Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Smart phones

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about smart phones – what one is and how to choose among the different platforms. Read on for my speaking notes or listen to the podcast.

Q: What is a smart phone?

A: It’s a mobile phone with many of the facilities of a computer, one that’s designed to share a lot of information with your computer. Most have full QWERTY keyboards and big screens – as big as you can get in something you put in your pocket, anyway.

Q: They’re not the smallest of mobile phones – who uses them?

A: People who runs their own businesses, or sometimes who get given them by their employers, and sometimes just by IT folk who can’t bear be away from the Internet. Some people have a small phone and a smart phone.

Q: OK, so let’s say you want one. How do you choose?

A: Obviously you look for a phone with features you want. But the really important and less-visible part of a smart phone is the software it runs, or the platform as the jargon has it.

Q: Why “platform”?

A: It recognizes the fact that on most of these phones, you can get more software that other people have written for the phone. The phone and the operating software it comes with from the platform on which other any software you get sits. The same term is used of operating software for computers – people talk about developing for a Linux platform or a Windows platform. There are four smart phone platforms which are currently common and a couple of potential new ones.

The first platform to mention is Windows Mobile. So, this phone’s screen looks a bit like the kind of Windows you might have on your home computer. And on that screen you normally have your upcoming appointments, and links to your email and so forth. And this will all synchronise to your computer when you plug it, so long as your computer runs Windows. It won’t sync to a Mac or to a Linux box without some special software. So, if you use your Outlook calendar and task list on your Windows computer, they will synchronise directly to the telephone. You can make appointments when you are out and about. Pretty much any smart phone worthy of the name can do this.

Q: What else?

A: Windows Mobile is a reasonably open platform so there is a lot of software developed for it and you can download programs for your phone to do a lot. One of my favourites is Google Maps which means that I never have to ask directions when I’m out and about.

Q: Did you ever used to ask directions?

A: Of course not, I just got lost instead!

Anyway, that’s Windows Mobile – open platform, lots of software, lots of phones, ties you to a Windows desktop. Windows Mobile is found a range of telephones in the market today, including Palm’s Treo. And that’s an interesting case because Palm rose to fame making Palm Pilots, which were a little pocket digital assistant, and they have their own operating system called PalmOS that used to be quite popular. And the first Palm Treo phones used PalmOS as well, but more recently Palm has concentrated on releasing Windows Mobile smartphones. So it seems as though the PalmOS platform is pretty much dead. That’s a shame to those of us who used to use it, but it hadn’t had any development for years and was looking pretty bad in consequence.

Q: So what’s the next platform to look at?

A: Symbian. This goes back a good few years – it came out of the old Psion Organiser handhelds that were popular in the 90s, a sort of British answer to the Palm Pilot. In fact, Sir Clive Sinclair, the British inventor had something to do with Psion setting up. I’m one of the few people in New Zealand who can truthfully to claim to have driven his electric car – although riding it would be better term, it was more like a pedal car.

Q: You didn’t buy one of those things!

A: No, no, I just took it for a spin round Alexandra Palace when they were trying to sell them. They didn’t sell many at all. Not exactly a convincing test drive! Sir Clive personified all that was wonderful and just on the edge of crackpotism about British inventors. The Symbian operating system for mobile phones sort of fell out of Psion in the late 1990s as smart mobile market started to take off. These days its used on high end Nokias and Sony Ericssons. People ay remember a really big Nokia called the 9000 which did web browsing and so forth – that was one of the first Symbians. These days it’s on phones like the Nokia N95 and E61, and Sony’s P990.

Q: What can Symbian phones do?

A: Much the same as the others, like browsing the web, doing email, managing your contact lists and calendar and syncing them with your computer. Its an open platform, although not open source, and that means that there are lots of people developing software for it. You can get Google Maps for it as well. It syncs to Macs as well as Windows, and like many Windows Mobile phones, lots of Symbians have WiFi.

Q: Why is that important?

A: Because pulling data across the cell phone network is expensive and, if you haven’t got 3G, it’s slow. To be fair, you can buy a data plan for your phone which would give you a lot of data for $50 per month, but that’s $50 per month I’d just as soon avoid paying. Having your smart phone do WiFi means that anything you do on the phone that uses data, like email or web surfing, will go much faster and be effectively free if your phone can see a WiFi signal, and most people who have one of these phones probably have wireless Internet at home. WiFi also lets you run Skype on your phone and make free calls around the world without using the mobile phone network – that works on some Symbians and some Windows Mobile phones as well.

Q: What do the mobile phone companies think of that?

A: There aren’t delighted – they would rather you paid them for calls. And that leads me to another factor in phone platforms – who is the boss of your phone?

Q: Surely I am the boss of my own phone!

A: Probably not…all you can do with it is exactly what the phone is sold as being capable of at whatever price Vodafone or Telecom decide to charge you for it. The two parties who are scrapping for control of your phone are the manufacturer and the network. Voda and Telecom would like to sell you music for instance – apparently Vodafone was the number one music singles seller in New Zealand last month – and so they want to make it hard for you to load you music from your computer onto your phone, so you will buy more form them. But to the phone manufacturers, copying music form their own computers is something their customers want so they try to make it as easy as possible. OK, another platform. The Blackberry – these have become very popular in the last few years. They are especially common as a corporate phone because it means that company staff can stay on email at all times.

Q: How’s that for work-life balance!

A: Quite. I’m frankly amazed that the adverts for this kind of gear are fond of pointing out that you can work from the beach or wherever. In my experience that means that people expect you to be online every minute of every day regardless of whether you are on holiday. Anyway, the BlackBerry is an email machine first and foremost. It alone does what people call “push email” – email just turns up on your BlackBerry, a bit like the computer in your office. You don’t have to tell it to dial up or anything. The very earliest BlackBerries didn’t even have phones in, but they all do now.

Q: Are these the things that politicians all have?

A: Yes, and not just politicians but lots of people who work for corporates and government departments around town. Apparently they are very addictive; some people call them the ‘crackberry’. The BlackBerry is not a particularly open platform – a BlackBerry phone does what it does and does it quite well but there’s not a lot of third party software for it. That limits its spread rather, but it probably also increases its spread in corporates because IT departments would far rather support a machine that their users can’t just load extra onto. So, as I say, quite common machines, generally handed out people’s employers.

Now the other major platform that you can get today – the iPhone. As you see, it looks like a lump of black glass with an aluminium back. There are very few visible buttons. When you wake it up there are a whole load of brightly icons representing programs you can run on it. It does calendar and contacts lists and synchronises them to iTunes, which works fine on Windows and on Macs. And it does email and web browsing – it’s easily the most usable mobile web browser because of the clever way it lets you zoom in on part of the screen so you can actually read it. The other thing is that it doesn’t have a keyboard at all – theiPhone has a virtual keyboard that it displays on the glass when you need it.

Q: Is that hard to use?

A: I’m not a great typist at the best of times, but I find this at least as fast to type on as a traditional tiny hardware keyboard. The iPhone is theoretically locked down to specific networks and people speculate about revenue sharing arrangements between Apple and those networks – this is another example of the control tussle I mentioned earlier.

Q: So where did that one come from, and how does it work here?

A: This one was imported on the grey market and a piece of software was used on it to allow it to be used on other networks. It runs just fine on Vodafone here, but you do have to be careful not to let it update its software or it would stop working here. I don’t recommend this process to a general user. Only get one if you are comfortable that there’s a bit of a risk of the thing stopping working and you know how to deal with it if that happens. Incidentally Vodafone told me that the iPhone is currently their most popular smart phone even thought its not sold here!

Finally I though I’d mention two new platforms, neither really on the market yet. There’s Google’s Android, which is a phone operating system supported by the “open handset alliance”, full of companies like Intel, Samsung and Motorola. They are looking for an open phone platform. The first phones should come out later this year.

And, there’s OpenMoko – that’s a version of Linux for the telephone, essentially. It’s a completely open platform – it’s open source as well- but it’s a way off having actual phones in the marketplace. There are some demonstration models around, mainly in the hands of people who develop phone software. But the real point of OpenMoko and Android is that they take power away from the phone network and push it back towards the software writers and tot eh consumer, who after paid for the phone in the first place.


A table comparing mobile phone platforms.

Remember the C5?

posted by colin at 11:50 am  

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