I recently found myself in the biennial* position of needing a new cell phone, and that reminded me of an aggravating fact: buying a cell phone is not easy. And I’m not even referring to most US carriers’ draconian contracts and activation processes. No, I’m talking about the fact that despite the light-years of progress we’ve made since I got my last phone in 2006, I still could not find a perfect device. I realize this is a smaller issue for mainstream consumers: they want something that can send and receive texts, make phone calls, and has good battery life. Premium features like mobile web and GPS are becoming more prevalent, but most people still get by without them. For what I call mobile power users however, the decision is a bit more difficult. I spent some time with all of the major mobile operating systems before finally landing on a winner, and here are my thoughts on each:
I’ve been a Windows Mobile user since I got my first Pocket PC in 2002, before later migrating to a Windows Mobile smartphone (an HTC Apache/Verizon XV6700) in 2006. If my many years with the OS have taught me anything, it’s that Windows Mobile’s time has come and gone, and it’s time to put the old girl out to pasture. To put it simply, Windows does not make for a good mobile user interface. A large computer monitor works great for multitasking with a windowed user interface (especially when you’re using a mouse) but a low-resolution mobile display with a stylus? Absolutely not. Having a tiny Start menu list to launch programs is an equally absurd UI choice that should have been ditched five years ago. I understand what Microsoft set out to do in the beginning: bring the familiarity and branding of Windows to mobile devices. It’s a noble cause, but their reluctance to adapt to the needs of mobile users has ultimately left them in last place in terms of UI functionality. Thankfully, third-party apps can enhance the UI, and some phone manufacturers like HTC even produce their own touch-driven shells to get Windows Mobile up to snuff. Without standardization, however, the task of choosing a device becomes a crapshoot. Maybe with the release of Windows Mobile 7 in 2009 we’ll finally get a new user interface that isn’t designed around stylus input.
Spending all my time complaining about it wouldn’t be entirely fair, though, since Windows Mobile does have several strong suits. It’s stable, probably because seemingly little has changed under the hood in the eight or more years since the first Pocket PC came out. There’s also a plethora of software available ranging from games to media players. If you can find a third-party shell that’s stable and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, Windows Mobile actually becomes a decent choice.
What an interesting position RIM finds itself in with the BlackBerry. Though it made a name for itself in the enterprise world thanks to its push-email technology, the BlackBerry is fast becoming a serious a competitor for other premium handsets thanks to its other web features. I found the user interface functional enough on the BlackBerry phones I tested, and having a full keyboard is always great for communicating on the go. However, RIM failed to impress me with other premium handset features like GPS, multimedia, and built-in cameras. The GPS seemed less responsive than on other phones I’ve used, and the low-resolution screens on BlackBerry devices left a lot to be desired in multimedia applications. The fact that most carriers charge a "BlackBerry tax" simply for owning one—even if you’re not using any of the enterprise functions—was also very off-putting.
Perhaps the upcoming BlackBerry Storm (you know, the one with that frustratingly short teaser ad) can complete the BlackBerry transition from enterprise to prosumer when it debuts in November. Interestingly enough, the Storm ditches the full keyboard in favor of a much larger touch-screen a la iPhone and LG Prada/Vu/Dare. If the Storm has the multimedia capabilities to bring it in line with other premium handsets, it could become an extremely compelling phone.
One can’t deny the iPhone’s impact on the mobile phone market, which is a bit like what the iPod did for MP3 players. Though most people already had a cell phone before the iPhone’s appearance, few realized the advantages of a full-featured handset. While you can stick to calling and texting if that’s all you need, the iPhone’s fantastic Safari browser gets you full access to the web. Sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and of course The Tech Report become easily accessible from just about anywhere, and you don’t need to put up with a gimped, "mobile" version of the web. The iPhone also has a fantastic user interface, which Apple designed from the ground up for mobile use. You don’t need a stylus, and the layout seems to take both visibility and use with fingers into account. Put simply, the iPhone is a joy to use and navigate. The .Mac/MobileMe synchronization was also appealing to me, since I already had a subscription to the service.
So, why don’t I own an iPhone, especially since the iPhone 3G came out around the same time my hunt began? It’s actually because of a combination of issues. For starters, I found the camera decidedly lackluster on the original iPhone, and I was incredibly disappointed when Apple didn’t update it for the iPhone 3G. I suppose my biggest problem with the iPhone was the degree to which the device is locked down, and I wasn’t interested in exploring the homebrew/hacking route on my own cell phone. I’m a fan of unlocked phones. I like being able to use my handset on just about provider, in just about any country, based on my needs. The iPhone just left too many question marks and grey areas with regard to universal use. And like the BlackBerry, the surcharge for simply owning the device (which is what I’d call a plan that starts at $70 per month with no texts) meant a cost far above the competition’s. Sorry Apple, maybe you’ll get me with the iPhone 3G-2 next year.
Android obviously wasn’t an option for me a couple of months ago, considering its debut with the T-Mobile G1 just this week. However, I’ve spent some time with the SDK and more recently a G1, and I came away impressed albeit still unsure about the future of the platform. Right away, it feels a lot like an iPhone, which is a good thing based on my previous praise of the iPhone’s UI. The touch-screen interface is generally well thought out, giving off a polished feel despite this being the initial release. As you would expect, the integration of Google services is top notch, too, and the multimedia features are surprisingly good despite the absence of a headphone jack. Actually, most of my hang-ups with the G1 have to do with hardware: poor cell reception, poor GPS reception, and poor speakerphone performance.
Considering its Linux pedigree, Android is most likely in for a battle similar to what Linux distros have been fighting on the desktop for several years now. Like its desktop brethren, Android is an open platform that can run on a multitude of devices, and it has the support of several large companies pushing for its success. What remains to be seen is the level of commitment third-party programmers will exhibit and whether Android can appeal to the masses in the same way as iPhone. Like many other Apple products, the iPhone "just works," and only by bringing an equal level of accessibility will Android make a serious dent in the mobile market. Thankfully, the premium handset market isn’t as well established as the desktop PC stage, and with the support of large marketing efforts, Android could very easily become a top contender in the mobile space. Now, let’s just get some more handsets out there.
Symbian’s S60 3rd Edition
If you haven’t guessed by now, I saved the platform I picked for last. So, how did I end up with Symbian’s S60? The biggest benefit I saw in S60 was its platform-agnostic approach to PC connectivity. It connects to Windows PCs just as well as it does to Macs—something not all non-S60-based handsets do—so I can synchronize my contacts, calendars, and other data easily regardless of which PC operating system I’m using that day. S60 has also been around for several years, so it’s stable and has a decently large software library (though it still doesn’t compare to Windows Mobile’s). Google has been a large supporter of S60 applications, creating YouTube, Google Maps, and Gmail apps that seemed to serve as test runs for Android. The built-in web browser is based on WebKit, the same rendering engine that drives the browsers for Android and the iPhone. However, the experience is less robust due to the lower resolution of S60 devices and their simpler input schemes. Opera Mini remains as a compelling option for an alternative browser. Thanks to my phone’s support for SDHC memory cards and the ability to plug in a 3.5mm headphones without an adapter, my phone has replaced my MP3 player, as well.
Compared to other premium handset offerings, S60’s UI could be considered the most conservative. You won’t find touch-screen support, and menu navigation is similar to the classic Nokia UI users have known for over a decade. While it’s not the best solution for mobile devices anymore, it’s at least functional, and it still offers a quick way to navigate through the phone’s menus. This will all change with the release of S60 5th Edition (four apparently means bad luck in Asia, so Nokia skipped it out of respect), since that will bring touch-screen control to the S60 platform, but it may take some time before its capabilities are fully exploited.
One of the biggest benefits I’ve found to choosing S60 is the newer technology in the handsets. I constantly hear complaints about how far ahead Asian and European phones are compared to what’s available in America, and buying S60 means you’ll most likely be importing much more recent technology than what’s available at your provider’s local brick-and-mortar store. Rather than an annual phone refresh, Nokia, Sony, and Samsung (among other S60 licensees) usually release new phones quarterly, making it easy to buy a handset with the latest and greatest technology at any time. For example, my phone sports a 5.0-megapixel camera, with Carl Zeiss optics and a true xenon flash. Walk into a Verizon, AT&T, or T-Mobile store, and you’ll still find 2.0- or even 1.3-megapixel cameras with LED flashes. The secondary camera on the face of my phone is better than most of them.
Importing foreign phones does have its drawbacks, however—and S60-sporting phones are generally not American phones, so you’ll have to know what GSM, UTMS, HSDPA, GPRS, and EDGE all mean before you can buy one. Most S60 phones come from Asia or Europe, and though they may launch here, Nokia (Symbian’s parent company) treats American users as second-class citizens. Firmware updates are few and far between, and many of Nokia’s official applications are designed for use specifically in Europe.
S60 also has an extremely odd development system, from what I can tell. New features are tested as standalone apps before making their way into a proper firmware release, which often causes redundancy in the OS and a lack of consistency between official apps. The general absence of standardization is the biggest issue facing S60, but that will hopefully change thanks to Nokia’s recent acquisition of Symbian. The entire platform should go open-source within the next couple of years, but it may be too late for anyone to care by then. For now, I’ve found a platform to get me through the next couple of years—at least until Android matures, iPhones get less expensive, or RIM comes out with a multimedia beast.
* You know, I always thought biannual meant occurring once every two years, while semiannual meant occurring once every six months. It turns out I was wrong, and that biannual shares the same usage as semiannual. The correct word to describe something that occurs every two years is biennial, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen used before. And that my friends, is TR’s Word of the Week. You’re welcome.