Unobtrusive Tech


Following up on my recent (and apparently quite popular) HOWTO, I've been tinkering a bit more with Rendezvous. In the process, I found that there is a Pocket PC client - registration required - that I'll be testing as soon as I can find my SanDisk card. The practical use for it seems rather limited (not many people that use Pocket PCs are likely to know what Rendezvous is), but being able to automatically discover available network services on, say, a public Wi-Fi hotspot that you've never visited before is a nice idea, and I'd like to see to what extent it is doable (it works fine with Safari and Howl on the client side, but the server side needs a lot more work).

As always, the amount of work involved in making tech successful is mostly focused in making it unobtrusive. Not quite invisible, but simple, reliable, and above all, with zero hassle. Wi-Fi has already reached that point, and Bluetooth, for one, is almost there - I have taken to using SMS with the Address Book almost like an IM client, which will undoubtedly seem odd to Americans, and both file transfer via OBEX and internet access via GPRS are now trivial endeavours on both my Macs and Windows.

Given that a couple of years back I was fiddling with flaky access point firmware, dodgy NDIS drivers and a lot of WEP interoperability issues (and on the Bluetooth front, BlueZ and flaky phone firmware), the fact that I can now focus on making application-level services find each other on top of a wireless network is a noticeable (if not properly appreciated) improvement.

...and Not Quite Useable Tech

Another news story that is fast making the rounds is Walt Mossberg's take on Microsoft smartphones. Now, I've had a lot of exposure to Microsoft product cycles and understand the limitations of early product versions, but not having a phone match the caller id to a name in time looks like a very serious usability issue to me. I mean, my Ericsson SH888 (which was about the dumbest phone I ever owned) did that perfectly (including partial matches) four years ago.

Another thing that struck me was the fact that smartphone user interfaces are being crippled by carriers to gain more screen acreage for their own services. Now, I am probably more in tune with the reasons for this than most people (and I have to agree that providing a uniform user experience across multiple phones is a tried and true way to increase customer loyalty and whatnot), but going so far as to removing the running programs list and preventing advanced users from changing the configurations (as Orange did on their phones) will probably drive power users away from both the phone and the operator's services. And yes, power users are a minor percentage of users - but these days, they are probably the only ones likely to actually want both the advanced (and pricey) smartphones and the newfangled services operators are developing.

And then there is the usual issue of whether or not we actually need smartphone functions. Although I haven't held a Microsoft smartphone for more than a couple of hours, I've recently "downgraded" from a 7650 to a T610, and even though the WAP browser, camera, e-mail and calendaring on the T610 are a joke, the phone is smaller, has much longer battery life, and Bluetooth works perfectly. I don't really miss being able to install applications (or games, or whatever) on my phone - it's a nice gimmick, but getting SMS and IP packets to reach the network through it is much more important than, say, playing Doom (which I must confess having done a year ago).

Of course, in three months' time I'll be looking at the P900's competition, or at whatever Nokia and Sharp churn out in the meantime (being in Europe, the likelyhood of getting a Microsoft smartphone before next Summer is slim). But simple things that work always have an edge over complex things that mostly work.

It's called dependability, and I guess that for smartphones (whatever brand), it may still be a way off.