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Where is the perfect phone UI?

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Marc Andressen must fly in the same elliptical orbit as our favorite socialite here, Esther Dyson. Earlier this year he claimed that browser innovation was dead.

Actually, there's no shortage of innovation on mobile browsers, and Opera, OpenWave and Picsel have all shown or published some terrific software this year for phones. The latter two are interesting because they show quite radical new possibilities for human interface design. And that's just the software alone: a simple feature such as jog-dial can add immeasurably to the usability of a device.

But having weighed up the leading 'platform' offerings, in the form of Series 60, UIQ and the PalmOS-based Treo 600, I can't help thinking we're well short of a user interface that's anywhere approaching 'optimal'.

For me the surprise has been the Treo. Of the three, the Treo unequivocably makes phone the 'home', which is surprising as it's the one of the three that wasn't designed by a phone company.

Out of these three the P900 in flip closed mode was the easiest to use, thanks in large part to the jog dial. But the Treo 600 scored points over both Nokia's Series 60 and UIQ not only made the phone the natural starting place for using the device, but it did the most to extend the experience by making other features close to hand.

On the Treo, users can slot speed dials or speed text shortcuts, or URLs, or pictures into the bookmarks pages, and the bookmarks are only a jog away. On both Symbian platforms, Nokia's Series 60 and UIQ, the phone is simply another application. On the Nokia platform, the phone is particularly poorly integrated. Presumably for reasons of compatibility with its legacy UIs, Nokia presents a Janus-like interface, flipping users between a "desktop" (confusingly called a menu) and the phone application. Even One-Touch dialing is a separate application, and that simple screen populates rather slowly.

It's rather an unfair comparison, as Handspring isn't giving away its UI, while Symbian (with UIQ) and Nokia (with its Symbian-based Series 60) very much are, and expressly want to give licensees the ability to develop their own differentiated user interfaces. We were glad to see Sendo develop its own 'Today' view on the SX1 and add an extra status bar to the standard Series 60 screen. And it's also fair to point out that both UIQ and Series 60 can be improved with a third-party add on, such as Tracker or ActiveDesk. (My own Tracker page has three speed SMS buttons, three speed dials, links to five more applications and one to a PDF of the MUNI transit system.)

However these aren't the radical steps that we could be seeing.

Optimally I'd like to see UI designers adopt a binding that's much more closely based around what people do, rather than what the computer is doing. I'd much rather have a list of my last eight activities. For example a list that reminded me that I'd received a call from my colleague Ashlee, made a jotting about HP, had edited a Word document, had sent an email to Ashlee with the attachment, and so on.

Why hasn't anyone done this yet?

If it was really smart it would know what I'd been doing on my Mac, too.

My P900 review also brought out a small but frustrating glitch with UIQ: the guideline that applications revert to a default state when another application is activated. Again, this represents an opportunity for HI designers. While Clippy the Paperclip is rightfully vilified, intelligent helpers could anticipate common actions. In fact, they already do: "redial" is an example so subtle we don't even notice. While the suggestion "It looks like you're writing a letter" is perhaps responsible for more drowned puppies than any other question in history, it wouldn't be too obtrusive to be asked "Shall I try his home phone instead?". And that's because the phone already knows what you're trying to do, more or less.

The interesting part of this field is that phones don't have so much of a legacy in UI terms. We're still at the experimentation phase. We'll see our share of Microsoft Bobs and Mac OS X Docks, but I think the phone designers have been paying much closer attention to what users want to do than OS companies. (Apple Computer, and the late Be Inc. being a noble exceptions) . Whether they get the opportunity to do so, or whether they simply end up crafting static web pages for the carriers' branded services, is the big question.

Have we omitted any great research ideas, or new software. Drop us a line, and let us know. ®

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