Wednesday, June 17, 2009

iPhone vs Palm Pre vs Nokia N97

Here's the Zaptronic Smartphone Rant about the N97, the Palm Pre, and the iPhone.

I'm currently a Nokia user, having owned an N95 8GB since it came out.

That iPhone thing, fron a non-US perspective

When the original iPhone (which I affectionately name the gayPhone, because lets face it, it looks gay*) it showed the world how to make a nice touch UI. Man, was that thing slick as hell. But then you looked at the actual feature list of the device, and you want "what!?". It was missing so many things that it was simply frustrating.

  • No GPS
  • No mulltitasking!?! No background processes!?!? REALLY!?!!??
  • No user installable apps
  • No exchangeable battery? (This is a joke, right?)
  • No usable bluetooth (Headset *only*? You *are* joking, right?)
  • No video? Seriously?
  • etc. etc. etc.

Fast forward to the iPhone 3G, which was better, but still very much underwhelming. Now there are "installable apps" but only the Apple F├╝hrer Approved ones. Sure now it had a GPS, but still no way to attach a bluetooth keyboard, or even a way to use the device as a drive over bluetooth, or tethering or....

When finally iPhone OS 3.0 was announced I twittered a sarcastic "Gee, Wow, the iPhone OS 3.0 makes it go from doing 30% of what my Nokia does to 60% of what my Nokia does, *golf clap*"

So now finally we have the gayPhone 3GS, and I'm still fundamentally underwhelmed. With the 3GS, the iPhone goes to about 80% of what my years-old Nokia does (plus it has the compass, which mine lacks). But it's really patently ridiculous not to be able to do things that are standard operation on any non-US cellphone, such as VoIP, tethering, bluetooth file transfers, etc.

Seeing the US centric view ... from the outside

Because this is the funny part: all the news of the iPhone is driven from the homeland of USA, but it is really humorous to the rest of the world how the iPhone made the US population "discover" smartphones and go "oh, look, you can do things on these" - things the rest of the world had known for years. (If you want to be mean, and tease a little, you can say that it is almost like the US absolutely needed a dumbed-down fisher-price UI to realize these things could be used. Sorry but it doesn't exactly reflect well on the perceived intelligence of the US populace .... [Nudge-wink-wink] ... sorry just teasin')

It's sometimes high comedy to listen to thinks like MacBreak weekly or some other Leo Laporte show, and hear them "ooh" and "aww" over things like a little box that can turn a 3G or EVDO data connection into a little local wifi, and then hear them say "Oh just you wait until such a feature is available on smartphones, it will be a GAME CHANGER". I chuckle, because the app "JoikuSpot" has been available since FOREVER and it does EXACTLY THAT. For smartphones (which hence seem to exclude the iPhone).

Look, guys. Here are things I, as a non-US person, expect as standard features on a "smartphone" (this was the expectation level already when the original iPhone was released):

  • Full bluetooth support. As in file transfer, messaging, keyboard, etc. etc.
  • Full standard-cell-network feature support, as in SMS, MMS, call waiting, etc.
  • Multi-tasking/background process
  • VoIP client. Yes over cell network. No, no whiny operator disablement; I pay for data, I can do WTF I want with it.
  • Tethering (at no additional cost, as said, I pay for data, I can do WTF I want with it). Bluetooth tethering absolutely should be standard, WiFi tethering a la "JoikuSpot" nice bonus feature.
  • Big, and exchangeable battery.

Bonus features that I don't consider "bare necessities" are things like GPS, accelerometer, compass, even camera... but if the device has a camera it should naturally do video, anything else is just retarded.

The mystery of the original iPhone being a hit

What puzzled me always was, why was the *original* iPhone such a hit with its original, feature-poor version? I think it was largely the sex appeal in the "slick UI".

But I think also specifically because it was introduced in the US. My suspicion is that the *original* iPhone only could become a massive hit there, because the more "smartphone saturated" rest of the world knew what expectations to have of such a device (and know not go apeshit over standard features and swallow glaring omissions like bluetooth file transfers) and would never as easily bow to the Apple Overlords.

But that's just my theory. :)

Slick UI. I admit that

What Apple really did was to show the world how an UI should be done (APPLAUSE! Or is that APPLE-ause?), and, and I must say "unfortunately", carved out a market niche doing that. Good for them... but bad for the rest of us.

Even being a Nokia user I must say Nokia has been lazy. Not on the device side (the N97 outclasses both the iPhone and the Palm Pre 10-to-1) but on the UI side. While I strongly crave to upgrade to an N97, it is really depressing to see the craptacular old UI, and totally-NOT-streamlined UI of the apps, showing clearly how different guys wrote different apps, with very little "style guide" in between. (Heck, If I'm being mean, I can say there is very little "style" to be "guided" in the 1st place).

Smartphone wars vs OS wars

If you look from an US perspective, you could make this somewhat humorous comparision between the smartphones and computer OS's:

  • iPhone is like Windows. Its the "most spread" thing, and "everyone uses it because everyone else uses it", not because it actually offers more features or is "better" in any way. Most people are painfully stuck on it "coz all my apps are here", but they would much rather switch to something else.

  • Palm Pre is exactly like the Mac. It is slick, shiny, has rounded corners everywhere, and it's just so shiny and pretty and .... shiny. Everything is nice and consistent. Apps behave in a very nice consistent way (but therefore lack any real control or advanced features). The OS feels like a prison decorated by a designer that used to work for fisher price. And there are only 9 apps. And nobody writes new ones.

  • N97 is like Linux. It's powerful, can do anything you ever wanted, but there is no visual consistency between apps, and you easily end up in a UI that only a command-line loving geek would want to touch. It tries to be "slick" but it's kinda like a spray-on kind of slick. You can still see the gears and sprockets turning underneath, and they can be oh-so-clunky. There are gazillions of apps, but they are almost all written by-geeks-for-geeks, and tend to be buggy.

Okay, the above is tounge-in-cheek, and seen in a "US perspective".

From a non-US perspective, it shifts a bit, because the "iPhone penetration" is much lower (I actually do not know anyone that owns one, for example) and the Pre isn't even available here at all... (at least not yet).

My personal conclusion

So looking around currently, my ideal device would be one that had:

  • N97 hardware.
    Apple and Palm, take note on how the maestros make hardware, mkay? See the 5 megapixel auto-focusing widescreen DVD-quality-video shooting camera WITH FLASH? And that's with nokia not even upgrading the camera at all.

  • Palm-Pre like OS.
    Nokia and Apple, take note how a nice multi tasking UI can look and work! Gestures FTW!

  • ...with the application support of the iPhone
    Nokia and Palm, take note how Apple works with developers and gets cool stuff happening? Good. Now do NOT look at how the "needs approval" Apple store works, okay? While it is fine to have an "official" store which may host "approved" apps (or a category of "approved" apps), forcing anyone writing an app to go through some wierd "approval" process is just dumb.

Sadly, device this doesn't exist yet. The N97 is still my personal top contenter because there *is* still tons and tons and tons of s60 apps (without any stupid "Approval" process to make an app). So if you can live with a partially old-fashioned UI, then I still think it's clearly the device to go for.

And while I acknoweledge the "most apps win", and you can say that Apple is currently ahead there (although I'm not sure, there are lots of s60/Nokia apps), both the Palm Pre and the Nokia N97 has understood that programming is "going web", and have widget/app API's that are basically just HTML/css/AJAX, which will cause the application count for both devices to litterally explode overnight.

Those are my thoughts.

Flames and comments appreciated :)


* = Nothing against gays, many of my best friends are gay. *Smooch*