Smartphones driving you nuts? Industry execs take note

They're seen as 'serial interrupters' that demand attention

If you find your smartphone and other devices demand too much attention and drive you bonkers, industry experts agree.

At Mobile World Congress, one of the biggest smartphone and tablet exhibitions, hundreds of faster new devices and software features were unveiled this week, but several industry executives publicly dared to call for fewer devices per person -- not more -- that won't interrupt us as much.

"We're starting to live in a world of interruption technology ... Isn't anybody questioning this?" said Hampus Jakobsson, former head of TAT, a cutting edge user interface design company, and now director of strategic alliances at Blackberry maker Research in Motion. TAT (The Astonishing Tribe) was acquired by RIM in December, to help RIM develop the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet.

In comments delivered before a standing-room-only-crowd gathered to hear about visions for mobile innovations in 2020, Jakobsson intoned: "We're not talking to each other, but talking to devices. That's something we have to think about ... Do we want a future where people stare at screens or a future where people talk to each other?"

Referring to short and quick Twitter communications, Jakobbson added, "Suddenly people are communicating through 140 characters, but we're compressing through machines instead of talking about how we feel."

He concluded his talk on a note of warning: "Tools need to give us more time with each other and less with machines. Technology will be the fats and sugars of 2020: Everybody knows you should avoid it, but everybody is doing it."

In answering a question from the audience about what RIM was planning to do about device interruptions, Jakobsson suggested that RIM might want to prevent games from running on its BlackBerry smartphones to cut back on the crush of inputs users receive that keep them from interacting with one another.

"Maybe BlackBerry shouldn't have games," he said. "Maybe there should be no games at all on BlackBerry. Actually, I'm not sure my [new] company is brave enough to do that." (Jakobbson also said earlier that he was "extremely impressed" after two months at the company with RIM's focus on efficiency, security and quality in its corporate operations and devices.)

Another member on the "Mobile Innovation: A Vision of 2020" panel, AT&T CTO John Donovan, interrupted Jakobsson's comments saying, "Keep downloading games on BlackBerry!" drawing loud laughter from the audience. AT&T and ever other major wireless carrier encourages its customers to download games and play them over their networks.

However, Donovan and others on the panel somewhat agreed with Jakobsson's view that smartphones and tablets should be designed to enrich lives and communities and not draw us into them.

Donovan predicted that mobile devices will continue to proliferate in the next few years, but said they should "disintegrate" down to fewer devices per person.

AT&T's vision, he explained, calls for personal data stored in the cloud, accessible by a variety of form factors, such as TVs, and requiring mobile workers and consumers to carry fewer devices. Donovan said he's been known to carry several devices to work, including a laptop, cell phone and e-reader but he wants fewer.

"We will have eight devices [each] in a couple of years and that's ridiculous," Jakobsson said.

Jan Uddenfeldt, CTO for Sony Ericsson, argued in favor of reducing the number of personal devices that users carry in coming years to one. Ironically, he made the comment just minutes after showing a slide of several new Xperia handheld devices that Sony Ericsson makes, including the Xperia Play smartphone, which doubles as a gaming console.

Rich Green, CTO at Nokia, said he disagreed with the others on the panel, saying "You'll just see more and more functions served in a compelling manner on devices and that will be an osmotic pressure going forward." Even though he said he disagreed with the others, Green still called for phones that work better, such reducing the power drain phones have on their batteries.

Green's presentation included a video first shown in March 2008 of lab research Nokia is doing with nanotechnology called Morph that Nokia hopes to use in materials for making phones. The video shows how Morph can allow a user to bend a phone to make it into a bracelet or watch. Nanoscale "grass" could also be used on the phone's skin to absorb light to power the phone. Morph will also resist water and is stretchable, the video explains.

In an interview, Green said all the technology in the video is being developed in the lab by Nokia and University of Cambridge researchers. Some of the technology will be available commercially in two or more years, while other portions will be many years off.

A phone design that show's what possible

While Jakobsson's warnings about the need for technology to cut down on interruptions tended to subdue crowd, there was delight when Kristian Ulrich Larsen, a 25-year-old designer, showed off realistic renderings of a tri-fold smartphone design called the Flip.

The Flip phone would run the Android operating system and feature three slightly curved 4-inch screens hinged together by a fine metal mesh that would allow the screens to function together when laid out to present information and play videos. Or it could work with one screen when folded into a triangle, or two screens in another permutation.

Larsen said the design renderings, created at virtually no cost on a laptop with three other students, were part of a master's degree design project. The rendering hasn't resulted in a prototype or any offers by manufacturers. One feature of the Flip allows it to be closed to turn off the phone, recalling the feeling of turning off conventional flip phones by snapping them closed, Larsen said.

Larsen and his fellow designers also made a video to connect the Flip with ideas on how creativity involves taking risks, straying from the conventional path and being willing to make mistakes. "From mistakes, really interesting things can happen," the video says.

Larsen's phone design and video drew rousing applause, suggesting showing the audience was probably more interested in cool new devices that challenge a person to be creative than it was in hearing warnings about the downside of technology that interrupts our lives.

Jakobsson also criticized the trend at the MWC of phones designed with even bigger screens -- above 4-inches in diagonal. "We're moving into a time where not just bigger, faster and stronger counts," he said.

"Have our hands gotten bigger? Personally, I can't handle a four-inch phone in one hand ... A four-inch screen is great for video and browsing, but those are pretty much the only use cases."

But he wasn't only concerned with hardware, arguing that hyperlinks within text, which are commonly used on the Computerworld Web site and elsewhere, interrupt a person from reading a story carefully. Citing brain studies showing that viewers of hyperlinks were interrupted and delayed from the main task of reading and retaining the original material they are in, he added, "Do we think we save information better when we're not focused on saving it?"

AT&T's Donovan concluded the visionary session, noting that mobile devices have become the "serial interrupters" of modern life. "We owe it to the industry to restore simplicity where interactions and productivity are balanced," he said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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