The pull of Real Estate, Intensity and Interaction

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Steve tries to explain the lure of Apple's iPhone. How does the Symbian world compete?

So there I was, playing host to my sister. An utter normob, to use the current term. Her phone dates from 2004 or thereabouts and it was probably a budget model then. I thought she might be interested in seeing some of the current flagship and wanted to see her reaction. So I showed her my Apple iPhone iPod Touch and Nokia N95 8GB.

A day later, I did exactly the same to a fellow band member, whipping out both devices (appropriately, don't worry, I wasn't bible phone-bashing) and demonstrating them.

The reaction in each case was identical: tremendous enthusiasm for the 'iPhone' but significantly less for the N95 8GB, even though I helpfully explained (several times) that the Nokia could 'do more'. I've been trying to analyse the instant appeal of the iPhone and wondering what lessons the Symbian world can draw from it.

And, before you shout "Boring - we know all about Apple's user interface - usability, blah blah....", this article doesn't address usability or simplicity. UI factors only kick in once you start to use the devices for more than a few minutes - in the case of the two situations above, the user wasn't doing much more than holding the device - it was that crucial 'first impressions' scenario where viral enthusiasm is either generated or lost.

iPod Touch screen versus N95

In the case of my Nokia N95 (or E90 or whatever I'm trialling or using at the time), the friend/relative generally gets bombarded by a catalogue of it can do this, it can do that - very impressive from their point of view, no doubt, in fact usually overwhelming, but I rarely see the light turn on in their brains that says 'I've got to have one of those'. Maybe it's that Nokia's Symbian phones do too much, maybe they are perceived to be too fiddly, maybe they just don't stand out enough physically?

It's been very interesting watching more positive first reactions to Apple's device. After much thought, I put this down to three factors:

  1. Display size

    At 3.6", the Apple iPhone's display is almost 30% bigger than the very largest 'standard' S60 phones, the Nokia N95 8GB and the Samsung INNOV8. As I have often observed in the past, screen size increases aren't linear in terms of their impact. I.e. a 2.4" display is noticeably bigger than a 2.2" one, despite there (theoretically) only being a fraction of an inch between them. So the jump from 2.8" to 3.6" is enormous.

    Apple have achieved this at the expense of making their iPhone/iPod Touch wider and longer (than the N95 8GB, for example), but people don't seem to mind the size because of the sheer impact of a large, easy to read screen. Far too many people end up squinting at tiny phone screens and the iPhone comes as a breath of fresh air in this respect.

  2. Display brightness

    In addition to the sheer size, the brightness of Apple's backlit screen is something to behold. Normally I'd castigate the apparent readability of a touchscreen device because I knew that it would be utter rubbish outside, yet Apple's capacitive touch technology means that visibility in sunlight is just as good as on my N95, amazingly. Indoors, even with the Nokia's backlight cranked up to the max and with an artificially 'white' theme installed, there's still no comparison - the brightness of the iPhone/iPod Touch screen still blows it out of the water.

    When looking to make an impact, the gloriously bright colours streaming out of the iPhone do the job well. I still remember the kick I got from seeing the Palm IIIc, back at the end of the last century(!), with its bright colours seeming AWESOME to a generation used to boring and dull, half-backlit monochrome displays. The Apple screen has a similar impact on today's mobile buyers, in my opinion.

  3. Involvement

    With a S60 phone, you 'drive' the device. Using the d-pad and other buttons, you navigate the UI and kick off various functions. To do wonderful things, often, and hopefully fairly efficiently, but there's still the idea of driving things along using buttons around the display, using pop-up menus and on-screen indicators to give you clues as to what to press next. It's a good system that works very well, especially when on the move and using a phone one-handed.

    However, the finger-driven touchscreen on the iPhone moves up a whole dimension - by manipulating objects, icons and pages directly - tapping, dragging, pinching - there's a huge sense of involvement. Effectively, you're inside each application, controlling it from within rather than driving it from outside. As a phone 'power user' I can see that the button-driven system is often more efficient and flexible, but the average acquaintance is far more likely to have their mental switches flipped into 'Buy' mode by an attractive, responsive, involving, finger-driven interface.


Now, Nokia's sales remain very healthy, so there's clearly a lot of demand for 'phone-like' products. But I can't help thinking that winning the hearts, minds and eyes of normobs should be somewhere on the shopping list of Nokia, Samsung and other Symbian licensees.

Display sizes can be increased. Look at the jump from 2.6" to 2.8" in the N95/N95 8GB pair, without increasing the frontal area one iota. The Nokia 6650 I reviewed last week was immensely frustrating because of its screen size. In my mid-forties, I had to really stay still and concentrate in order to read text on its 2.2" display - and yet there was plenty of room the hardware for at least a 2.4" unit or even a 2.6" - which would have made a world of difference. The upcoming Nokia N96 and Samsung INNOV8 both have 2.8" QVGA screens - I know there are cost issues, but these should both have had 3" and VGA displays in order to create the same sort of impact that the iPhone makes.

Display brightness can be increased, surely. Nokia's deliberate crippling of maximum brightness in the Nokia N82 was rather telling, presumably to help battery life. A good motive, but if we're talking about making an impact then more and not less brightness is needed. Symbian phone displays need to shine.

The involvement factor is rather harder to replicate, although prettier icons and screen layouts can help. S60 touch-driven phones will arrive in time, although they'll need to use similarly innovative technologies to Apple if they're to have screens that stand up in terms of outdoor visibility. Can a Symbian partner pull this one off? I'm a little sceptical but prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian, 18 August 2008