Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/05/23/mobile_mailbag/

Why we hate the modern mobile phone

Phone fury (and carrier cringes)

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Networks, 23rd May 2007 19:01 GMT

Letters After my piece lamenting how Nokia's high end phones had lost their ease of use and reliability, we got a letter from reader Brendon McLean. "It's not just Nokia!", wrote Brendon - "but an industry-wide problem". And he encapsulated his complaints very succinctly. So we invited him to expand a little, which he did here yesterday.

It certainly struck a chord. Here are your emails:

Just wanted to thank you for an extremely interesting article. Was a good read. Gibran

Oh Brendon, what a perfectly crafted piece! And I thought I was the only one in despair at this dreadful industry. I've given up with my operator (Orange) after THIRTEEN YEARS as a customer. The only thing they could do competently was give me a PAC code to leave.

And the phones. Ugh. I'm driven to despair.

Ken Tindell

Nicely provocative article, although as the proud owner of a shiny new N95 (which does lots of things very well) I don't agree with you all the way. Just one teeny-tiny point of order regarding, "...SMS, was initially thought to be a novelty for socially handicapped geeks and teens..."

Um... SMS is, indeed, a novelty for socially handicapped geeks and teens.


What can I say but this story is absolutely spot on.

Jon Schneider

Brendon, you have definately hit the nail on the head. I seem to change handsets quite often and the reason being the poor quality of the handsets both in terms of reliablity and functionality. UIs become slower by the day and the handsets are packed with features no one uses..and the ones we would like to use (VoIP) are disabled by scrupulous network providers waiting to screw you over! Nick

Brendon - very good article. Less in indeed more - you echoed what I've been thinking for a while about the state of play of the mobile market and how detached manufacturers have become from consumers.

It's worth noting that the Nokia 6300 is a fair stab at a 'back to the roots' handset, and it's being very aggressively marketed. The operator-friendly stuff is still in the handset - the 'MMS at every opportunity' built-in shortcuts, the Nokia.com bookmarks that can't be deleted - but the phone does the basic stuff well, with minimal bleeding edge features in a good size with an acceptable battery life (2 days).

The iPhone won't redefine the industry, but if it really can bring together what has become a fragmented set of mobile features, coupled with video/iPod functionality, into an easy-to-use interface, it will give Apple a good foothold in the market. I'll hold out for an iPhone nano which does all of the above minus the video (who really needs it?) in a truly pocketable package.

"That Nokia still has the market share that it does today can only be explained by dark art of "brand psychology"."

You dismiss the inconvenient truth of Nokia's market share (because it completely ruins your claims about them losing the plot) as being entirely due to their brand and nothing to do with their products, but then go on to praise Apple to high heaven. This is a bit like criticising the Spice Girls for being shallow and then saying Bananarama are great. You also completely misunderstand what the mobile phone market is, you think it's sexy gadgets for rich consumers. You concentrate entirely on expensive phones that nobody buys and ignore cheap phones that everyone buys.

You talk about phone companies losing users, but the developing world is where almost all the growth is coming from, and developing countries make up 85% of all new mobile connections: [BBC link] Hyper-expensive gadgets like the iPhone (which costs about 20 times the price of the cheapest current mobile) will have no impact at all on the developing world, so they will have almost no impact at all on the phone industry either. The technological phone race that wins the most users is quite simply the race to produce the cheapest handset, a million miles from anything you mention in your article.

The Nseries is complicated, but they're high end phones and hardly anyone buys high end phones. Using Nseries' shortcomings as a way to criticise the whole phone industry is like using Ferrari's shortcomings to criticise the whole car industry: sexy but completely unrepresentative. In fact, hardly anyone buys iPods either: just 100 million (1.6% of the world's population) sold after five years. Mobile phones sell at a rate of over 1 billion every year, they're in a completely different league to any other bit of electronics and cannot really be compared to luxury items like the iPod.

The average sale price of a mobile phone is about 80 to 90 euros, so the vast majority of models sold are the cheapest ones available. If you're going to try and discuss the phone industry, you have to concentrate on cheapie phones, not $600 monstrosities that altogether only make up about 5% of total sales.


Top article.

I own a Samsung E720 - a small, clam-sell phone that I've had for over 2 years. Normally, I'd change mobiles at least every 12 months, but there is *nothing* to replace this phone in terms of size, features, battery life etc. Naturally, my provider (o2) is trying to get me to have a new phone and sign up to a new deal, but I don't want a bigger phone - which rules out most of the replacements - and I don't want a phone so fragile that it snaps in my pocket. Frankly, battery life, battery life and battery life are the most important features for me and I suspect most users.

A camera is nice but hardly essential - not interested in MMS and before mobiles, how many of us carried a camera around everywhere we went ? If I want a walkman, I'd rather not have music on the go at the expense of not having enough charge for the phone when I need it...and so on. Nokia aren't the only ones to lose the plot - Samsung have come out with nothing in the last 2 years worth upgrading to. Even my 19 year old daughter, the upgrade queen, has stopped bothering for the last 12 months. Now, can anyone sell me a replacement E720 for when this one wears out ?

Ben Smith

I've got to admit I care very little for Apple and I don't like the "hip" reputation that snobbish fops associate with it. Unfortunately I also happen to simply hate mobile phones and the total rip-off that comes with the little blighters. I have a very conventional mind, some might even qualify me as boring. So be it, but I am still part of a market, and nobody is targeting me.

I prefer my books on paperback, my TV on the couch, comfortably installed in my stereo living room in front of my widescreen 80" set, and my Internet at my home desk, with a proper keyboard, mouse, 21" screen and 8Mbps connection. Guess what I ask of a portable phone ? Yep, that the thing PHONES, has an address book that is practical and can store all my numbers, and that doesn't cost €15 a month to just sit there and wait for calls. I don't care about SMS, or MMS, or, Heaven forbid, surfing a midget web on a measely 2" screen. If I need some info fast, I'm pretty sure I can just phone a collegue and have him Google it properly. I'll still get the right info faster than the stupid 3G-whatever can. Oh, and I set the phone to buzzer. Don't need no stinkin' ringtone to annoy everyone in a bus with.

Yeah, I'm old-fashioned. So sue me.

Pascal Monett

Interesting article - but I'm not sure you hit the key points. One of the key things at the moment about the mobile markets is that the operators have sunk vast amounts of capital into 3G, with no real idea how to exploit it. Not only have they spent a fortune upgrading the network, for the second time in 10 years, but they have also spent a fortune on licenses (daylight robbery by governments). They are then pressuring the manufacturers to come up with cool things to use the new data services - but no-one knows how to monetize these services.

Video calls - few people use video calls when they have high bandwidth, high quality services on the desktop. I can't see people walking down the street holding their phone in front of them trying to have a video call. MMS - yes people seem to be willing to send the odd funny pic to each other - but I can count on fingers and toes the total number of MMS I've received ever. E-mail - this is a tough one. E-mail at work is going through the roof, but everyone uses blackberries at work anyway, at home, I can't see people sending lots of data to mobiles - especially since home mailboxes get 10 times more spam than normal mail.

The iPhone seems to me to be doomed to failure. Too expensive (even for apple freaks), tied to one provider, and gimmicky. Don't forget, the famed apple ability to make good products is largely marketing hype. They have only ever produced 1 product that got large market share - the iPod. Its hard to deny that the iPod is great - but I can't think of any other apple product that fits that category. Actually, if I want a phone that does all the basics well - I'll just go for a Nokia 6300 or something like that. A good all-round phone with none of the problems plaguing the N-series. Dave

How can you mention the iPhone without bringing up it's own glaring faults? The lack of 3G, the fact that the phone is huge, it's ridiculous cost and and the fact that it doesn't really have any functionality that you can't get today despite being quite a long way from launch in Europe at least. All of that makes for a phone that in my opinion is dead before launch apart from the iPod diehards who'll get it simply because it's made from Apple and is white.

Otherwise a good article, the only other thing I missed was mention of Windows smartphones.

Christian Hass

Loved your report. And agree with every word.

Always felt the GUI was the most important element of any application, and this is something Apple have long understood too. All mobile phone GUIs have sucked up to now, with their illogical and imponderous menu configurations and I think Apple will clearly demonstrate to the other phone makers that this has been the error of their ways. Expect to see the likes of Nokia and Ericsson clamouring for some sort of joint product development deal with Apple (Motorola of course will not, for obvious reasons!), but Apple will, as always, say thanks but no thanks. Expect the lawyers (at Apple) to be busy too, as the others try to emulate the very reasons why the iPhone is so successful.

Oh, and finally, expect the spec of the iPhone that is finally released next month to have inherited some hitherto unannounced cool features. Steve's not the sort of guy to just stand up and announce "OK, so here's the product I told you all about six months ago." He'll have made sure there'll be new stuff to talk about at the announcement.

Nigel Hamlin

Nigel - I think the "cool features" are the problem, not the solution.

Excellent article. My best phone was my Nokia 8110i. Every phone after that either slimmed down on bulk, loosing essential functionality on the way, or fattened up on fluff that just didn't work well (yes, I am looking at the P series, SonyEricsson!). The 8110i did very little and it did it very well. I sincerely hope for the iPhone to do a little more and do it very well. At least one can be sure it will sync well with a Mac, which seemingly is a totally outlandish feature for most makers. The sad thing is that it will likely bring with it the rotten habit of operator exclusiveness, but at least Apple won't allow for T-Mobile (or whomever) to cripple and deface the device as they usually do.


How right you are about mobile phones. I still use my 3310 and cannot understand why Nokia then screwed up the the best user interface there is. We try hard to produce phones that people can use. An example is our P23 Desktop Mobile Phone for the elderly, infirm or disabled. The same phone is also now being used as the office mobile phone because everyone can use it without having to read a manual. You're unlikely to drop it down the loo; you won't leave it in your car and you're very unlikely to get mugged using it.

David Robson

Great article, exactly my thoughts regarding phones.


As someone who works within the phone industry and deals with the multitude of handsets out there on the market, your article struck a chord.

I hate Symbian - it's slow and unintuitive You mention the 3210 but I'm not sure whether you meant the 3310. Surely the 3310 sold many many more units? There are still plenty of people using 3310s whereas I haven't seen anyone with a 3210 for some time.

The basic design flaw with the 3210 was the loop on the top of the battery which broke really easily. The 3310 has been incredibly robust and has merit as a weapon for hand to hand combat (safe in the knowledge that it would still work afterwards) The 6230 was hugely popular (and still is). It's not fancy, but it's lightning fast to navigate and has the intuitive Nokia Series 40 interface which puts Symbian to shame. It's only let down was the possibility of "missing the target" when selecting with the middle of the keypad. Something which Nokia fixed with the 6230i.

The 1100 has also been massively popular - it makes calls, sends texts, is simple to use, starts up quickly, doesn't fall apart and the battery would probably last for months on standby. Windows Mobile has improved but the Motorola MPx220 is a prime example of not meeting those basic user needs you mentioned. I turned one on yesterday and it took forever (a minute?!)_to tell me that I neeed to insert a SIM. Actually starting the phone probably takes around the same amount of time as booting XP. The old Windows Mobile interface is horribly unintuitive - I know because I've used it in training classes and everyone hates it. Added to that the battery life is terrible and you can't retrieve the IMEI with a *#06# if no SIM is present (the only handset I know that you can't)

Wow - what a rant!!! Anyway - keep up the good work. And did you *really* mean the 3210?

[name withheld]

The N-series are not Nokia's sole models. I have a Nokia 6233 which is quite simply the best phone I have ever had. It has a traditional Nokia UI, quite simple. It's a standard candybar profile yet very stylish. And the extras it does have are subtle, with a straightforward built-in camera that is actually useful (due to the built in micro-SD slot, and its ability to record VGA resolution video). It has twin speakers in it which means that not only do the polyphonic ringtones sound decent, but you can really make use of speakerphone or audio playback on them. The phone also came with the headphones for listening to radio or making use of the device as an MP3 player (micro SD card slot again). Finally it's 3G and I've found the web navigator reasonable for quick content checks (e.g. weather, news headlines); all that can be afforded with the operator's data pricing unfortunately. Bluetooth and IR top off the features list. If you want it just as a phone, it's the perfect form factor, weight, style, and UI. Personally I like it because it masquarades as that while having all the extra useful features. The only minus is that Series 40 3rd edition can't support custom apps, only small Java utilities. Conal Watterson

Thanks for the article, I don't agree with it all but your points are well made and we will make sure it gets read.

Mark Squires - Nokia

Good to see it's being read. Let's hope it's acted on too. Thanks for all your letters. ®