Friday, 2 September 2011

How smart does a smartphone have to be?

    It started with an argument I heard last year at an event for mobile application developers. On my left, a developer, on my right a mobile phone industry maven. The developer was waving his three-year-old Nokia E71 and using it to illustrate a point about the smartphone market.
    The maven remarked that in the context of the smartphone market in 2010 the Nokia was not a smartphone even though it meets the basic criteria for being a smartphone of having a general purpose operating system on which the user could install their own software. His reasoning was that it was not marketed as a smartphone in the same way as iOS and Android devices have been and it lacks the readily accessible app stores available on those devices, and most users would not use an E71 in the same way that they would use an iPhone. They would use the E71 as a phone while they'd use the iPhone as a computer.
    A lengthy argument ensued with the developer demonstrating the apps on his Nokia and the maven simply pointing out that a developer prepared to source Symbian apps and install them himself is hardly the typical mobile phone user.
    I can so see how both sides of the argument have merit. Any Symbian phone is a smartphone in the classical sense, but the differing experiences between using the Nokia and using a modern phone running Android or iOS mean that most users of Series 60 phones like the E71 would have been just as well served by a series 40 feature phone, such was their low uptake of the smartphone features.
    I've been given cause to rememeber the argument a couple of times this year, as I've left the charger for my Motorola DEXT Android phone at my parents house and had to revert to using my previous phone, a Nokia N73. I'd never fully made use of the N73's smartphone facilities when it was my only phone because I didn't have a data plan worth anything, so how easy would it be to use a series 60 device as a smartphone in 2011? I installed the Motorola's SIM with its hefty bandwidth allowance and set the N73 to work.
    At the very start I knew there were areas in which a five year old phone could not compete. The N73 is one of the best voice phones I have ever owned and it has an excellent camera, but events have moved on since it was my fancy new toy. There is no touch screen so input is from a numeric keypad and thumbstick, no wifi or GPS, and its rather archaic miniSD card is limited to only 2Gb. It seemed so large when it was new! So I was interested in two areas only: what is the ease of finding and installing software on a Series 60 device and can the device and software do the jobs I demand of my smartphone?
    That posed the obvious question: what do I use my smartphone for? Like most Android or iPhone users I have installed a variety of apps for all sorts of purposes. I guess you could call me an Android power user, the DEXT has been rooted and sports a CyanogenMod community ROM.
    Some of the apps on the DEXT such as the compass app or the GPS-driven OS map app were not applicable to the N73 because of the lack of GPS. Others I might have installed but never really used much. So I thought about it and decided that I use the Android phone most for web browsing, Gmail and Google Maps. All tasks that should be within the capabilities of a device like the N73.
    As soon as I turned the N73 back on earlier this year I realised that there was another issue to consider. Not one that would prevent the phone being used but nevertheless a big consideration when comparing with a modern smartphone: Symbian is a capable modern OS under the hood, but Nokia's interface feels so much like one created for an appliance while the iOS and Android interfaces feel like those of desktop computers. You might excuse this by the age of the device, but having recently had a go with my wife's brand-new Nokia N8 I'd have to say that this is still the case with their most recent version. This is not necessarily a bad thing but does reflect the culture behind it, Nokia are a manufacturer of dedicated devices while Apple and Google come from a general purpose computing background. Another point for the maven above's premise that the marketing for Symbian devices never really capitalised on their smartphone abilities. Perhaps if they had, Nokia wouldn't be in the position they are now.
    So I had an old phone ready to go. Fortunately I'd charged the battery every month or two so everything still worked. My first step was to plug it in to Ovi Suite and run the software updater. At this point I hit another area in which the Nokia fails to compete with other smartphones. This was the very latest version of Ovi Suite as installed for my wife's N8, you'd think that by now Nokia would have employed a user experience designer to make it easier to use. By comparison with similar tasks on an iOS or Android device which Just Work, Ovi Suite is painful to use, a piece of annoying bloatware.
    New firmware in place, and what did it do for me? Nokia Maps was new, so it was back to Ovi Suite to download the UK maps. Yet more tedious fiddling. Then to look at the apps.
    Here I met the biggest let-down and the confirmation of the maven's view over that of the developer. Comparing the choice of apps on an Android phone with those in Ovi store reminded me of my Amiga days nearly twenty years ago when I would see poor quality software being punted for several times the price of its equivalent for the PC. How many idiots really pay five quid for a novelty theme for their Symbian phone? Yet that seemed to be most of what was on offer in the app store, to find anything useful I had to resort to Google to find individual developer sites.
    Fortunately though, I didn't need to look very far for my main apps. The updated firmware gave me a newer version of Nokia's Symbian browser but that hardly delivers a modern browsing experience. The same goes for the Nokia email client, in a cloud email world it just seems so dated. So my web browsing was always going to be taken care of by Opera Mini and email was well catered for by Google's native S60 Gmail app. I also took the time to install Google's search app and Google Maps app.
    So my viewport on the world became a 240x320 pixel portrait display and my input device a numeric keypad and thumb joystick. I needed to relearn the art of entering text using a keypad and resist the urge to use my finger on the display.
    My respect knows no bounds for the developers of Opera Mini. To fully replicate a modern desktop browser with server-side rendering on a very basic phone was always going to be a tall order, but they have come as close to that goal as they can, delivering a surprisingly useful web experience that comprehensively shames even the latest version of Nokia's own browser on the N8. I can check my work email using the web version of Outlook, I can easily browse full desktop versions of most of my favourite web sites and I find the interface squashed into the tiny screen of the N73 to feel modern, be intuitive and easy to use.
    The same can not quite be said of the Gmail client interface. It's easy enough to use but it has a very different feel to that of Opera Mini. It uses the Symbian GUI features heavily, and as such it feels like something running on a phone from 2001 with a grey LCD rather than one from 2006 with a colour TFT.
    Having spent a couple of weeks back in N73 country I have to admit I found it perfectly adequate for 2011. Sending a Tweet or replying to an email is a little tedious through a numeric keypad but using the joystick to control the pointer soon became second nature. And the Nokia's far superior hardware meant I had a signal in the most unlikely of places where the Moto would have been a relatively useless brick. I've posted pictures to Twitpic, made forum posts, referred to an email from my boss in a meeting and sent a drunken Tweet from a pub looking for a quiz team. In short, the N73 has been my constant companion in exactly the same way as the DEXT and though it can't quite do all the things the Android phone can, it's been useful enough for me not to become frustrated with it.
    On the whole after a while using Series 60 again I agree with the maven's view above. It is most definitely a smartphone OS and I've used it as such, but get it to do so I've had to search the web for apps and navigate a rather tedious and unintuitive PC software suite. But I can see the developer's point of view, it's been a rock solid small computer for some quite intensive mobile browsing and email on the go. Even with CyanogenMod I'd have had to reboot the DEXT a few times in a couple of weeks, by comparison I never had to reboot the N73 to make it perform properly. The only thing I found tedious with the Nokia was its text input, but then again I never got on with numeric keypads. If I get the chance I'd like to try a Bluetooth keyboard with it, or perhaps a QWERTY device like the E71.
    So I'll not be giving up the Motorola. It is a better computer, even if not always the better phone. But the Nokia has been rescued from the drawer and kept charged, because I now realise it's too useful to ignore.