The Perfect (Smart)Phone?


Along the lines of my Perfect PDA piece, I've been making a few random notes during the past month or so on what I really need in a phone, and I think it's time to put it all together. Like the previous piece, this is unlikely to be consensual (given that my tastes run to the practical rather than the frivolously overloaded with features), but might be of interest to people considering buying a new phone.

So let's lay down the basics. My phone usage is almost totally centered on work, which entails a lot of calling people, going to meetings and getting at the data I need. In a radical split from the services I help deliver, I don't care (at all) for mobile gaming (although I like to have MIDP/Calc installed), been using the same ringtone for two years, send only a couple of MMS a week - my moblogging setup is strictly e-mail based - and find WAP browsers completely useless (speed and content have improved, but usability and readability are laughable unless you happen to have a P900 or a 9500.

As to leisure, the only feature I'm really looking for is a decent camera (I've already ranted about that). I suppose people would like to have MP3 playback too, but both of these raise a common point - the phone should have lots of storage (internal or on a memory card).

The Corporate Thing

Smartphones are usually geared towards mobile professionals, and as such they tend to emphasise synchronization features, moderately decent scheduling and Bluetooth (headset/handsfree) support. Pretty much anything works fine as a GPRS modem these days, so manufacturers cover the basics and then throw in a few frills as distinguishing features.

But in the end, it's all about talking to people, having their contacts (and not just phone numbers) at hand and having a device to provide my laptop with an IP address to get at the stuff I need. Having an IMAP client doesn't hurt either, but using a phone e-mail client is only really useful for short notes like "Yes, I agree", the ever popular "Me Too" and, in a pinch, the usual "I'll get back to you as soon as I reach the office".

US readers will note that I'm leaving out Crackberry addiction - RIM's footprint is expanding, but bear in mind that my focus here is on generic phones. The Blackberry is a (very well designed) corporate messaging solution that evolved to include GSM/GPRS voice and data services, but most people don't need that amount of functionality just yet.

I do send (and receive) a whopping amount of SMS messages, though, and some of my boxes send me performance graphs via MMS (a trivial thing to set up and that saves me the bother of looking them up).

Mobile Data

Most of the data and news I really want to access on the go are simply not available as public services, so I make do with the phone's e-mail client (if any) and internal WAP sites (which are thankfully being replaced by internal XHTML sites with mobile-oriented layouts). Realistically, though, you really want to use your PDA to get at your work data on the move - I've been using my Pocket PC with AirSync (ActiveSync over HTTPS, for all intents and purposes), and the ability to sync my Exchange e-mail and calendar on the move is far more useful than anything a mere phone can deliver right now.

Of course Microsoft-based phones like the new Motorola/MPX220 will be able to do mostly the same, but it's too early to tell how really practical that is (I'll gladly test one, but that's unlikely to happen given Portugal's market specifics, which preclude large sales volumes of such phones).

Moving on, another radical break from what I help sell: I personally don't like PCMCIA cards for mobile data - for one thing, that involves having a PCMCIA slot available (which is not usually my case, even on PCs), and since I'm constantly switching devices I prefer setting up modem connections via the phone, which involves zero configuration on any platform - no drivers, no extra software to install, no reboots, just a couple of AT commands at the most.

So my phone is usually my personal "mobile gateway", and as such, I refuse to carry around anything that doesn't have Bluetooth. A few visionaries (who surely have no idea of how things work) have postulated that a Wi-Fi/3G phone would be the ideal "mobile gateway", but I shudder at the thought of setting up a Wi-Fi gateway on a phone - it would be an unmanageable solution, at best, and an insecure one, for sure.

(Industry pundits who like to call Bluetooth an insecure - or dead - technology are free to parrot their meaningless FUD at this point.)

What I Want In The Box

So, all things considered, the perfect phone at this time would be a UMTS/GSM dual mode handset with:

  • Videotelephony. This is the 3G age, and despite the fact that videoconferencing hasn't really taken off in the ten years since I've started working on it, I abhore flying for day and a half to hold four-hour face-to-face meetings. This way I can get some facetime with the people who I really need to work with and not waste everybody else's time at once.
  • Good modem connection management. This is critical for 3G phones - most manufacturers think speedier WAP is the only reason people buy the things, but the only real reason I carry around a 3G phone these days is to use it as a modem. So, instead of all the confusing "Internet Profiles" and "Data Network" settings, I'd like a clear little menu called "Modem Profiles" and be able to set up a few in there (corporate access, open internet, testing, etc.).
  • Very good Bluetooth. Besides headset/handsfree and modem support, I need working OBEX and file transfer. Nokia handsets are lousy at sending and receiving standard vCard and vCalendar formats (and can't send or receive all contacts at once), but SonyEricsson does all of this (mostly) right - even the aging T610 can transfer all contacts in one go, and I can browse its filesystem remotely from my Mac or Windows and copy across my images, themes, ringtones, etc.
  • A reasonably good calendar and contact manager to make good use of that OBEX functionality. Preferably one that supports more than 510 contacts (hint hint) and that allows for multiple e-mail addresses (I might not use the phone's e-mail client, but I'd like to have the contact info handy).
  • Still on the calendar/contact theme, I can't ignore the requirement for standard SyncML support. The purists will cry foul if I don't say it should be there, although I've found syncing my phone less than useful - I mostly do that as backup, and then only to my Mac. Batch vCard transfers via IrDA or Bluetooth are enough for me, and I have no use for calendar synchronization, since I can still keep track of most of my meetings in my head - even those triple-bookings we're so fond of these days - plus, in a work setting, there are always Outlook reminders. Nevertheless, if syncing support is there, it should preferably be over the air and server-side, not tethered to a PC.
  • A 2-megapixel camera, minimum. I quite honestly find it ridiculous that cameraphones have yet to make significant progress past VGA (640x480) resolution - especially 3G models. I can live with fixed-focus cameras (I carried around a DSC-U20 for a long while), but I'd rather have a phone without a camera than one that can only deliver godawful pixelated junk.

That's the basics. Now for the really interesting (and most likely controversial) stuff:

  • I'd like to have a standard USB port on my phone - one that I can slot a standard USB keychain disk into, or the ability to use the phone itself as one such USB disk with zero drivers. I do not give one whit about MMC, SD or Memory Stick storage - it's just too messy having all these little cards and adaptors around, and I'd prefer being able to copy files to and from the phone either via a direct hookup or using my USB flash disk - which could also be used to back up the phone. Bluetooth file transfer can be an alternative, but if you want something you can use as an MP3 player in your leisure time, beaming MP3 files to the phone is too slow.
  • I can't really say I want Wi-Fi on a phone - besides the added complexity and battery drain, it seems overkill for something a single person will use to connect to the Net. It's still easier to set up Bluetooth than a Wi-Fi connection, and will be more than a "minimal" security risk (imagine someone riding your 3G data connection over Wi-Fi and the kind of bills you can get...). And no, "regular" Wi-Fi "security" doesn't cut it.
  • A media player (this is another thing I'm not keen on but that always helps sales). And I mean a generic media player that can play videos (streaming or not) and MP3 files. Nothing too fancy, but just enough to avoid carrying another gadget for in-flight entertainment (a good book is always a better option, but books can't block out noisy tourists on the back row). And yes, an "air mode" with the GSM/3G radio off should be a part of it.
  • A standard headphone plug, please. Yes, I am aware that most 3G phones ship with stereo headsets. I don't want to use those tinny things, I just want to plug in whatever headphones I happen to have.
  • A decent XHTML browser - something that can browse CNN at the very least. I don't care if it's Opera, Mozilla or IE, as long as it can surf the real web if I need to look up something. We're getting there, but the current half-baked pseudo-XHTML browsers I see on phones are still woefully rudimentary. And, despite it being bundled, I can't say I care much for Opera on the Series 60 - we need something better and faster.
  • Sometime in the future, I'd love to see a Mono/.NET runtime. I've gone on about that before, and the rationale for it is simple: Despite the advances in MIDP, trying to develop for more than one phone is still a mess. And we're likely to see quite a bit of .NET stuff try to go mobile in the upcoming years as companies try to make better use of data services (I'm one of those few who believe most people don't need a PC at all to do their work - only some sort of communicator/mobile front-end to their companies' systems).

You'll notice I don't go into screen sizes, storage formats, RAM size or form factors (although I personally loathe clamshells). Any of those are open-ended issues that would take weeks to discuss (and are constantly being debated anyway without an end in sight). But let's look at what's out there right now (or in the near future).

Likely Candidates

  • I can't really call the Z1010 a "smartphone", but so far it's holding out OK (since it's being launched here in Portugal by a competing operator, I can now disclose I've been using one for a long while). So far (and bear in mind that it's the network that matters where it comes to data services, and that I've been using it on one of the best 3G networks in the business), it's the closest thing to a mobile gateway - rock solid 384Kbps data modem, good video, excellent OBEX, takes my DSC-T1 Memory Stick Duo card, has a standard USB connector. Bit big, though, can't handle more than 510 contacts, will only run MIDP stuff, has the usual below par VGA camera. Maybe the Z1020 will beat it, if it's all it's hyped up to be.
  • The K700 might be a good alternative to people who don't want 3G. I don't have much to say on it other than the Bluetooth HID/remote control features can be useful and that it should be a nice combo business/leisure phone (it has an FM radio and media player, but no storage card). Still, it tries to compensate for its VGA camera by doing oversampling to 1152x864.
  • The 7610 would be at the top of the list if the black version didn't look like a goth bathroom tile (the back has a sizable mirror, too). It has the great Nokia scheduling apps, a decent camera, good Bluetooth, can run pretty much anything the 6600 can (Series 60 and MIDP), has a decent (i.e., slightly usable) megapixel camera, a media player, a mini-SD slot, etc. But it's not 3G and I wouldn't be seen carrying one if they paid me to. We'll see what they come up with next week.
  • Update: The 6260 has the potential to be the Nokia smartphone of the year (that is, provided you can actually get your hands on one this year). Someone at Nokia finally stopped beating designers with an ugly stick...
  • The MPX 220 looks to be the best Windows smartphone in the market for a while. I can't say I was impressed by any of the previous ones (even the QTek models that came out a few months back), and I expect Motorola to get some nice sales figures from it, but I'm really waiting to see what Samsung will come up with on this field.
  • The Treo 600 might be an option in the US, but not in Europe - at least the bits I'm usually in. And it badly needs an overhaul, whichever way you look at it - any GSM-enabled Pocket PC will beat it squarely, despite the kludgier interface and added bulk.
  • And last but not least (mostly for the sake of completeness), the Blackberry might be an option for pure "corporate" customers - but it's a very focused solution and not quite the thing for general-purpose use. Still, it's something to track closely, because (as most of the tech I end up liking) it just works.

And that is the best way to pick your perfect phone, really. If it just works for you, then all the rest is irrelevant.


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