Interacting with your mobile device should be as simple as touching a sheet of paper according to John Wang, Chief Marketing Officer of HTC, and the man behind the company’s new Touch device. Indeed, Wang told me he is hoping customers will find Touch: “Beyond simple…an innate experience.”
Touch is a Windows Mobile 6 handset, equipped with a 2.8 inch, 240 x 320 screen and a new user interface which allows access to many of the most frequently requested services with a few gestures of the finger tip. Popular contacts can be accessed from the idle screen by simply dragging a finger upwards. A menu providing access to photos, video and music can be found by making a sideways gesture across the face of the device.
One of the most striking things about Touch is its size. According to Wang, it is 40 percent smaller than comparable products and weighs in at just 112 grams.
It has been designed from the outset as mass market consumer device, intended to appeal to customers unwilling to compromise style and form factor in return for more advanced features. Touch represents HTC’s most aggressive attempt to-date to break out of the business device category.
From an industrial design perspective, HTC has made considerable progress. The Touch makes an immediate visual impact – it’s size, the smooth lines and the metal accents on the side of the handset all combine to make an excellent first impression. People I showed it to from outside the mobile industry responded enthusiastically, with descriptions like ‘sexy’ and ‘sleek’. At the launch event, I also spoke with a journalist from Elle, the fashion magazine,and she was thinking of including it in the style pages of the next issue.
The feel of the device, which is soft and matte, was one of the first things people mentioned upon picking it up. Users spent a lot of time just running their fingers over the lightly textured surface and turning it over in their hands.
HTC does almost all of its industrial design in-house. Indeed, the company has built a formidable engineering capacity in its 10 years of existence. According to Peter Chou, President and founder of HTC, the company employs about 1500 engineers to develop everything from RF to antenna – representing almost a third of its global workforce.
Design and manufacturing has definitely become one of the company’s core competencies. It’s worth remembering that it was HTC which designed the first Compaq iPaq, a Windows Mobile PDA device which revolutionised the industrial design of mobile products when it was announced. The company continues to produce form factors which push the boundaries of hardware design, with easy-to-use QWERTY keyboards and slide mechanisms which enable devices to offer more functionality in a smaller unit volume.
This expertise has enabled the company to outgrow its origins as a provider of white label devices for other brands (it also does devices for Dell and Palm, in addition to numerous network operators) and launch its own range under the HTC name. According to Yves Maitre, Vice President at Orange Group, the Touch will be the first HTC device the operator will sell under the HTC brand. Previously it has sold the products under its own ‘SPV’ moniker.
It is further evidence of HTC’s expansion, which has seen the company grow to more than USD 3 billion in 2006 annual revenues. HTC is now investing extensively in building its brand through new products, advertising and sponsorship. T-Mobile, HTC’s other operator partner for the UK launch, will continue to sell it as an MDA-branded product though.
However, design and branding are just a couple of elements which comprise the overall user experience. In many other areas the Touch fails to live up to its marketing spin.
HTC’s pitching of the product was very clear. TouchFlo, the ‘completely new’ interaction method used by the handset, was explicitly identified as its unique selling point. And therein lies the problem – TouchFlo is an extremely poor experience.
There are two elements to TouchFlo: firstly, the screen sensing technology which enables it to recognise broad gestures and convert them into navigation commands. This allows you to flick through screens by sliding your thumb up, down or across the display. This is combined with the second part – a thin software layer which sits on top of the standard Windows Mobile 6 OS – and adds a homepage skin showing a graphical view of local weather, a large clock and details of unread messages and missed calls. This screen can be rotated to show a large, three row menu providing access to video, music and pictures or a 3 x 3 photo grid of speed dial contacts.
For starters, the TouchFlo sensor doesn’t work very well. The screen itself had an almost ‘sticky’ feel to it when I first took the product out of the box and it was actually physically impossible to slide your thumb in the way required. This improved over time, presumably as grease built up on the screen, but there were more fundamental problems with the software. It just wasn’t very good at recognising the swipe gesture, so the success rate for flipping between screens was typically about 40 percent. More than half the time I was having to repeat the gesture to get it to switch screens.
The idea is that most of the main functions can be accessed while holding the device in one-hand, without needing to remove the stylus. It doesn’t work.
The problems don’t stop there either. It quickly becomes apparent that all HTC have done is put a bit of software on top of the existing Windows Mobile 6 code base to make the home screen look prettier, download local weather and provide shortcut icons with a slightly different look and feel.
The combination of this thumb-based HTC interface layer and Microsoft’s stylus-driven OS creates a serious usability problem. Even if you manage to master the HTC TouchFlo menu system, nothing underneath it has been changed, so you find yourself moving from an environment where you navigate by thumb to one where a stylus is essential.
For instance, to create a new SMS message from the home screen, a user would make an upwards gesture with their thumb. This brings up the HTC TouchFlo menu. A sideways thumb swipe flips the menu on to the shortcut page and the messaging icon is large and easy to select.
At this point, you’re switched back into the standard Windows Mobile environment, where the ‘New Message’ command is hidden beneath two layers of menus, both of which require either a stylus or an incredibly tiny finger tip to select.
This is basic, basic stuff. Why have companies with the experience of HTC and Microsoft still not woken up to simple concepts, like the fact that interface consistency is the key to moving quickly and efficiently around a mobile environment? It’s just not good enough to dump a user from a thumb-driven, large icon environment into one where they’re suddenly expected to search and select much smaller, text-based menus.
Even if you manage to navigate the menu while still holding the device in one hand, you’ll inevitably find yourself removing the stylus to use either the virtual QWERTY keyboard or handwriting recognition to enter your message.
My message to HTC is very simple: if you’re going to sell a new device on the basis of a thumb touch interface, you have to make sure it works consitently and correctly throughout the operating system. This means a full re-design of the interface layer across all the applications or sourcing an entirely new OS which already has this functionality built in.
The confusion caused by TouchFlo and HTC’s inability or unwillingness to optimise Windows Mobile for use with its new interface cripple the user experience of this handset. In doing so, the company has ruined an otherwise attractively designed and well engineered product.
I had high hopes for the Touch. I wanted to like this product. Listening to John Wang of HTC was a refreshing experience – he strikes me as a man who understands customers and knows how to translate that knowledge into mobile products. However, I can’t help feeling that corporate politics have prevented the Touch from fulfilling its potential.
HTC’s President Peter Chou described how the Touch project started more than two years ago, led by a team of about 100 of his most creative staff, and how he demanded constant revisions to the project to make it more revolutionary. However, it strikes me that this vision has been derailed by a decision to rely on Windows Mobile and a knee jerk reaction to rush it to market to counter the hype of the Apple iPhone and LG Prada Phone.
The company inevitably faced numerous questions at the launch event about how it is differentiating itself from the iPhone. Its response was weak: we’re shipping today and they’re not. Although the exact interaction method of the iPhone remains a mystery to all but a few prior to the 29th June release date, it is now very clear to me why Apple decided to use its own OS. Thumb-based navigation requires a completely different type of UI from that employed by a stylus-driven device.
The Touch is on-sale across Europe this month with an unsubsidised price of EUR 449. It will also be available on contract through T-Mobile and Orange.