Maybe Palm got it right

Several ideas have recently started me thinking about the role of pen input in the growth of mobile data services. First, there was the announcement by Sony Ericson of its W950i handset, among the first pen-based handsets from a major manufacturer intended for the consumer mainstream. This is made possible by UIQ’s 3.0 platform and the Symbian OS, which abstracts the interface layer, enabling Sony Ericsson to provide dual UI’s within the same device – one for single-handed input and one for pen-based interaction.

Sony Ericsson have been doing that for a while with the P800 and P900 devices, but they were enterprise handsets and their dual UI functionality was limited by the older version of the UIQ platform.

With the w950i, consumers in subsidised handset markets will have a relatively low-cost, user-friendly device which is capable of manipulating data in a way that is only possible with a pen and a touch-screen. Sketching, organising and editing all become attractive possibilities rather than the arduous chores they represent on devices designed solely for single-handed input.

The BBC published an interesting report today, referencing research work carried out by the Futures Laboratory. The UK study looked at the usage habits of 3G subscribers, identifying profiles such as ‘Piratopians: creative outsiders who use 3G phones to make short films and other broadcasts’ and ‘High Street hedonists: who use phones to show off new purchases, take pictures of items or asked for instant opinions from a dressing room.’

Futures Laboratory believes the increased speed with which services can be accessed over 3G networks and the accompanying enhancements to handset features are leading to entirely new ways of communicating and creating information on the move. Broadly speaking I’d agree with that assertion, but I don’t think we have reached anything like the full potential. Indeed, there is an argument the industry has taken backward steps.

Several years ago there was an interesting period in the mobile telecoms business when it seemed handheld computing manufacturers and platform providers were going to be at the forefront of the next generation of handsets. Palm, in particular, was seen as a potential leader because it had strong momentum in its hardware sales, an expanding list of licensees, a vibrant developer community and users who were actually buying third party applications and services. The so-called Palm Economy was held up as a model for success in mobile technology: simple enough for the mass consumer market, powerful enough for the most demanding corporate users.

Nokia signed a partnership with Palm and Symbian, then owned by Nokia, Motorola, Ericsson and Psion, looked seriously at merging its technology with the Palm platform.

So what happened?

Firstly, there was a question of priorities. If it was an ‘either/or’ choice, users were always going to buy a mobile phone first – voice was the priority and the Palm OS, despite its many virtues, wasn’t – and some may argue still isn’t – suitable for low-cost voice-centric devices. Palm was never going to break into truly influential unit volumes on its own. At the same time, handset manufacturers and operators recognised the danger Palm posed to the status quo and did what big, established companies do best – they constrained the spread of new technology long enough to catch-up with their own product roadmaps.

Nokia, in particular, changed its mind and decided the world needed smart devices designed for single-handed operation, rather than dual UI handsets which also supported pen input. The operators, for their part, were content to let this happen because they were terrified by the prospect of an eco-system in which users armed with truly smart devices could access the web freely and buy third party applications without paying them a suitably draconian share of the revenue.

As a result, the market is now dominated by phones which rely on key-based navigation. This is, of course, very necessary to deliver the core functionality of the mobile phone – voice and text – but it has been done to the exclusion of secondary interfaces which would support much richer functionality through pen input.

It need not have been an ‘either/or’ choice. Users could have been provided with both. If the industry had been smarter, not to mention less nervous about shaking up the old order, I believe we would be seeing much greater usage of mobile data services today. The networks are capable, the software platforms exist – we simply haven’t provided the users with the right tools to unleash their creativity.

This topic will be a key part of the ‘Intra-device and multiple interface challenges‘ debate at the MEX conference on 31st May and 1st June 2006.

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  1. 1

    Based on my experience within the mobile market, working with carriers, developers and OEMs, I really believe you’ll soon see a much larger uptake of non-touch screen devices.

    Why? As OSs are improving and applications are better optimized for keypad navigation, I’ll bet that an overwhelming percentage of users would rather use well designed keypad navigation and interaction rather than bring out a stylus to perform operations on a mobile device.

    Adding touch screens will have no impact on increasing the data usage at all. Applications on both the device and online that do more for the user, with less effort will do that.

    Touch-screens I believe were needed to get the PDA market moving and create interest in the possibilities of what could be done on a mobile device.

    I’m placing my bets on a market that will be moving more toward keypad/keyboard based input and navigation.

    While I personally don’t care for the Blackberry, look at just how successful this has become, without a touch-screen. Adding one would offer no significant advantage.

    This commentary sounds more like “why can’t we just keep jamming in more functionality for the sake of it” rather than providing some point by point benefits that the majority of users would see in having a touch screen.

  2. 2
    Marek Pawlowski

    You are right – much of the core communications functionality of mobile devices can and has been been optimised for single-handed input. Few users are ever going to want to initiate a call using pen-based input when a simple, one-handed ‘scroll and click’ through their address book will achieve the same thing.

    However, the thrust of my article was to question why the industry has seen this an ‘either/or’ choice. A big part of the reason is the bill of materials (BOM) cost. To add the OS and touchscreen components to the BOM significantly increases the overall build cost of the device. But that didn’t stop the addition of cameras or, latterly, music playback on handsets of all prices – the industry simply ramped up volumes and drove down costs to the point where it became affordable.

    With a properly implemented dual UI, users can enjoy the same one-handed convenience, but also have the choice of removing the stylus to explore services more creatively. A simple example is managing multiple callers, either on call waiting or in a conference call – much simpler using a stylus than through one-handed operation – not to mention a significant revenue generator for operators.

    Most importantly, however, I believe users have been constrained by handset UIs, therefore limiting them to services promoted by the operator. This has stunted the take-up of mobile data because users’ creativity has not been set free.

    Far from ‘jamming in more functionality for the sake of it’ I am a passionate believer in understanding customer segments and tailoring the offering for their particular needs. This is the central theme of our MEX conference ( Blackberry is a good example of this and it has been successful in a very specific market segment. In fact, its success highlights the inadequacy of more generic UIs. Almost all handsets have mobile email capabilities, but Blackberry has succeeded because the most active users of email found their existing devices to be inappropriate for performing the task.

    I wonder who is best positioned to decide customer needs – a single operator trying to make sense of its limited consumer research budget or individual subscribers provided with the tools to personalise their own experience?

  3. 3
    Marek Pawlowski

    As a follow-up to this article, it is worth noting Palm posted record Q3 financial performance last week, driven primarily by a huge leap in sales of its Treo smartphone products. Several factors affected this, including the uncertaintity surrounding the legal future of RIM’s Blackerry (a key competitor), but it highlights a significant recovery for Palm under its new CEO, Ed Colligan.

    Colligan was one of the 3 founding members of Palm, alongside Donna Dubinsky and Jeff Hawkins. It is now almost 10 years exactly since Palm launched the first Pilot 1000 device and CNET has a pictorial retrospective of Palm’s product history at:

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