Mobile phones should be perfect candidates for darwinian evolution (as opposed to any other kind). A manufacturer surveys the market, sees what works and incorporates it into their phone. Phones cross-breed from manufacturer A to manufacturer B. Good ideas get stolen from one phone and implemented readily in others. Phones improve from generation to generation. Software gets more and more stable as the base its built on improve. Difficult user interfaces are eliminated and refinements serve only to make things easier. Phones change rapidly enough – new manufacturers emerge, new technologies etc – that the Marc Andreessen “interfaces freeze early” problem shouldn’t apply. In just a few generations of phone we’ve gone from one number per key to one letter per key to two letters per key, from cursor keys to scroll wheels to “pearls”, from black and white screens to colour screens to colour touch-sensitive screens. Good evolution. I understand that evolution doesn’t worry so much about patents as today’s technology companies do.
And, just like evolution, sometimes phones are so ugly or impossible to use that they don’t sell and such phones are never included in the gene pool again – evolutionary dead-ends, the sponges of the mobile world. The more you think about this, the more you realise that it’s either a rare occurrence or a non-existent one: Windows 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 4.0 phones were awful, but in the Microsoft tradition, they evolved. The RAZR’s initial incarnation (the V3 – taking a lesson from Microsoft and starting at V3 to make everyone think it was ok) was horrible to use, but evolved into the V3x which was bearable at least. So perhaps we’re left with brands here – anyone for a Panasonic mobile phone, or a BenQ? There really aren’t many three-headed trilobites in the mobile world. You’d have thought there’d be more. It is, I imagine, a function of the size of the market now as well as the future opportunity that means that few people give up.
Sometimes manufacturers hit a winner and those phones spawn a millon/zillion offspring and dominate like never before, for a while at least (dinosaurs in the nicest sense of the word). Any kind of flip-phone would perhaps work as an example.
Occasionally, something comes completely out of left field without any evident predecessors (the compound eye mobile phone) and really sets the world on fire. It’s so good and so elite that everyone is too afraid to breed with it and so it’s forced to evolve down the slowpath, relying on mutation within rather than cross-breeding. Whilst being an awesome phone it eventually dies out. Motorola have scored twice, at least on looks, with the StarTac and the RAZR (the less said about many of their other phones, the better)
None of these groupings are perfect. Impossible to use phones often sell by the truckload. The RAZR/V3 whilst looking fantastic was near impossible to use; the Nokia 8800 was, for a while, the slimmest, sleekest phone – but battery life was so poor it came with two batteries, each lasting perhaps one call; the Treo 600 and 650 were amongst the best smart gadgets I’d ever used, but sound quality on every call was awful and they crashed more than once a day; the Sony Ericsson P800 (the one shaped like a bar of soap) was, briefly, awesome until tapping away with that little stick got too much (about an hour after you’d first picked it up) and you tired of rebooting it 4, 5 or 6 times a day… and so on.
It’s easy to rant about a phone – after all, how many electronic things do you carry about your person and use for several hours a day? There’s loads of opportunity for trouble and frustration. One man’s gadgetary genius is another man’s worst ever nomination. But what gets to me is that very nearly 20 years after I first used a mobile phone and where the iteration rate in both software and hardware is far, far faster than it is for the PC or Mac, we’re still in a terrible place. Ipods improve (as in get better rather than just change) faster than phones – making subtle, incremental changes with each hardware release and occasionally more exciting updates with each software release. This is the reason, for me at least, why people are excited about the iphone – the idea of a (probably) initially stable phone that gets software updates regularly (to fix inevitable problems) is somehow very attractive.
Is it too much to ask that a phone:
– Has a battery that lasts at least a long weekend (treo 750 need not apply)
– Has a keyboard that registers your touch simply and effectively (samsung sgh600i need not apply)
– Doesn’t crash more than once a week (and, if it does crash regularly, that the reboot time is minimal – proving that the engineers have thought about minimising your pain. Reboot on the sgh600i is 2 1/2 minutes)
– Works consistently. If it has a back button, that should work the same way all the time. Copy and paste should work in every application for instance.
– Adheres to standards (sending a business card by SMS ought to be easy by now) – even the Palm Treo phones don’t support that (in Palm or Windows o/s)
– Allows me to synchronise text messages, ring tones, speed dials to the PC (can we really be on Windows Mobile V6 and ActiveSync v4.5 and not be able to do those still?)
– Let’s me install software that replaces the default software – maybe I don’t like the Windows Mobile standard SMS application and want to use another; well, let me associate text to another application (Palm has done this since at least the 600 if not earlier)
– And has good versions of the best features so far seen. Top software features for me:
(1) threaded text
(2) single click access to create a text and select a recipient. Samsung’s inbuilt app is 8 clicks before you can start typing your message!
(3) contacts that let you phone or text someone right from the screen, a lookup that lets you start typing a number and brings up the contacts that match as you type (as opposed to typing in a name and bringing up the number) – Spinvox users will know what I mean.
(4) Freecell, not solitaire
Of course, Darwin works for the users too, as this post on “worst phone ever” evidences with the line “the touch screen is very hard to use as a phone keyboard – you WILL kill yourself if you ever try to dial a number whilst driving the car.” Hmmm…dialling a number whilst I’m driving? Now why wouldn’t that kill me?