Wednesday, February 13, 2008

S60 + Touch = ...?

Sadly, when the answer to that equation was shown, there were no surprises - if you hack a touchscreen onto a badly designed mess of a UI, you get a badly designed mess of a UI which can be controlled with touch. The iPhone experience was not a game changer in Finland after all.

Touchscreens were in vogue at GSMA, but mostly they were reruns of what we had seen before - some more Prada/Viewty variants from LG (not bad, not great) and some more testing of the waters from Samsung who are doing interesting things but have yet to really hit their stride, having been a very successful maker of attractive but relatively basic flips and sliders until now.

I can forgive SE for throwing out a few more UIQ3 phones without a radical overhaul, as they obviously need to make good with what they have and recoup some of their investment - whilst (hopefully) forcing the UIQ designers back to the drawing board at gun point with specific instructions to unravel the many usability downgrades they inserted in the jump to UIQ3, whilst adding in some consumer pizazz. The old UIQ 1 and 2 handsets won many friends because UIQ used to be an excellent PDA platform; the move to UIQ3 tried to go consumer by improving the graphics (great) whilst sacrificing some of the nice features and confusing the workflow a bit (not so great). This nicely hilights the problems inherent in making a platform designed to do one thing try and do another.

Which brings us back to that other Symbian platform, S60.

"The disappointment when people see the hardware design of a new Nokia – then notice that it's running S60 inside - is quite palpable"

Nokia's recent strategy has been to trojan horse S60 into consumer's pockets, making nice sexy phones which consumers buy because "I always buy Nokias, I just know how to use them". To date they have shifted a lot more smartphones this way than they ever did when they sold them as smartphones, a difficult label describing the sort of phone very few non-phone geeks every wanted. Time will tell if this strategy eventually backfires as aghast consumers assume Nokia has lost the plot completely and shift to someone else in the next upgrade cycle - some strange individuals do like the platform and its ever-changing warren of menus, after all.

I am reminded of the handset policy at my girlfriend's employer, a multinational, which some years back decided to provide all customer facing employees who asked with the very nice Nokia 6170, an S40 mass market phone. They felt compelled to standardise on Nokias because "everyone knows how to use a Nokia". As the 6170 started to get on a bit, they decided to migrate employees to one of those nice new enterprise phones Nokia had started selling, the E50 - an S60 smartphone, no less. Two months later, after mass complaints, they took back the E50s and moved on to the 6300, a nice and businesslike S40 mass-market phone. Staff are once again very happy.

S60 has always struck me as something Nokia has put money into, so it feels compelled to keep selling it, and enough people seem to buy it that we end up in a self perpetuating cycle. Sure, some people like it, but most people that I know who've had the misfortune to buy one don't buy another... the exception seems to be in marketing, where about 50% of the S60 users I know work. They probably need to feel 'cutting edge' or something.

Seeing the iPhone, sometimes labelled a smartphone, they must have thought "OK, best response is to pull in every touchscreen resource we have in the company (from the Maemo teams, R&D projects etc) and drop all of them into S60". Exactly the wrong approach.

S60 really doesn't really feel like it was actually designed by anyone, but in as much as it must have been it was designed to be a UI for a handset with a standard numeric keypad, a few seemingly random special buttons and a decidely unresponsive screen. This does not sit nicely with the idea of a touch screen.

We have already seen how Nokia's platform streamlining has jettisoned a very good Organiser platform (S80) by folding/crowbarring it into S60, alienating past fans, so there was ample likelihood they would mess things up further. This they appear to have done.

The iPhone is slick, responsive, fun to play with and contains just enough software to do most of what most people want to do reasonably well - but even if it doesn't do everything that they might need, users will enjoy the process of discovering it doesn't do what they need.

Nokia's S60 platform is confusing, obscure, constantly changing and always hugely underpowered and unresponsive, with software to do everything you might ever want to do, but after moving round the menus quite a lot you'll probably give up trying to find out how and just use it as a rather slow poor phone. Nokia's S60 Touch seems to extend this experience by allowing you to move round the same menus with your finger smearing the screen, whilst preserving those little experience-defining moments like the pause screens and waiting animations that you know and hate.

It will take a massive sales hit to understand that this approach will not, in the long term, work out. They must innovate and diversify into handsets that are once again fun and/or efficient to use; even S40 is creaking under the weight of the features loaded into it now. Sadly Nokia have such huge sales volumes that they can coast for a long time without realising this, and their customers will be all the poorer because of it.


Blogger HeavyLight said...

Ah, a voice in the wilderness!

Let's hope that either Nokia wake up or an Android alternative will appear by the end of the year.

If not, I can quite imagine myself forking out for a semi-open, 3G iPhone.

1:46 am

Blogger Antoine said...

I agree. Great article, and stated about as plain as it needs to be. UI/UX is some that should be built from the ground up, not grafted on. This one of the reasons I liked the Palm OS so much. Thanks for writing this.

2:02 am

Blogger Steve Litchfield said...

You make some valid points, but like Andrew Orwlowski, who you link to, your text comes across as bitter and full of vitriol. Which taints your opinion somewhat.

Everybody knows S60 needs a UI overhaul. FP2 will help somewhat, Touch will help somewhat. Will it be enough in the long run? The market will decide 8-)

9:28 am

Blogger raddedas said...

I guess the vitriol comes after repeated disappointment ;)

There are many things to like about Nokia, but sadly S60 isn't one of them (despite having many good aspects, the fundamentals are all wrong)...

2:10 pm

Blogger ceedee said...

Everybody knows S60 needs a UI overhaul. FP2 will help somewhat,
Not anywhere near enough for this Opinionated Normob!
I too believe that Nokia need a post-iPhone, UI revolution. They could signal this easily by announcing the forthcoming "T20"...

Great phones, unwieldy software, UI to avoid.

8:34 pm

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11:36 pm


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