedia, DRM, VoIP support, Java, office and synchronisation components. Trolltech will be acting as the single point of contact, responsible for software integration, as well as pricing, marketing, legal and commercial issues. The Greensuite partners will be announced over the course of the next few months leading to 3GSM. The proposition is very similar to that of A la Mobile, and Aplix’s BTO offering. ALP is also a complete stack as is OpenMoko, Mizi and PurpleLabs.
- Nokia‘s Maemo project is continuing to grow and Ari Jaaksi (Nokia’s Director of open source operations) announced at the open source conference the Sardine device which would follow the 770 Internet tablet, both based on the Maemo stack.
- In July Motorola pledged that more than half of the manufacturer’s mobile phones will use Linux within 18 to 24 months. Motorola has further open sourced their implementation of MIDP3, i.e. next-gen Java for phones. At the open source conference, Christy Wyatt (VP ecosystem development) also said that sales of Motorola’s Ming have reached 1% of total phone sales in China, an impressive feat.
- In early November Sun announced details of how it is going to open source J2ME and J2SE implementations, marking a major twist in Sun’s Java saga. By open sourcing Java, Sun hopes to leverage community momentum around Java (especially from Vodafone, Nokia and Motorola), sustain the growth of Java and alongside its own engineering services business, and steal the thunder from the competing Flash application execution environment technology.
- Handset manufacturer FIC announced OpenMoko, the first fully open source Linux phone software platform, that competes with Purple Labs, Mizi, Aplix, A la mobile and Trolltech.
- In late October Access Linux Platform announced it is open sourcing its application framework, a critical part of the phone software stack responsible for managing application lifecycle and communication on the handset.
- Linux tools vendor Open Plug announced it had secured a $15m Round B funding in early October.
- A la Mobile was started in June by entrepreneur-in-residence Pauline Alker with $3.5m seed funding and is believed to be looking to secure another $10m to fulfil its promise of ‘the Red Hat of mobile’.
- In October, private equity firm Garnett & Helfrich Capital announced it had acquired a controlling stake in a privately held U.S. company Celunite, reportedly for $30 million. Celunite is a California-based provider of Linux-based open-source technology, which is still in stealth mode.
- Microsoft recently expanded its portfolio of software under a Shared Source license, now providing source code access to the full Windows CE 6.0 kernel.
- More Linux stack vendors are expected to follow Trolltech’s Greenphone example, thus offering developer communities full access to ‘real’ phone hardware, a critical step towards growing community contributions to mobile Linux.
This flurry of announcements in the last few months of 2006 can only signal more moves in the forthcoming 3GSM event in February. Beyond the tens of mobile Linux players, the commitment of Sun, Adobe, Microsoft and Nokia to open source is certain to cause disruptions in the predictable future of the mobile industry.
Software vendors, mobile operators and handset who haven’t yet taken the time to understand the commercial advantages (and pitfalls) of open source, now need to.