In search of the super easy super phone

We like to complain about mobile phone complexity, but secretly we want more features, not fewer

MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte railed against complexity in mobile phones, recently, and said that "simplicity is the biggest challenge that handset makers face."

A survey by Opinion Research Corporation found that non-iPhone and non-BlackBerry smart phones are the single most-returned gift during the most recent holiday season; more than one-fifth of them were returned to the store. Why? The top reason was the inability by the customer to understand the setup process.

Returned gadgets are bad enough for the companies that make them, but the survey also found that almost 16 per cent of those polled said that trouble with phone setup "significantly worsened their perception of the company that manufactured the product."

A study conducted last year by the CMO Council's Forum to Advance the Mobile Experience (FAME) discovered a global phenomenon it called "function fatigue." There are just too many mobile phone features that users either don't know how to use or don't want to figure out how to use.

The problem, of course, is that mobile phones are sold -- and bought -- based on capabilities, not on simplicity or the lack of features. They're sold that way because that's what works.

Regardless of what people tell pollsters, mobile phone buyers increasingly demonstrate their preference for feature-rich devices. The fastest-growing segment in the mobile phone handset market, of course, is for so-called smart phones, which is expected by at least one analyst to quadruple worldwide in the next two and a half years.

Something else is happening. As phones get "better," or, at least, more capable, user expectations rise along with it. But lately, it seems, expectations are soaring ahead of what the industry is providing. I don't have any data to prove it, but my own observation is that even the most enthusiastic mobile phone users these days just aren't all that enthusiastic. A lot of would-be upgraders aren't upgrading because they're blase about what's available. And the fact that some users resort to extremes - such as carrying both a BlackBerry and an iPhone - suggest that the industry isn't producing the phone many of us really want.

I think everyone, from inexperienced, non-technical, everyday users to advanced, rabid technophiles, are clamoring for the next leap in smart phone usability. We all want a phone that's superpowerful, does it all, but is brain-dead easy to use.

Can it be done? And, if so, who's likely to do it? Microsoft and its partners? Palm? Apple? Google's Android? European or Asian handset manufacturers?

More really is better

The reason the mobile phone has become the Mother of All Convergence Devices is that a mobile phone is the one gadget you can't live without. A recent study conducted by IT research firm IDC and paid for by Nortel Networks found that most respondents would rather leave their keys and wallet behind than their mobile phones.

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Mike Elgan

Computerworld
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