Mobility: Form and Function

Mobility: Form and Function

Unfortunately, there won’t be a Mobility next week; I’m away in South Africa, which is also the reason I won’t be at MWC with Gears. It’s a shame on both counts, but hopefully I’ll be able to make up for it with something decent when I get back.


Form factor is an important issue in choosing a phone. Each offers their own advantages: the simplicity and accessibility of a candybar, the protection of a flip… It all comes down to personal preference, really. My own choice is a landscape QWERTY slider, preferably with a tilting screen: i.e. a HTC TyTN II or Touch Pro2. But the market’s preference seems to be shifting. In the wake of the iPhone, we’re moving towards full-touch candybars, as these become fashionable, and everything else is pushed into second place, catering to nice markets.


The Nexus One is a full-touch candybar. So is the HD2, and the TG01, along with every other currently proposed Snapdragon device (Aside from the LG eXpo, which is a niche product either way). This means that anyone who wants a powerful phone on either Windows Mobile or Android (the only OSes you can currently get Snapdragon phones on) is forced into one form factor, which you might not be interested in. In fact, I for one made a conscious decision to move away from a fulltouch device, although the GUIs on the Hero and HD2 might have tempted me back.

The three form factors that most people would know are the ones classically used for “dumbphones”; Candybar, flip, and (vertical numeric) slider. Rotating, or ‘Swivel’ phones have been tried, a concept which ultimately lead to this, possibly the worst handset I’ve ever had the misfortune of using. But if we enter the smartphone market, things become more complicated… QWERTY sliders (landscape and portrait, although the former is slowly becoming dumber, a trend I’ll get to in a minute), tilting sliders, flip-and-swivel handsets (Like the classic HTC Universal… now that was a phone and a half!)… Oh, and that Motorola Android QWERTY landscape flip. It’s a bit of a mess, really. But recently a few trends have started to emerge.


The first is something I’ve already touched upon (pun NOT intended, honestly). Full-touch candybars are starting to become far more common, in all sectors of the market, from the most basic around right up to the HD2 and Nexus One. It really was an obvious progression: a touchscreen is a fantastic way of interacting with a UI, and as both capacitive and resistive touchscreen technologies improve, it’s hardly surprising that touchscreen phones are getting better and cheaper, although some of the lower-end models are unfortunately enough to put people off touchscreens for life. However, there is another catalyst in this equation: a certain famous fruit-phone (and no, I don’t mean the banana one). Yes, it was really the first popular, well publicised touchscreen-only phone, but it wasn’t the first one around. The obvious thing to call up here is the LG Prada (not actually a terribly great device; my girlfriend at the time owned one), but there were others as well. While the iPhone didn’t create a form factor, it helped making it popular and “cool”, and most of all it defined it within the public eye.


The way the majority of us use our phones is also changing. We’ve still got the hardcore of business users and techies who churn out emails and documents on their phones, but as a whole we are talking less and less and texting more and more. As unlimited texting plans become the norm, a good keypad is becoming more and more important, to the point where it’s becoming trendy to have a keyBOARD. We’re seeing a rise in QWERTY slider dumbphones, as well as an increase in sales of Blackberries (and similar devices, such as Nokia’s E71s and E72s) among markets they were never really aimed at, such as teenagers. But this shift does mean something else. As QWERTY devices stop being almost entirely the phones of power-users, there seems to be less focus on them. Right up until the Touch Pro2, HTC’s highest-end device was always a QWERTY phone, and they put a lot of work into them. The Pro2’s looks are, in my opinion, better than the Diamond2’s; there’s no dead space below the screen like there is on the Diamond2, and the industrial design is far more understated and pleasing to the eye. It manages to look good whilst still being a powerful, and relatively thick, device. But take a look at HTC’s leaked roadmaps for this year. The only QWERTY slider to be seen is the Tera: 600MHz processor, 256MB RAM… and a WQVGA screen. Seriously? Where’s the Snapdragon love?!? Where’s the WVGA AMOLED screen? A QWERTY slider would be easier to pack it into as well, since it doesn’t need to be as thin as a touch-only phone. Even worse, the keyboard is only four rows again… the Touch Pro2’s keyboard is one of the best I’ve ever used. I wrote a large part of this article on mine, and it beats pretty much anything on the market that’s a similar size. It’s upsetting that a very versatile form factor, and one that HTC have previously excelled with, should be pushed into a niche market. On the other hand, it’s perfectly plausible that one day software keyboards will be good enough to beat a hardware one.


But that’s a topic for another day.