dw2

9 April 2012

Six weeks without Symbian

Filed under: Accenture, Android, Apple, applications, Psion, Samsung, smartphones, Symbian, UIQ — David Wood @ 10:58 am

It’s only six weeks, but in some ways, it feels like six months. That’s how much time has passed since I’ve used a Symbian phone.

These six weeks separate me from nearly thirteen years of reliance on a long series of different Symbian phones. It was mid-1999 when prototype Ericsson R380 smartphones became stable enough for me to start using as my regular mobile phone. Since then, I’ve been carrying Symbian-powered smartphones with me at all times. That’s thirteen years of close interaction with various Symbian-powered devices from Nokia, Ericsson (subsequently Sony Ericsson), and Samsung – interspersed with shorter periods of using Symbian-powered devices from Panasonic, Siemens, Fujitsu, Sendo, Motorola, and LG.

On occasion over these years, I experimented with devices running other operating systems, but my current Symbian device was never far away, and remained my primary personal communication device. These non-Symbian devices always left me feeling underwhelmed – too much functionality was missing, or was served up in what seemed sub-optimal ways, compared to what I had learned to expect.

But ahead of this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, held 27th Feb to 1st Mar, I found three reasons to gain a greater degree of first-hand experience with Android:

  1. I would be meeting representatives of various companies who were conducting significant development projects using Android, and I wished to speak from “practical knowledge” rather than simply from “book knowledge”
  2. Some of my colleagues from Accenture had developed apps for Android devices, that I wanted to be able to demonstrate with confidence, based on my own recurring experience of these apps
  3. One particular Android device – the Samsung Galaxy Note – seemed to me to have the potential to define a disruptive new category of mobile usage, midway between normal smartphones and tablets, with its radically large (5.3″) screen, contained in a device still light enough and small enough to be easily portable in my shirt-top pocket.

I was initially wary about text entry on the Galaxy Note. My previous encounters with Android devices had always left me frustrated when trying to enter data, without the benefits of a QWERTY keyboard (as on my long-favourite Nokia E6 range of devices), or fluid hand-writing recognition (as on the Sony Ericsson P800/P900/P910).

But in the course of a single day, three separate people independently recommended me to look at the SwiftKey text entry add-on for Android. SwiftKey takes advantage of both context and personal history to predict what the user is likely to be typing into a given window on the device. See this BBC News interview and video for a good flavour of what SwiftKey provides. I installed it and have been using it non-stop ever since.

With each passing day, I continue to enjoy using the Galaxy Note, and to benefit from the wide ecosystem of companies who create applications for Android.

Here’s some of what I really like about the device:

  • The huge screen adds to the pleasure of browsing maps (including “street view”), web pages, and other graphic, video, or textual content
  • Time and again, there are Android apps available that tailor the mobile user experience more closely than web-browsing alone can achieve – see some examples on the adjacent screenshot
  • These apps are easy to find, easy to install, and (in general) easy to use
  • Integration with Google services (Mail, Maps, etc) is impressive
  • I’ve grown to appreciate the notification system, the ubiquitous “back” button, and the easy configurability of the device.

On the other hand, I’m still finding lots of niggles, in comparison with devices I’ve used previously:

  • It’s hard to be sure, but it seems likely to me that I get a working network connection on the device less often than on previous (e.g. Nokia) devices. This means for example that, when people try to ring me, it goes through to my voice mail more often than before, even though my phone appears (to my eyes) to be working. I’m finding that I reboot this device more often than previous devices, to re-establish a working network connection
  • I frequently press the “back” button by accident, losing my current context, for example when turning the phone from portrait to landscape; in those moments, I often silently bemoan the lack of a “forward” button
  • The device is not quite capable of one-handed use – that’s probably an inevitable consequence of having such a large screen
  • Although integration with Google services is excellent, integration with Outlook leaves more to be desired – particularly interaction with email notifications of calendar invites. For example, I haven’t found a way of accepting a “this meeting has been cancelled” notification (in a way that removes the entry from my calendar), nor of sending a short note explaining my reason for declining a given meeting invite, along with the decline notification, etc
  • I haven’t gone a single day without needing to recharge the device part-way through. This no doubt reflects my heavy use of the device. It may also reflect my continuing use of the standard Android web browser, whereas on Symbian devices I always quickly switched to using the Opera browser, with its much reduced data transfer protocols (and swifter screen refreshes)
  • Downloaded apps don’t always work as expected – perhaps reflecting the diversity of Android devices, something that developers often remark about, as a cause of extra difficulty in their work.

Perhaps what’s most interesting to me is that I keep on enjoying using the device despite all these niggles. I reason to myself that no device is perfect, and that several of the issues I’ve experienced are problems of success rather than problems of failure. And I continue to take pleasure out of interacting with the device.

This form factor will surely become more and more significant. Up till now, Android has made little market headway with larger tablets, as reported recently by PC World:

Corporations planning tablet purchases next quarter overwhelmingly voted for Apple’s iPad, a research firm said Tuesday [13th March]

Of the 1,000 business IT buyers surveyed last month by ChangeWave Research who said they would purchase tablets for their firms in the coming quarter, 84% named the iPad as an intended selection.

That number was more than ten times the nearest competitor and was a record for Apple.

However, Samsung’s success with the “phablet” form factor (5 million units sold in less than two months) has the potential to redraw the market landscape again. Just as the iPad has impacted people’s use of laptops (something I see every day in my own household), the Galaxy Note and other phablets have the potential to impact people’s use of iPads – and perhaps lots more besides.

Footnote 1: The Galaxy Note is designed for use by an “S Pen Stylus”, as well as by finger. I’ve still to explore the benefits of this Stylus.

Footnote 2: Although I no longer carry a Symbian smartphone with me, I’m still utterly reliant on my Psion Series 5mx PDA, which runs the EPOC Release 5 precursor to Symbian OS. I use it all the time as my primary Agenda, To-do list, and repository of numerous personal word documents and spreadsheets. It also wakens me up every morning.

Footnote 3: If I put on some rosy-eyed glasses, I can see the Samsung Galaxy Note as the fulfilment of the design vision behind the original “UIQ” device family reference design (DFRD) from the early days at Symbian. UIQ was initially targeted (1997-1999, when it was still called “Quartz”) at devices having broadly the same size as today’s Galaxy Note. The idea received lots of ridicule – “who’s going to buy a device as big as that?” – so UIQ morphed into “slim UIQ” that instead targeted devices like the Sony Ericsson P800 mentioned above. Like many a great design vision, UIQ can perhaps be described as “years ahead of its time”.

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