Elgan: In search of the super easy super-phone

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

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

A survey by Opinion Research Corp. found that non-iPhone and non-BlackBerry smart phones were the single most-returned gift during the most recent holiday season; more than one-fifth of those purchased were brought back to stores. Why? The top reason was the inability to understand the setup process.

Returned gadgets are bad enough for the companies that make them, but the survey also found that almost 16% 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, or FAME, discovered a global phenomenon it called "function fatigue." There are just too many cell 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 cell 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, cell phone buyers increasingly demonstrate their preference for feature-rich devices. The fastest-growing segment in the cell 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 cell phone users these days just aren't all that enthusiastic. A lot of would-be upgraders aren't upgrading because they're blasé 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, nontechnical, everyday users to advanced, rabid technophiles — is 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, with its Android platform? European or Asian handset manufacturers?

More really is better

The reason the cell phone has become the Mother of All Convergence Devices is that a cell phone is the one gadget we 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 cell phones.

We're not going to carry a cell phone, GPS, digital camera, media player, stand-alone PDA and other gadgets, but we want to carry the functionality of at least some of these devices everywhere we go. It's better to carry one small gadget that does all that. So everything is going into the phone. And we like it that way.

Handset makers also face what I call the "Microsoft Word Problem." For years, Microsoft justified feature bloat in Microsoft Word by saying that everybody wants only 10% of the existing features in Word, but that everyone wants a different 10%. That's why Word needs 100% of its current feature set.

It's a good point, and one that's applicable to cell phones. One user might say, "All I want is a phone to make calls and take great pictures that I can easily upload to Flickr." Another might say, "All I want is a phone to make calls and give me turn-by-turn directions." The next thing you know, companies are selling phones with extensive camera functionality, sophisticated GPS features, advanced media playing ability, fast downloads, big screen, full QWERTY keyboard, built-in social networking applications, Wi-Fi, international network support and the like. How "simple" is it going to be?

First PDAs, then cameras, then music players, and now GPS is being baked into even moderately priced cell phones. Gartner analyst Thilo Koslowski predicts that within four years, some half a billion cell phones will have GPS functionality, far outpacing stand-alone GPS devices. And in an In-Stat survey, GPS functionality topped the list of cell phone features people would be willing to pay for — more than half said they'd pay extra for it.

These are incredibly high numbers given that hardly any cell phones had GPS just two years ago. This transformation will increasingly be driven by consumer demand — the same people who say their phones are too complicated.

So who's going to deliver the first super-easy-to-use super-phone?

What users are clamoring for is a phone with a beautiful screen and a brain-dead-simple user interface like the iPhone, with the core business functionality and keyboard performance of a BlackBerry and the high-quality camera of some of the LG phones. We want GPS, 3G and great media management.

As a BlackBerry user I hate to say it, but I think Apple has the best shot at delivering the first truly powerful-but-usable phone. If you list the most common complaints people have with each of the major phones, at least two items on Apple's list — lack of 3G and lack of GPS — are likely to be addressed as early as this summer. It will be easier for Apple to add these missing features (in fact, it's inevitable that they will be added) than it will be for Microsoft or Palm or RIM or Symbian or any of the other cell phone software makers to get anywhere near the iPhone's simple UI.

If the next-gen iPhone also gets a nice performance boost, better business applications and an optional wireless physical QWERTY keyboard, Apple will probably go very far in attracting millions more users who are clamoring for both power and simplicity.

In the longer term, we can't rule out Google's Android. Nor can we completely write off any of the other vendors that may find the simplicity religion as Apple runs away with their customers.

Negroponte is right. Simplicity really is the biggest challenge that handset makers face. And Apple's already got it. Now all it needs is more functionality. And that's easy.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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