HTC tries to fix TouchFlo; iPhone sales competition; Defining the sub-notebook space

HTC, TouchFlo and fixing the broken experience

When HTC launched their Windows Mobile-based Touch device in June 2007 we published an article highlighting its broken user experience. The main issue was HTC’s implementation of TouchFlo, a finger-based touchscreen technology similar to the MultiTouch method employed by Apple’s iPhone.

Quite simply, TouchFlo didn’t work very well and, on the occasions when it did work, it created confusion by switching between an HTC-branded interface optimised for finger input and the standard Windows Mobile interface, which relied on a stylus. The result was a counter-intuitive experience, where finger input added little value because the user had to revert to the stylus for too many tasks.

HTC announced a new version of the Touch earlier this week and it looks much better. This edition combines a QWERTY keyboard, with two letters assigned to each key (like the Blackberry Pearl and Sony Ericsson P1i), and integrates an improved version of TouchFlo much more deeply with Windows Mobile. Finger gestures can now be used within the photo viewing application and HTC have also enhanced finger control within the web browser, contact lists, messaging and documents.

Unsurprisingly, HTC haven’t been forthcoming with a review unit after our less than favourable article in June 2007, so we haven’t been able to verify the improvements directly, but Steve Litchfield’s smartphone show has a video demonstration of the photo features which is worth watching.

It’s good to see HTC listening to feedback. In addition to the TouchFlo improvements, the addition of a hardware keypad is a sensible move. It will allow much greater scope for single-handed interaction and that, after all, is what the Touch was supposed to be about in first place.

Users should now be able to navigate the screen and input text on the keyboard with the thumb of one hand. Previously, any form of text input required the use of the stylus (thumbs simply aren’t accurate enough to use the tiny Windows Mobile on-screen keyboard), making it very difficult to do basic things like replying to messages on the move or navigating web-sites.

More refreshing still is HTC’s recognition that there will be a lot of existing Touch customers somewhat unhappy with the release of a heavily improved device so soon after the launch of the first product. To pacify some of these complaints, HTC will be making a new, full-screen touch keyboard available to download free of charge from its web-site to enhance the experience of existing Touch handsets.

It’s also worth noting that HTC’s prowess in hardware continues to grow. The industrial design of the original Touch was stunning and it is really quite a feat to incorporate a slide-out keypad and upgrade to an HSDPA chipset while managing to keep a relatively svelte form factor.

HTC said in a Reuter’s interview that it has sold about 800,000 Touch devices since June. Cue the inevitable comparisons with the iPhone, which sold 1m in a similar time frame.

It is impressive to see HTC, which started life as a manufacturer of white label products for other company’s brands, demonstrating its ability to create attractive, high-end products and establish a standalone reputation within the hyper-competitive mobile telecoms business. There aren’t many environments more intense than this at the moment: the challenge thrown down by Apple’s iPhone has prompted everyone in this space to respond, with Nokia ramping up production of Series 60 products and Sony Ericsson and Motorola both expanding their range of smartphones.

Defining the sub-notebook space

At the same time, HTC is also continuing to innovate in other areas. It is doing some pioneering work in the sub-notebook space, announcing a combined clamshell/touch-screen tablet device which runs both Windows Mobile 6 and the full version of Windows Vista. The HTC Shift really is a remarkable product: full keyboard, intgrated HSDPA, 800 x 480 touch-screen and all crammed into a package weighing just 800g.

Users can flip the screen over into a tablet form factor and access email messages, calendar and contacts via an embedded version of Windows Mobile 6, without having to do a full boot of the main Vista operating system. Steve Litchfield’s smartphones show has another interesting video segment on this.

The sub-notebook and mini-tablet category is starting to generate some buzz. While Palm recently announced it was shelving the Foleo product it had previoulsy announced in this space, there are rumours that Apple is preparing a return to the category it pioneered. Nokia has also been experimenting in this area with its N770 and N800 tablets.

Mike Mace, formerly Chief Competitive Officer at Palm and now a consultant for Rubicon, published an interesting piece debating whether a market for sub-notebooks actually exists. Using data from a Rubicon survey of 2000 US consumers, Mace suggests that one of the big drivers when people buy a mobile PC is not the features they use frequently (e.g. email and web), but the possibility of being able to do the more advanced things they do infrequently (e.g. graphics and video editing).

On this basis Mace concludes that sub-notebook devices, which generally have to compromise some functionality to hit their form factor and price targets, will only appeal to a small number of users when compared with full laptops. This is logical, but we’d also argue that there is a class of customer which looks at this category from the other direction, i.e. those willing to trade-up from the portability of an advanced mobile phone like the Nokia N95 or Sony Ericsson P1i and carry a larger, communicator-style device.

They don’t want or need a full blown laptop, but their mobile activities tend towards data creation and browsing – basic document editing, web browsing and intensive mobile email – and the sub-notebook is the ideal form factor for their highly mobile approach to work. This category is also expanding rapidly to include a growing number of ‘sofa surfers’, who use their mobile phones or laptops to browse web content, play music, watch videos and view photos around their home, usually over a Wi-Fi connection.

A use case example might be a laptop positioned on a kitchen counter to view a recipe found on the web and play music while cooking the dinner. Few existing device types meet this need: mobile phones don’t have large enough screens and laptops are often slightly too big and fragile.

The ideal device for this usage scenario is an instant on, web-centric tablet or sub-notebook. It needs to be robust enough to take the rough and tumble of frequent usage and movement around the house, with sufficient portability to be slipped into a bag and used on public transport.

The proliferation of broadband, Wi-Fi and the increasing use of networks to distribute media around the home are all driving this trend. There are any number of companies serious about putting their platform at the heart of home entertainment (Microsoft, Apple, Sony and Nokia to name just a few) and they will see this category of portable devices as a way of providing fully featured access to the digital content stored on these platforms without the maintenance, cost and boot time overheads of traditional PCs.

We expect to see a continuing increase in the pace of activity in this area, as PC and consumer electronic companies seek to migrate their platforms down into the category and mobile handset manufacturers look to expand up into the space.

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  1. 2

    “Sofa surfers” sounds like a valid user/consumer category, with quite different needs to the road warrior business type. Why not design wireless information/entertainment devices that are never intended to leave the home (think cordless/DECT phones)?

  2. 3
    Marek Pawlowski

    Thanks for your comment Max. I think this category is already starting to emerge, although currently the designs tend to cross-over into the area of ‘travelling entertainment centre’ too. For example, take personal media players by companies like Archos and some of the UMPC products from Samsung and others.

    Currently, however, the purest design brief for targeting the sofa surfer is probably Nokia’s N800. It’s interesting that this focus should come from a company traditionally associated with mobility – this is perhaps an indication of how serious Nokia is about putting itself at the heart of home entertainment?

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