There's more than one perfect smartphone form factor

Published by Steve Litchfield at 6:48 UTC, October 14th 2009

From the Nokia N900 to the HTC HD2, I'm seeing a groundswell of opinion turning against smaller, slightly simpler smartphones - but I contend that what you're seeing and reading isn't even close to being representative of the mass market and that, as usual (and I know because I'm one of them) the geeks are skewing all the analysis towards faster, bigger, flashier...

I get excited as much as the next geek when I see high clock speeds (1GHz in the HD2's case), larger screens (4.3"), graphics accelerators, and so on. And yes, I absolutely get that such monster devices can do more and they can do it better, than cheaper, smaller ones. But only in particular use cases, and not necessarily for the man or woman in the street, out in the real world.

Take my wife (no, not literally, I'm still rather fond of her) as a minimalist example. She uses a Nokia E51 and, bar a gripe every now and then about the small 2.0" screen, absolutely loves it. It does everything she needs of a phone (and quite a bit besides). Her use case is for voice calling, texting (one a day or so, on average), Contacts, Calendar, some mobile Web, some Internet Radio, a few photos and videos here and there and a little music or podcast listening. And she wants something which doesn't look like a geek's plaything. All of this the E51 copes with easily. I'm planning to rectify the small screen issue by replacing the E51 with an E52 when the phone breaks - which, judging from its indestructibility over the last few years, might be a while yet. 

Does my wife get even close to needing or wanting or needing one of the new breed of large, two-handed touchscreen devices? No, with a capital N.

What about my friend John? He's a student and loves his Nokia N95 to bits. He likes, yes, the fact that it does absolutely everything and he pushes S60's apps and the third party scene to its limit, with over 100 installed applications, but he also likes the small form factor that fits in his pocket and which he can use one-handed, the discrete, hardware keypad, the loud speakers and the way the screen can be read in all light conditions. And, being a student, he likes the fact that he hasn't had to upgrade it to anything else in almost three years and that even an eBay replacement would only be £100 or so. 

Does John get close to needing or wanting one of the new breed of large, two-handed touchscreen devices? Again no.

Take my friend Travis. He's a creative sort and still loves his Nokia N82 because of the camera with Xenon flash - its fits in well with his also active night life and he takes lots of club photos - the N82 is small enough to take anywhere and almost indestructible. 

Take my customer, Brian. He was a Psion user, then a Nokia E61 user, and is now a very happy E71 user. He loves having a qwerty keyboard but also leads an active semi-retired lifestyle in which the device has to fit into every pocket, every outfit, without getting in the way. He uses Contacts, Messaging, Web, Camera and Nokia Maps. And that's about it.


So we have four examples taken from real life. All these people are quite technical, in terms of the national average, yet none of them would even consider a Nokia N900 or HTC HD2 (or, to be fair, a Nokia N97, probably) as their next phone.

The constant debates and arguments over whether device X is better than device Y are sometimes valid and sometimes not. When the phones are directly comparable (e.g. Nokia E75 versus HTC S740 or Nokia N86 versus Sony Ericsson C905) then I like getting involved in the 'fight' as much as the next analyst. But when some well-meaning geek proclaims that the Nokia N900 knocks spots off all the current Symbian OS-powered phones then I have to take exception. The N900 simply isn't a competitor for real people in the real world. It's a mobile computer-turned-smartphone and only really appeals to the highly technical and to people with a budget for shiny new gadgets. Yes, this is (absolutely) a valid market and it will sell well and garner some great reviews. But it's simply not appealing to the person who would traditionally have gone for a Nokia E71, for example

Even taking the current in-vogue example "The N900 knocks spots off the N97", I'd disagree with the comparison being entirely valid*, in that the two devices, despite their apparently similar form factor (though the N900 is bigger, go measure it if you don't believe me), are aimed at different markets. The N97 is designed to be used in a portrait, candy bar aspect for most of the time, either one-handed or two-handed, with the keyboard coming out in landscape form to bash out quick texts or type in a search clue (for example). In other words, it looks like a modern touchscreen candy bar that has a trick up its sleeve, whereas the N900 is a powerful widescreen/landscape mobile computer that's been impressively miniaturised and which can now be rotated into portrait mode to take phone calls.


So, folks, a little perspective please. A Nokia 5530 XpressMusic touchscreen phone is not supposed to compete with the N900. Neither is the E52. And neither, for different reasons, are the N86 and N97, funnily enough. Can we please just appreciate each device for its own benefits - and, yes, criticise each for its own flaws, without quoting horrendous mismatches of form factor, price or use?

Steve Litchfield, All About Symbian and All About Maemo, 14 October 2009

*and no, I'm not defending some of the performance issues of the N97 - they're up to Nokia to sort out in the upcoming software tweaks - but these are a separate issue

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