The Only Truly Smart Smartphones
Thanks to the unique visions of Apple and RIM, BlackBerry and iPhone simply work
Smartphones are the hottest area of tech innovation these days, so I have spent a lot of time in recent weeks and months looking at a flood of new products. As I checked out the latest wave, a realization suddenly hit me: The iPhone and various BlackBerrys stand head and shoulders above everything else.
The iPhone and AT&T (T) BlackBerry Bold are very different products aimed at different markets, but they have something important in common. In each case, one company with a clear vision is responsible for the hardware, the core software, and key “back end” services. For Apple (AAPL), the back end includes iTunes and the App Store for distributing music, video, and applications. In the case of Research In Motion (RIM), it includes the world’s best mobile-messaging system. With both phones, things just work.
The alternative to this top-down design model is the strategy underlying the large family of phones that run Microsoft’s (MSFT) Windows Mobile software, which is designed to serve highly diverse audiences. It is an open approach that gives handset makers great flexibility, and I have a growing sense that it just doesn’t work as well for smartphones.
The problems with the open approach were brought home to me by the Xperia X1, one of Sony Ericsson’s long-awaited smartphones ($800 with no carrier subsidy; usable on the AT&T network). The Xperia puts a friendly face on Windows Mobile 6.1 by means of “panels,” home screens that users can select with the click of a button. The default panel is a fairly typical Windows Mobile home screen, complete with upcoming calendar items. But one alternate panel turns the Xperia into a facsimile of an FM radio—tuning knob and all. Another is a dead ringer for the user interface of the Sony (SNE) PlayStation 3 that lets you listen to music, watch videos, display photos, or play games.
This shape-shifting is a creditable bid to make the phone more engaging and fun to use. But lurking beneath the veneer of customization is the complexity and confusion that is Windows Mobile. The PS3 media panel pointlessly displays a Windows Start button and an icon that brings up an onscreen keyboard, even though the Xperia features an actual, slide-out keyboard.
Another problem bedevils the design: software duplication caused by Microsoft’s efforts to maintain a measure of compatibility across all Windows Mobile phones. The Xperia has both a PS3-style media player and the Windows Media Player. And for the Web browser, Sony Ericsson has joined a number of other Windows Mobile handset makers in adding Opera Mobile, but also provides the inferior Internet Explorer. I like lots of software choice on PCs, but in the cramped confines of a phone, it mostly befuddles.
Third-party software is abundant but troublesome, which is the price of openness. There’s no centralized quality control, as with Apple’s App Store, and no built-in protections against programs interfering with each other or with basic phone operations, as on BlackBerrys.
I think the struggles of Windows Mobile phones bode ill for the success of Google’s (GOOG) new Android software. In theory, Android can be customized far more extensively than Windows Mobile. But handset makers such as Motorola (MOTO), which is betting heavily on Android, have never displayed a facility with software. And I fear that the flexibility Android offers handset makers, carriers, and customers is a recipe for chaos, with no one being sure what programs will work on which phones.
In theory, open designs such as Android and Windows Mobile should foster more innovation and ultimately provide a better smartphone experience. In the real world, having a single-minded plan behind all phases of smartphone design seems to handily trump openness.’