The handset is mightier than the keyboard

It could turn out that the hottest product to come out of 3GSM this week is the cell phone that managed to look more like a landline device.

Kudos to Motorola, which finally realized that there’s more to usability than making a phone that is thinner and, consequently, easier to lose. I’ve only seen pictures of its Rizr Z8 so far, but I like what I see. Like designs from Nokia and Ericsson, it slides open to reveal a keyboard, but unlike those others, it includes a hinge that can adjust the phone into a V-shape that brings the microphone closer to the user’s mouth. I have often suspected that people talk loudly on cell phones not because of the so-so quality of their connection but because they feel they are talking into thin air.

As ingenious as this idea is, though, it will not be enough to get Motorola out of its doldrums, nor will it revive the fate of other handset makers, who seem stuck in the same rut as their PC counterparts. It’s interesting that the Razr Z8 runs the Symbian OS, given that at Symbian’s Smart Phone Show late last year its chief executive, Nigel Clifford, predicted that handsets would eventually supplant desktops. Instead of a PC in every cubicle, he said he sees “a smart phone in every pocket.” That may happen, but that doesn’t mean the desktop is dead. We haven’t come close to setting up the system management, security or applications to make smart phones a true across-the-board replacement client.

No matter what the hardware, it tends to evolve according to a fairly predictable cycle. The first movement is to shrink the form factor. Then you pack in more functions and features. Then you try to connect it with as many other parts of the network as possible. Then, once you’ve done all that, you try to shrink it down a little more, maybe. We’re reaching a threshold of sorts with these devices, even though OEMs done little to advance the devices from a usability perspective. 

It’s great for Motorola to make the Razr Z8 both look more like a landline phone and more like a mini-PC, but shouldn’t there be an interface that transcends both of those machines? Think about how we tend to use phones: we dial the number (or touch speed dial), raise the phone to our ears or stick an earphone in our ears, and then – stare into space. At the same time, you’ve got companies like Microsoft and Nortel trying to hook up desktop applications like Office and Exchange with back-end PBX systems.

Wouldn’t unified messaging, among many other applications, make much more sense for smart phones where users are constantly on the move? If handset makers want users to think of their products as a data device, they need to be able to spend  more time looking at the screen. That means making better use of speech recognition or innovative projection technology to check e-mail while a number is being dialed, or perhaps linking to a PowerPoint presentation or other contextual information related to the call being made.

When we stare into space while making a call, we’re probably either imagining the face of the person we’re speaking to, or we’re thinking about something else – what else we want to talk about, what we see around us and so on. A smart phone that managed to pull in visual data along with the voice signals could allow us to become more deeply engaged in the communication experience, and prove that PC makers actually have something to worry about.

The true smart phones will offer us a way of interacting with information – and each other – that we won’t want a sliding piece of hardware that juts out like a landline phone. If the interface is rich enough, users will be so excited that they’ll practically want to get the device out of the way.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Shane Schick
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