So much for Apple raising the bar in the mobile phone industry.
Since Apple announced it would soon start selling a combined music player and mobile device called the iPhone, industry experts have predicted that competing cell phone makers would rise to the challenge and start producing equally exciting phones.
They may yet do that, but so far they haven’t.
I took a quick stroll around the show floor of the 3GSM World Congress in Barcelona checking out the music phones from some of the biggest handset makers out there to see if anything might compare to the hype around expectations for the iPhone. Apple is known for great hardware designs and simple, intuitive user interfaces. While I saw a dizzying array of form factors and a multitude of user interface styles, I was unimpressed with the hardware I saw and downright confounded by the complexity of all the user interfaces.
My examinations were quick — the show floor is incredibly crowded and hot, so sometimes it took some sharp elbows to even get to touch a phone. I took a brief look at the overall form factor of the phones and then did some navigating around the music player.
I started out at the Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications AB booth, perhaps because I know the company has been pushing its Walkman handsets. The W880 is a really nice looking phone. It’s incredibly thin and has unusual raised keys that work nicely. Sony Ericsson gets high marks for the hardware form factor on this one, but the software user interface was a different story. I never did manage to find the music player from the home screen. Ultimately, I just moved along to another phone in the display area that was already running the music player.
I had a similar navigation problem on Nokia Corp.’s 5200 music phone. From the home screen, I clicked on an icon with a music note in it, which seemed a logical place to launch the music player. But that took me to a music-related game. I scrolled and scrolled through a horizontal bar of icons but didn’t find a music player there. Then I noticed that floating in the middle of the screen were two long bars: one for the music player and one for the calendar. That threw me — of all phone functions, why were the music player and calendar the only two to be presented that way?
At least Nokia had loaded the demonstration phones with music. Some of the other handsets I tried out, such as the Sony Ericsson one, had just one song on them. That makes it difficult to get a feel for navigating around the music player.
I don’t love the form factor of the 5200 but I think some people might. It’s sporty, in white and bright red, and a shape reminiscent of Motorola’s PEBL phones. It slides open.
Samsung Electronics’s SG HF300 “Ultramusic” was next up. I couldn’t help but be struck by the cool design. One side of the phone is nearly all screen; the flip side has a keypad for dialing the phone.
I never managed to figure out how to use the control panel on the music player side of the phone. It looks like the iPod’s but square. I don’t have an iPod so maybe iPod users can easily figure it out. If you’re not an iPod user — and you may not be if you’re in the market for a music phone — the SG HF300 might require a steep learning curve.
Motorola was next in line. I’m probably least impressed with the Z8 then any of the others. I think the design is clunky and looks and feels like a slider phone from a couple of years ago. For the innovator of the thin phone, Motorola should have done better with the Z8’s size. I found it difficult to figure out which buttons corresponded with the words at the bottom of the screen so even hitting “back” proved difficult initially. Then, when looking for the music player application, I suddenly found an error message on the screen and the phone froze. Not a great sign.
My final stop was Neonode AB, a Swedish company that has been touting its music phone, particularly its touch screen. The device is in a category of its own and is very un-phone like. About the size of a business card, though not as thin, its touch screen definitely requires training to use. I would have never been able to figure it out without instruction.
Users sweep up along the home screen within three columns. The first opens a navigation page with icons for functions such as the music player, calendar and calculator. The middle column opens a touch pad for dialing calls. And the final column opens a tools menu.
Sweeping left along the screen goes back a page and sweeping right opens a function that is highlighted. When presented with a list such as albums, you touch the item to highlight it and then touch the middle of the screen to open. Sound confusing? It was. Still, I’m not panning it. It may require a bit of direction and practice but I think it’d be pretty easy to get the hang of how it works.
While the small size was attractive, it also meant that it felt a bit designed for a child. Most adults have fingertips that are bigger than the icons on the screen.
Overall, I was largely underwhelmed with my experiences. But there’s time — Apple only just announced the iPhone and its competitors haven’t really had time to respond.
Also, my search was by no means exhaustive. For example, I didn’t make it to LG Electronics, which recently unveiled a phone, the KE850, that is being compared to the iPhone. Even at the booths I visited, I chose to look at the phone that appeared to me to be the most focused on music but that may not be the one the manufacturer would direct me to and other models may compare more directly with the iPhone.
And finally, I’m the first to admit my exercise was a bit silly given that I’ve never even seen an iPhone. But such is the power of the Apple marketing machine.