Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Cross-Device Application UIs

Good critique of one-size-fits-all soft key mapping for mobile software, spotted via Tom Hume who makes a good case for using in-house carefully designed UI frameworks that understand the differences between handsets and remap the application accordingly.

I've always hated the newer Nokia soft key mappings, hiding everything under an Options menu even when there is only one option - why have more clicks than you have to? Assuming users of other phones will also work that way is very bad practice. It's good to see that Polish is adding more flexibility, I've always thought it was a good tool for the more 'casual' mobile developer who has got to grips with lcdui and needs to make the app look better on a budget - though the code is just a bit too bulky and OOP for serious dev on lower end devices (64Kb is amazingly easy to fill, and don't get me started on needlessly arbitrary DoJa 30Kb jar limits on multi megabyte devices...).

One common mistake I've seen people make is to assume that the lcdui UI objects are 'native' therefore must work in a method familiar to users, and so the best way to make an intuitive UI is to use them. This is flawed for two reasons:
  1. As the article mentions, the lcdui may have been ported by some people who don't really understand UIs/the specifics of the handset's UI, or it may just be a straight port of the rather ugly Sun WTK UI and therefore nothing like the phone's UI.
  2. Users use a very limited subset of the phone's UI components, so they may intuitively expect default soft key mappings but they almost certainly won't be intimately familiar with the way a gauge or an options list works.
When it comes down to it, the mobile user experience is rife with flaws and potential problems, and your users will encounter many difficulties just finding and installing the content - for mobile content to take off these problems must be solved by the manufacturers. But once the dedicated few have got through, it is our duty as developer to make life as easy as possible for them - if your budget doesn't stretch to spending time on usability and UI, you really shouldn't bother starting. As Tom Hume suggests you might just be better off letting the experts handle it (FP or any of their equally competent competitors...)

If I Could Turn Back Time...

I'd go back about 3-4 years and find a bit of seed capital, hire an artist, buy some phones and start my own company that kicked out a new stunningly beautiful puzzle game every 3 months or so running on every device under the sun, covering the copyright free classics and reworks of your standard casual play games. Good looking homebrew like Bejewelled aimed square at unisex casual gamers would have to be a money spinner if the distribution was right...
Ah well. As the adage goes, if you can't do it you can always blog about it ;-)

Monday, June 26, 2006

Multiple DVD Formats: Does Anyone Win?

Slightly off-topic for a mobile blog, but I can't help but think that no-one will win with the next-gen DVD wars about to confuse the hell out of consumers.

I have about 300 DVDs, I'm quite happy with them, they look very nice on a normal TV and apparently on Thelf's nice new HD LCD flatscreen. No-one has yet given me a compelling reason why I want a new format - I won't repurchase the same films again, I'm quite happy with DVD. I don't want to pay more for a new format, or new hardware. There is no step change in functionality like VHS to DVD.

The motives behind the move seem entirely selfish - hardware people need us to buy a new platform to maintain revenues now a DVD player costs £19.99 in Argos, and studios who were utterly surprised when DVDs started selling like hotcakes now expect to be able to push out new formats and repeat that success.

Three possible outcomes:
  1. One format wins outright (losers: the companies that exclusively backed it, and the consumers that bought it)
  2. Both formats co-exist for a few years, until drives come out which read both and everyone forgets there was a difference (like DVD-R vs DVD-RW but presumably with more lasers; losers: every consumer who buys the wrong format by mistake, or who wants some content out on the other format)
  3. No-one buys them, and we just stick with plain-old DVDs until it's impossible to buy replacement hardware/content (losers: the hardware companies)
It may make me a luddite, but I'm hoping for number 3...

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

How Much Do 0870 Numbers Cost Again?

On the O2 Sales Helpline, presumably you subsidise the subsidy on the phone you're about to buy in 0870 call charges whilst you wait to buy it. Their verbosity is clearly an example of Marketing Bullshit Gone Mad:

"When you see things differently, you can do anything. Speak openly and honestly with the O2 sales team and remember that your call may be monitored.

Listen carefully and press a number after you've listened to all 3 options.

Do you fancy o2's text appeal? Is it the ultimate customer experience you're looking for, and a new beginning? Join O2s innovative service by pressing option 1 now.

Existing customers: for dedicated customer services, press 2 now.

Thanking all O2 customers. Your reward for being loyal is a new phone. Sound good? Press 3.

In a crowded world, we create space. O2. See what you can do."

Well what you can do is listen at least twice in disbelief to work out that the handset purchase option is 1 ("to buy a phone, press 1" conceivably would have been clearer?), then wait ten minutes in a queue on a silent line (muzak presumably shaves valuable fractions of pence from the revenue generated keeping the caller waiting).

Then in the end it transpired that every O2 customer has a PAYG handset limit (I think it's roughly three handsets), and no I couldn't have another. The web site could probably have told me this but it preferred "Sorry we can't take your order at this time", which is a little ambiguous.

Their marketing dept seem to take a number of substances to help them see differently, but I think they should really consider stopping now before they cause permenant damage.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Orange N80s Sleeping With Fishes?

Reading the last few posts you could be forgiven from thinking that we're committed anti-Symbian people. That's not actually true - Thelf loved his last three Symbian phones and I think he even quite liked his Ericsson R380 - he certainly used to show it off a lot. And I'm waiting for Orange to stock the Nokia N80 so I can upgrade, though I think after getting used to the excellent current Sony-Ericsson UI I'm going to regret this decision.

The problem with working in phones is that you have every phone on current release in a drawer on your desk, and you know how bad most of them are, so you get attached to your own and cease to be excited by new releases. Well you do when they're as lacklustre as most of the current lot anyway. The SE W950 looks great, but it has been pushed til Q3 (didn't they say mid 06 originally?); I know people with D600s so that's boring, and the LG Chocolate is pure marketing hype and big price markup wrapped round a fairly poor spec and UI. And it's a bit gay. So when I saw the N80 had WiFi, UPnP and a ridiculous 352x416 screen I thought yes - I want that. I want 10 mins talk time, 30 mins standby. I want to feel like throwing my phone against the wall every time I try to write a text, just like every other S60 phone I've used. Autofocus - overrated, with 3Mp you can downscale and sharpen in Photoshop, and anyway I've got an SLR. Actually I didn't say the last three points, but they did nag me from the back of my mind as the technolust took over my concious decision making process. To be fair on the positive side I also kind of liked the new S60 look (if not feel) when I played with an N90, and the N80 is almost mobile phone sized which whilst less useful than the N90 in a self defence situation will suit my pocket better.

So when Orange offered me an upgrade 9 months into my contract (that tells me I use my phone far too much...), and then told me I could get the N80 for the minimum fifty quid (ditto), I had to say yes. Excellent, gadget utopia and usability nightmare here I come. Or not, because it turns out Orange has withdrawn all N80s from sale and refuse to give a date for when they'll come back. Gentle interrogation of Orange shop satff suggests that this means there are serious flaws with the phone, and they won't be touching it again until they are fixed. Two weeks later, despite being on the waiting list at two shops in different parts of London and ringing various others that don't do waiting lists, still nothing. "Try again tomorrow, they don't tell us nothing guv." I think a few people got the early editions, but that may not be a good thing.

Is this just the same story as some of the other landmark S60 releases like the 6600 (MontyThread anyone? Don't let the marketing department set the launch deadlines), or the 6630 (and even better its much delayed relaunch in Japan as the NM850iG)?

<Insert Controversial Symbian Title Here>

Following on from raddedas’s post of yesterday I’ve been giving some further thought to the available Symbian apps from an end-user perspective and looking at why the sales are flat. It’s easy enough to harp on about the lack of market penetration of the OS but that’s only half the story, with something like 11.5 Million phones shipped in the past year and with the bulk of these being Series 60, it’s still a decently sized market to shoot at. Some in the Symbian developer community has been pointing the finger of blame at Nokia/Symbian for failing to promote to the end consumer however this is only half the answer. So to the developers out there here are my thoughts on why your app sales are flat:

They are too niche – As out of touch with youth culture as I know I am, I’m pretty certain that even the nerdy kids in the playground haven’t been downloading SSH clients, file managers or secure data storage apps. Whilst all of these apps are very useful to some people, they could not in any shape of form be described as mass-market and I’ll wager that 90% of the folks who’ve bought them are in some way linked to the Symbian ‘ecosystem’ (that’s £10 in the marketing bullshit swear-jar for me). There are some really neat things which can be done in Symbian, and the potential exists for apps which could go really mass market.

They are Sudoku – There are 50 different versions of Sudoku for Symbian phones available on Handango, some by pretty decently sized developers! Don’t waste time doing an application which can (and will) be also being written by every 1st year computer science undergrad from Cambridge to Shanghai.

The apps are too expensive – The average price of a Symbian application on Handango? $19.99 and they range all the way up to 70-80 bucks! Even the various Sudoku versions have an average price of $6! I know that you’re often getting a fair amount of code for cashola, and I do understand the costs involved in software development, but the average consumer sees prices like these and runs in the other direction very fast. If you tell them they’ve gotta use a credit card to purchase it they’ll run even faster. Try it.

PC Synching – Leading on from the point above, app delivery HAS to be OTA. This whole monkey business about downloading a SIS file to your PC and then bluetoothing it across is too much for your average Joe. Hell it’s too much for most of the software developers I know – hands up if you’ve experienced problems sending software to your phone from your PC. I think I’ve made my point.

Operators don’t sell them – Are there any operators selling native applications? I did a quick check on a couple of UK operator portals using a Symbian handset lying around on my desk and couldn’t find any. I know the operators take half the cash for what seems to be little of the work, but something in the region of 90% of Java apps are currently sold via the operator decks. The operators hold all the cards here, not just because of product discovery but also as they have the simplest billing method – you click on it, you’ve bought it, they text you the download link. Imagine Vodafone offering to send you a link to download a ZIP file…

If you're an organically grown Symbian developer who's successfully developing targeted applications for a specific sector congratulations. I fully admit that there are a number of verticals in which Symbian app development can be very lucrative, the enterprise market being a case in point especially with Nokia's agressive push into this area. However if you're a VC funded developer who's drunk the Nokia/Symbian Kool Aid (another £10 in the jar) and is burning cash waiting for the mass market to appear, perhaps its time to think about other approaches.

EA Unhappy To Lose >50% Of Game Sale Price Shocker

EA have declared they'd like to sell games directly to the consumer, and who can blame them - operators (outside of Japan) take a massive chunk of billing revenues and lots of less obvious payments for portal positioning, making the mobile gaming market completely unprofitable for any but the largest players. Most operators (outside of Japan) also lose lots of money on their content portals, which would be funny if it wasn't so tragic.

I've long thought there is huge potential for clever off-portal sales strategies - and EA are in a very storng position for this. The next generation of consoles all feature Internet access which will tie console gamers into networked communities and free/purchased game add-ons. why not drop in a text field for the player's phone number and offer to wap push them the mobile version of the game? Or better still, an extra component for the game which extends it into the real world and allows the player to do mobile-friendly things which feed back into the main console game world?

This model could be extended to all sorts of mobile apps, using intelligent combinations of push triggers in existing web sites/networked apps/connected kiosks, and IR/Bluetooth app pushes in the right environments. The latter needs to be handled with care: gratuitous spam is bad, but a lot could be done with promo staff beaming content, perhaps adding a little personal tutorial and guided sign-up (on-device or through some other networked PDA).

I think we'll see growing use of novel distribution channels for mobile content over time, as advertisers continue to move away from fading media like TV. The current model seems to be stuck in an SMS rut but it can only be a matter of time.

Does anyone have any examples of innovative mobile agencies pushing the boundaries, bearing in mind we'll be witheringly sarcastic about them if they fail to make the grade? ;-) If they fail because of inherent problems in the mobile content infrastructure, as is often the case, we will of course be sure to point out the real culprits...

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Dumb World No Place For Smart Phones

Just read an interesting article on falling smartphone software sales from an interesting blog (his experiences as a Sprint Ambassador should be compulsory reading for operators). I particularly liked the smartphone shipments graph aggregating the different analyst's sales figures which shows that, outside of the Symbian and Blackberry world, smartphone shipments are flat. Blackberry own a niche (suits) and Symbian through Series 60 is being pushed into the mainstream to users who didn't want a smartphone, and will probably get a rude awakening when they realise how much extra work they have to do to write an SMS (smartphone: a handset where phone functions are hard to initiate, but you theoretically could download lots of apps and you get to reflash the firmware regularly?).

Unfortunately, the major flaw here is that all software houses are talked of annonymously - what kind of software are they selling? Is it mainstream? Most customers won't want an SSH client or a Task Manager for their phone, so if these vendors are selling niche nerdy software they are going to struggle once the geeks have all bought it and the only market growth is into the mainstream, where people don't understand and wouldn't care if they did. It's impossible to say if this is the case, but I'd love to know.

Tantalisingly, after discussing a market which only covers 8% of handsets shipped in 2006 Q1 (18.9m of 229m), and therefore a significantly lower proportion of handsets in consumer's hands (4.9% in 2005?), Michael ends on this note:
"As a couple of mobile developers told me recently, 'we need a new platform.' I'll write about what I think that means, and the prospects for it, next week."

What could he mean? Shurely not a platform supported on all those smartphones and a large proportion of the other 92% handsets as well?

The risk to the smartphone platforms is that the consumer phone OSs will just overtake them, if they can retain the ease of use of a conventional phone whilst organically growing the features people actually want from a smartphone (something Michael broadly appears to agree with); the Betamax kids can stick with their 'technically superior' bricks whilst the world moves on around them.

This market shift has seen Nokia's Series 40 fall from the top of the usability tree to be replaced by Sony-Ericsson, who after the flawed T610 have come on leaps and bounds and have done an excellent job in integrating advanced multimedia etc into a snappy usable phone-centric OS. Even better, the grid menu hilights move very sexily and the JVM is rock solid and Jazelle fast.

With the 7210 Nokia did an excellent job transferring their market leading OS into the brave new colour screen world, retaining the simplicity of two soft key control and the tried and tested menu system. Then they just hung in there with some trully hideous skins (UI and hardware) as the rest of the market got sexier, before introducing a central soft key - no bad thing in itself, but they produced counter-intuitive rules for soft key layout that destroyed the UI's earlier simplicity. Poor keypad decisions on the phenominally successful 6230 didn't help. At the same time feature creep started to introduce confusion to the menu structure, and it's taken them a long time to overcome this (and there's still some way to go).

The sad truth is that most people don't buy phones on the quality of the UI - they may be put off by bad experiences in the past, but when upgrading they are more often bothered about price and looks (seem to have lost all my links on recent research about that topic, anyone?). Equally, to nominally tie this all back in to the title and start of the post, they don't tend to buy phones because of their smartphone features - they may want an MP3 player and they may want an OK camera, but normally this is a secondary requirement and normally it is to supplement existing single purpose gadgets and not to replace them. This will change over time as handsets diversify and start to fill these niches more snugly, but the all conquering smartphone will forever occupy the smallest niche of tecnonerds, jack of all trades and master of none.

Going Down, Mr Zander?

Just a little starter post from me, which demonstrates the perils of being exceedingly lazy: had I not agreed to wait (about 3 months in the end) for Thelf to set this blog up, I could have beaten the many other bloggers out there in shorting Moto's stock...

But for what it's worth, last week I was given a reminder of why Motorola's recent sales increases are on a very shaky foundation, namely the multiple rebadgings of the RAZR: waiting in a phone shop to pick up a couple of test handsets, I overheard a woman discussing with a salesman which phone she should buy. She'd narrowed the choice down to a Samsung E350 or some horrible identikit mini LG clamshell; I advised her to go with the Samsung, as I'd always found LGs awful to use.
Not entirely convinced, she asked which phone I would pick out of any available. One of the new Sony-Ericssons I immediately replied, at which point she laughed and said she'd had a bad experience with an SE and would never go back. It transpired she was talking about the T610 - remember that handset, the very popular fashion phone everyone seemed to have which was hideously underpowered and a dog to use? Sound familiar?

The RAZR is already becoming a chav phone, moving down market faster than Charlotte as a name for your newborn, and come upgrade time I don't see many people sticking with that lovely Moto UI. It's slow, ugly (overuse of garish gradient fills, nasty icons...), awkwardly laid out, and based on a platform that came out in early 2004... and yet they're still flogging it like the proverbial dead horse. The new UI is taking an age to come out and hardly looks like a quantum leap forward either.

Should a masochistic consumer wish to stay with Moto, what are their options? Well, we have the RAZR 3x (a RAZR... but fat! 2cm thick in fact! With the same horrible UI, the same horrible keypad, worse battery life... erm wait, is this an upgrade?) Or... the PEBL (nice flip mechanism, case sure to appeal to the lucrative rubber fetish market, and... er...) ...or maybe a D&G gold RAZR (subdued, tasteful)... or a pink RAZR (for girls, cos its pink, innit)? How about the ROKR, a beautiful fusion of the design and UI skills of Motorola working to a tight dealine and some heavily crippled software from Apple that is too heavy for the processor (clearly a marriage made in heaven)? Or... wait, do they make any other phones?

Moto may hold onto the global #2 slot, but it will be because of their dirt cheap emerging market phones and not anything higher up the market; the RAZR will increasingly become a millstone dragging them down. Their key hope whilst hanging in there: that #3 Samsung's hideously fragmented design divisions will keep pulling in different directions, meaning for every ten follow ups to an iconic success like the D500 they get nine pointless retreads and maybe one worthy heir...

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

This Web 2.0 Thing Is Well Jackson

In between discussing horrific cheese toastie injuries and losing our keys, we observe the mobile industry with a mixture of hope, excitement, despair and disdain. We plan to share these thoughts in this forum, and with any luck under the buckets of hype the industry will surprise us and throw us more of the first pair than the second.

But before that we're going to revel in our new Web 2.0 blogospere glory, and sign up for flickr / myspace / technorati / del.icio.us accounts whilst weighing up honour tags and learning new stuff from Wikipedia at close to 69% of the accuracy of Britannica. How cool are we.

Peace and fucking.