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Battle of the Buttons - Will the iPhone Succeed?

The press is in over-hype mode on the forthcoming iPhone from Apple. It's the most hyped technology product I've ever seen. Brace yourself for mountains of stories about Mac-heads lining up in advance to buy it. iPhones will sell simply because of the novel approach as well as the millions of free marketing dollars the press is giving to Apple. But will it be successful? Will it sell ten million? Will it change how we interact with phones? Will it empower mobile customers?

The iPhone is virtually void of buttons replaced by a touchscreen that gives it a remarkably clean look and a bold new interface, operated with finger gestures called multi-touch. Do people want buttons on their phones? Do people need buttons? I'm not talking about quadrants on a slick glass screen, but actual, physical, pushable objects with different labels, shapes, and sizes that click when you depress them (tactile feedback). Aesthetics aside, is it practical for a multi-function device to have no buttons?

"...If your software needs are exactly what Steve Jobs and AT&T dictate and if you don't mind AT&T's hand in your wallet, then fine."

The current phone I carry is the Nokia e61i which compares very favorably with the iPhone. It's shipping now and comes with 51 distinct physical buttons - the opposite design of the iPhone. Nokia is the #1 mobile phone manufacturer in the world and has sold more than twice as many phones in the most recent quarter as the 2nd largest company, Motorola. If buttons had no value why would Nokia use them?

Nokia e61i
Apple iPhone
Compatible Carriers
Any GSM carrier worldwide (T-Mobile, AT&T, etc)
AT&T Only
True Cost
$449 (street price w/out contract)
$739 ($499 plus $39 activation fee and $200 early termination fee)
Email/Browsing/Instant Messaging
Music (MP3/iTunes)
2 megapixel
2 megapixel
Video Playback/Record
50 MBs (expandable to 2gb with microSD)
Viewers (PDF/Word/Excel/Powerpoint)
Talk Time/Standby Time
5 hours/9 days 8 hours/10 days

On the Nokia e61i there are buttons for nearly every major function. Click a button and you're in your address book, another and you're in email, another and you're recording video or a voice annotation or using voice recognition to dial numbers. Phone owners can even configure buttons to launch any program they want. Once you're familiar with these buttons, it's very quick to jump from task to task on this device, without even looking at your phone.

The buttons I use most on the Nokia e61i are: email, instant messaging (this phone runs Gizmo that now communicates with all major IM networks), address book/phone dialer and web browser. Those first 2 tasks (email and IM) are as much about sending information as receiving it. The Nokia e61i includes a full qwerty keyboard, similar to the Palm Treo and RIM Blackberry, making it practical to type a lot of data. Admittedly, I have not used an iPhone touch screen keyboard, but I have used other touch screen keyboards. They are slow and laborious and nearly impossible to type rapid fire, as people expect with instant messaging. The touchscreen fails as a volume input device - any Blackberry or Treo user can attest to this. Without a keyboard, the iPhone will be a one way street. It will be useful for viewing and reading information, but not for transmitting.

"...You can't use Wi-Fi to download music, update your calendar or address book because Apple wants to keep you locked-in with iTunes."

Is button switching better than a touch screen for overall navigation? Apple's iPhone certainly has a wow factor but also has carefully crafted demos. Some benefit is derived from a fresh logical organization of the phone features. I am often frustrated with my Nokia phone because of illogical layout of features. To configure the phone to automatically use my home or work wifi access points, I have to go to Tools then Settings then Connection then Access Points. That's 4 levels deep! Don't try and use the "Connectivity" at the top level because there's no way to access Wi-Fi groups there. Huh? I'm sure Apple's layout will be more logical and quicker to learn.

I'm not convinced the touch screen is practical for all phone users. Performing sweeping finger gestures, pinching or sliding the toolbar generally requires two hands - removing the ability for one hand operation such as I often do while moving around or carrying a drink. Look closely at the video or TV ads and you'll see two hands cradling the phone or the phone magically suspended so just one hand is required. I often pick up a phone and operate it with an available thumb on the same hand that will be difficult, if not impossible with the iPhone. Additionally, putting your fingers on the screen for navigation, as well as leaning your face against it for phone conversation, will leave the screen covered with dirt and oil.

There's an even greater reason I admire my Nokia e61i over an Apple iPhone. Today, American phone customers are held hostage by carriers that dictate what phones they can buy, what software they can run and what networks they can use. Carriers use this control to charge over-sized fees for many services and trap customers into costly service plans. SMS is a racket. Roaming fees are outrageous. God help you if you go over your minutes-per-month allotment because your bill could be hundreds or even thousands of dollars. Rather than break this cycle, the iPhone extends it by adding Apple's limitations to those of AT&T.

On the iPhone you can't use a music file to set a ringtone because AT&T wants to keep selling $2.99 ringtones. You can't use Wi-Fi to download music, update your calendar or address book because Apple wants to keep you locked-in with iTunes. What's the point of having Wi-Fi if you are still chained to the PC to access your data? Forget about using VOIP to make inexpensive calls to bypass AT&T's charges because that's turned off. Want to use instant messaging to avoid 15 cents per message SMS fees? Forget about it. The device comes with no IM software and there's no way to add any software.

"...I often pick up a phone and operate it with an available thumb on the same hand, that will be difficult, if not impossible with the iPhone."
Top-end Nokia phones use the Symbian operating system and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of programs people have written that you can add to your phone. I recently ran (well, I should say "completed") the San Diego Rock-N-Roll Marathon and used a Nokia N95 phone as my running companion. I added free software, Sports Tracker, and tracked my progress using GPS satellites that constantly reported my minutes per mile pace. (Note to self: need to run faster next time or carry an extra battery. Mine died during the race while listening to MP3s, instant messaging, and making calls.)

Now you may not be planning on running a marathon, but what about other core functions you want to add to your phone? Neither the iPhone or the e61i come with instant messaging software, which I consider an essential communications need. With one click I added Gizmo software to my e61i and could then communicate with Gizmo, AIM, and MSN users (Yahoo coming soon). [Note: I'm CEO of SIPphone, which makes Gizmo Project.]

Both devices have Wi-Fi, but iPhone cripples its implementation so it's limited to certain activities. This is not so on the Nokia e61i. Nokia's Wi-Fi is truly open Wi-Fi that I can use to download music, IM, and make VOIP calls - any activity. This is the way it should be. The owner should decide when to use Wi-Fi, not the vendor.

I give much credit to Apple for innovation and against-the-grain thinking. It takes guts and a massive financial bet to come out with an entirely new platform. I admire risk takers and Apple's efforts will surely push the phone industry forward faster. I have my doubts about the buttonless design and even larger doubts about missing a keyboard. The iPhone may satisfy light to medium users, but I can't see heavy users being happy. I'll admit I could be wrong. Time will tell and it will be fun to watch.

I am not wrong about the iPhone being a locked-down device with Apple and AT&T in charge of how you, the buyer, use your equipment. You can't add software. You're prevented from using the network you like for all your activities. You're trapped in the walled garden that is US mobile. If your software needs are exactly what Steve Jobs and AT&T dictate and if you don't mind AT&T's hand in your wallet, then fine. But my recommendation is to buy an open device that maximizes your power and control of your software and pocketbook.

-- MR

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