With Mobile World Congress due to start in Barcelona, Stephen Pritchard argues that as the mobile industry heads for its annual beano, it should not forget what it is good at.
In 2010, the late Steve Jobs suggested that we were entering the “post PC era”. But time could be running out: not just for the PC, but for the smartphone, too.
Jobs’ argument was that tablets – and, to some extent, smartphones – are replacing conventional PCs. This view has merits: tablets are becoming more powerful with each generation, and some of their inherent limitations, such as a lack of on-board storage, are being solved through the cloud. As tablets continue to improve, they will become more like PCs in their capabilities, but with more human interfaces.
Phones, though, could be heading in the opposite direction. Each generation of smartphone seems to be more complex than the last, as well as bulkier, heavier and often with worse battery life than the previous generation.
Mobile phone design seems to have hit its peak in the middle of the last decade, with sleak, easy to use cameraphones and simple, “get the job done” operating systems. A good example was Nokia’s N80 from 2005. A bit chunky, perhaps, but with a good camera, WiFi, and a music player. Or 2007′s Nokia e65, with a slimmer body, WiFi again, and business email. By the same token, some of BlackBerry’s phones – such as the Pearl – managed to combine form and function.
Today, we have the Samsung Galaxy Note, a device that sets out to reintroduce the stylus to the touch-screen world, and the Nokia Lumia 800. Now, the Samsung is a brick (why not just buy a tablet and be done with it?), but it hurts to say unkind things about the Lumia.
I have had a Lumia 800 on loan for a couple of months now. It has been crafted by people who care deeply about their work and who understand engineering, materials, and ergonomics. Where the iPhone and the Samsungs can be brash, the Lumia is understated and European. But under the hood, it is a different story. It is like opening up the engine compartment of a Ferrari or 911, and finding a clockwork motor.
In its desire to keep up in the features and performance race, Nokia abandoned its Symbian operating system for smartphones, alongside Meego, its promising Linux-based effort, in favour of Windows Phone. The marriage is not a happy one, but the result is unfortunately too typical of today’s smartphones: something that is less than the sum of its parts.
I wanted to like the Lumia, largely because I like the people behind it. Even Stephen Elop, the ex-Microsoft chief executive of Nokia, is a decent sort. He cares. The people who made the Lumia care. But, sorry, it just doesn’t work.
My own Lumia – and I am already on a second loan unit from Nokia – spends most of its time switched off, on the desk or in a bag. This is because its battery life is woeful (under four hours, typically, using 2G and WiFi). It refuses to charge up from a USB cable, only from the mains adapter. Sometimes it refuses to charge at all.
Someone in my local mobile phone store suggested gently heating the Lumia on a radiator. That worked for a bit. But caring for the thing is just too much effort. It is the telecoms equivalent of a Tamagochi.
When the Lumia’s battery is working, or it is tethered to a mains socket via the all-too-short supplied power cable, it is actually quite a good phone. It has a clear screen, almost as good as an iPhone. The call quality is good. Its on-screen keyboard is the best on-screen keyboard I have ever used. But is not as good as the keyboard on my elderly BlackBerry.
And this, sadly, illustrates the problem for smartphones. As they do more, they do many things less well. The Lumia’s keyboard, for example, is good at being less bad than the keyboard on a BlackBerry, or on the old, HTC-made Orange SPV handset I owned before that. But I would not attempt to write this article on the Lumia. I have written longer pieces than this on the BlackBerry, and the old SPV.
In many other respects too, the Lumia is less good, or no better, than other, older phones. The camera seems disappointing; the Twitter app (admittedly from Microsoft) is just annoying. The best part of the phone is the web browser, but there are other, better, devices for that.
The very real question for the mobile phone industry, as it packs for Barcelona, is where the new innovations will come from. As Anne Bouverot, director general of the GSMA (the industry trade body) argues, they are likely to come from moving mobile technology into other areas, such as telemedicine, or the automotive industry.
When pushed, her predictions for Mobile World Congress this year are for more tablets, and for 4G devices. That is depressing.
Perhaps the one area where the industry could still innovate is in payments. Phones fitted with near-field communications (NFC) chips could yet replace plastic cards, especially for smaller transactions. But, as with user interface design, everyone in the industry seems to be waiting for Apple to make its move.
Another related area, Bouverot suggests, is using the mobile SIM card as an identity token. Combined with NFC, the SIM could allow people to replace paper documents, commuter rail passes and health information cards – always assuming that such schemes are voluntary, and have proper security and consent policies.
But in the short term, would it be too much to ask the industry for a quality mobile phone, whose battery lasts an entire day, that can handle voice, texting and maybe taking the occasional photograph? After all, apps, mobile payments and identity management technology are no use at all if the phone is plugged in to the wall.