All things to all people

There has been an ongoing debate within the mobile industry for many years as to the relative merits of integrating numerous features into a single, convenient device versus creating a range of specialised products for specific tasks. The importance of this discussion initially peaked around 1999 – 2000, when handheld computing pioneers such as Palm and Psion were driving the integration of telephony features into their PDA products and predicting the future of mobile telecoms was in smarter devices capable of supporting ever more multimedia and third party applications.

They were right, of course, although inevitably the evolution was led by telecom equipment giants such as Nokia and Motorola rather than the handheld computing business. Today, even entry-level handsets function as cameras, diaries and gaming platforms.

Bluetooth also played a key role in this debate, holding out the promise of connecting specialised devices within a personal area network (PAN) to offer a seamless mobile experience. IXI, an extensively funded US/Israeli start-up, was the leading exponent of the personal mobile gateway (PMG) concept, whereby the user carried a single wireless modem to provide the cellular link and purchased a range of Bluetooth-enabled products such as music players, text messaging devices, smart watches – even fitness products – which all connected to the network via the PMG.

IXI has now refocused on selling its software technology as a generic platform for building feature phones, the PMG capabilities sidelined by industry politics and the enormous challenge of building the new ecosystem required make the concept commercially viable. Unsurprisingly, many of the existing handset manufacturers didn’t respond well to a technology which commoditised the cellular link and opened the mobile device business to a much broader range of generic consumer electronics companies.

However, exploding interest in positioning the mobile handset as the users’ core media access device has re-ignited the debate over multi-function versus specialised and individual. This time there are a new set of players on either side of the game, with consumer electronics companies such as Creative and Apple investing in devices with interfaces specific to media consumption and the major telecom equipment vendors working to produce handsets which can meet all the users’ needs in a single product – video, music, gaming and communication.

Sony Ericsson has the most advanced strategy in this area. Two years ago it laid out clear plans for integrating Sony’s expertise in imaging, music and games consoles with its mobile telephony products. The first step was its ‘dual front’ camera phone designs, bringing Sony-style digital imaging to handsets such as the K700. More recently it has started to rollout numerous Walkman-branded music phones, including the W800, W550 and W900. It’s yet to officially announce the gaming part of the strategy, but look for more on this in the near future.

Nokia’s N90 and N92 are other examples of products with two or more distinct usage modes within the same device.

This presents a challenge for everyone involved in the product creation process. Most obviously, the industrial designers have their work cut out creating a form-factor which accomodates diverse requirements: it can be anything from ensuring the handset balances correctly when the user is typing a text message to adjusting the viewing angle of the screen to make it suitable for watching video clips.

It has also prompted OS providers to make their platforms as modular as possible, allowing manufacturers to run multiple interfaces. UIQ, for instance, has incorporated multi-mode interfaces as a core feature of its 3.0 interface platform for Symbian smartphones. The company’s earlier platform, used in the Sony Ericsson P900 handset, was one of the first examples of this – offering dual interfaces for applications to enable them to be used effectively with both the flip closed and in full screen mode.

This is a debate which is set to intensify as more and more handset manufacturers try to accomodate increasingly diverse features within a single device. Mobile TV, in particular, is going to prompt some serious interface re-designs if it is ever to attract a mainstream consumer audience.

Multi-mode interfaces will be a key theme area for the forthcoming MEX conference in May. I’ve already had extensive discussions with many of the companies active in this area, but if there are any which I have not yet had a chance to speak with, I would be very interested to hear from you. Please email me at if you’d like to discuss and learn more about involvement in the MEX event.

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