Monday, September 20, 2010

Some thoughts on cellphones

I have recently made some research on cellphones and how they have changed over the years. You can see the results I found in my cellphone overview.

For me, the topic always offers material for heated discussions. I like to have these especially with my friend Stefan, with whom I have somewhat similar ideas.

I would like to sum up these ideas in the following text, which might seem a bit unorganized in its structure. Have fun reading.

What first caught my attention in the course of cellphone history is not so much the features that were added, but more the buttons.

If you sum it up, the pattern goes like this:

-1992-mid-90s: lots of extra keys, for sending messages, opening messages, adding numbers, etc.
-mid-90s to early 2000s: maximum reduction of keys. Epic examples are the Nokia 3210 (4 keys including navigation) and the Ericsson T28s (5 keys including navigation)
-early 2000s to late 2000s: the use of function keys increases again, peaking in the upgrade to touch-screens of nearly all famous cellphone brands

I find it funny to see "senior-phones" pop up in stores now... An example are the Emporia devices. Why does it seem impossible to use standard cellphones by intuition nowadays? If it has almost perfectly been possible with the mentioned two navigation wonders, why do we need to go back to a big mess of functions?

I think the approach that Apple and Android phones take is a little over the top. All applications on a pile can be necessary and/or helpful for experienced users but will just overwhelm unexperienced ones. I also think that it is strange that senior phones with huge, easily pressable physical buttons pop up after this has hit the market.

Maybe more thought about unexperienced users is what ended the war on the tinyest phone ever in the past. But touchscreen phones don't seem to be much better either.

I think this is the time to put in relation the features to the number of keys or the navigation on a phone: Of course, more features eventually become easier to access with more buttons. I don't want to start a discussion about whether these are very useful or not. But what I do want to start a discussion about is how they are accessible and what I can do if I don't want them.

In the mania of adding new features, people tend to forget those, who actually would rather buy a phone that has basic functions:

Call, send short messages, store numbers

The sad thing is that the only way to buy something like this is to buy a "senior phone" or a used phone.

I think the ultimate test a cellphone should pass is the "grandfather test". This is nothing to laugh about and in my opinion a very serious way to determine how far you can get on a cellphone just by intuition and following writing and symbols or buttons and display. We are actually living in a generation that will be the last one to experience this exciting effect, which you cannot imagine yourself: your grandparents, as people who have not used electronic gadgets for at least 60 years of their life will have a very hard time doing almost anything on a phone.

Why has it become harder to reach the aforementioned basic 3 features? Why was it necessary to add two more directional buttons or a joystick?

Think about it: The basic concept that most of the people should understand is this: scrolling through a menu with arrow buttons. Everybody knows the meaning of arrows. A menu can consist of a list of terms. To see for example the lowest of the three terms move up one line to the middle of the screen, opening the way onto the screen to the term below means that you have successfully scrolled down. This action can be performed by two buttons.

Now imagine the action with a 4-direction ring around a confirmation button. This adds a lot more complexity than needed to the whole thing.

Modern cellphones seem to have at least 4 buttons that could in my opinion be left away. For example either two shortcut buttons and two direction buttons, or the traditional green and red buttons, if they are not used for navigating forth or back a level or confirming anyway.
Why did the cellphone manufacturers, who spent some years decreasing the number of buttons, start to add ones all over again? The answer is probably the rapid increase of features, which I mentioned earlier: Because of the adding of functions (some of which were probably added to show what is possible instead of really making the phone more useful).

I think one should ask himself what functions are mostly used in everyday life and what functions he has used since buying the phone. So, did you ever use the radio? Do you seriously use the mp3-player, which probably requires phone-specific earphones? Did you often use the camera? Do you take the time to scroll through pictures afterwards? And how many times did you use WAP internet, the stopwatch, the customizable background and screen savers?

If you answer with "yes" or "often" then you are not a typical cellphone user.

If not, ask yourself which functions you would include in a phone that you could design or specify yourself. Probably, one will think of the trinity of functions mentioned before: making and receiving calls, sending short messages, scrolling through the phone book in search for numbers and having some supporting features such as turning the volume up and down during calls to compensate noisy environments.

I think it would definitely be something I and probably a lot of other people would buy.

What is the reason for manufacturers not making any of these? The answer is marketing and trying to constantly offer more than the competition in a market that has changed over the years:

In the early days of mobile communication there was no such thing as real concurrency between different brands, because everybody was focused on just making the pure communication (SMS + phone) work best. Of course, they tried to outbid each other with improved voice clarity etc, but there was just not that picture of the mobile phone as the all-in-one-gadget everybody uses today.

With the evolving development of mobile phones, producers became aware of the fact that they are producing something that people have in their pockets all day long. So what if they could include features for which people would normally need to carry around heavy/heavier equipment?

The "race to arms" that began after this realization, resulted in the thing with the buttons described above.

The interesting thing is that the general public wasn't ready for this kind of all-in-one gadget. Why should you have a device that can do many things BADLY when you can rather have a device that is really good at one single thing (e.g. a pocket camera, a pocket radio, an mp3-player)?

The smartphone-idea was what really resulted in a breakthrough for the mobile phone industry. The Apple iPhone EXPRESSED that idea to the public. While former phones just tried to be that one gadget for everything, the iPhone effectively combined all features with a never before experienced simplicity and design (but, as a side note, with inferior hardware).

It was probably thanks to the fame of the brand Apple, that once again the mobile phone industry was transformed. Whatever you might think about the iPhone (e.g. probably low useability for unexperienced users mentioned above): It made the people ready to just use their phone for several tasks wherever they are. If you asked any iPhone or iPhone-inspired-phone users nowadays how often they use the internet on their device, the answer will be completely different than if you asked two or three years ago.

With this said, I think we will never again find a phone for, say, 30€ with a monochrome screen. Even if the built-in color screen is REALLY bad...

So what can you say in the end? I think IF it really is necessary to put a camera and a color screen into everything, let us at least have some useful features like barcode scanning, flight tickets per SMS (a photo with a (bar)code is scanned directly from the cellphone screen) and so on. Sadly, these features are beginning to appear almost a decade after the necessary basic features in phones became common.

Anyway, if this got you started, you should have a look at my cellphone timeline that I have compiled during my research.

If you don't believe that I actually forgot myself what (else) I was getting at, just see this as some condensed thoughts about the cellphone phenomena.

Yannick Grawenhoff, with some interesting thoughts by Stefan Biereigel

No comments:

Post a Comment