Sunday, September 17, 2006

Who wants Wi-Fi in a phone?

Is it possible that we don't actually care about Wi-Fi in phones? There's still not many out there, and I'm wondering if there's much demand either.

There've been a couple of major-ish launches in the last two weeks - well, actually, two launches of well-known products (the Blackberry and the Treo) re-jigged to fit particular niches.

We can enjoy the irony that the Palm Treo looks more and more like a Blackberry while the Blackberry Pearl is trying to look like a feature phone. But that's superficial, as they each have their own user interface (or in Palm's case, Microsoft's user interface) and their own fans.

What's interesting is that both had features added to meet market needs, but neither of them has Wi-Fi. And at the press conferences, when asked why not, the marketing people of both companies made it quite clear that they thought about it and rejected it out of hand as a dumb idea.

If your handset's battery has just been drained by Wi-Fi, it's no good as a phone, said Palm's Ed Colligan. RIM's Charmaine Eggberry laughed at the idea they'd use space in their smallest Blackberry to add a battery-eating technology.

This kind of thing must be a bit dismal for the people (mostly software makers for converged services) who've been telling me all year that phones are all going to have Wi-Fi, and converged services will drop out of the sky.

Well they might do that. But not just yet.

What about the demand for them? I don't know in great detail, but I have noticed changes in what this country's metropolitan Wi-Fi people have been saying. Metro Wi-Fi was first pitched as a great way for local government employees to keep in touch with their office systems on the move, using Wi-Fi bandwidth, which would be free once the network was rolled out.

All the local government people I've spoken to lately say they aren't doing that. Their staff are on GPRS or 3G data, because it's got better coverage, the network and handsets are provided and maintained by a third party, and the batteries last longer.

(there have been other changes too in the metro pitch, such as the idea that it would provide connectivity to the disadvantaged, and heal the digital divide, but we'll go into that later).

For now - who really needs dual-mode Wi-Fi handsets?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

BlackBerry Pearl and the size obsession

RIM repeated two mantras at the BlackBerry event yesterday. One was about size (the other was about choice - we'll come to that later). You can't be too slim, is basically what they said - and I'm coming to see they may be right.

RIM has good, single-minded engineers, who work well to an over-riding single task. In earlier Blackberrys this goal was: do email. Throw out everything else that doesn't do email, and might waste power, screen or device space.

This time round RIM had a slightly more complext overall goal - appeal to consumers - but RIM boiled it down to a single-minded task for its engineers: be SMALL. Have a camera and storage and a media player and all that, and be a BlackBerry, but be small.

Now, my conscious reaction is to sneer. Oh really, are people so fickle that they will pick a device purely on the basis of its size? Surely functions matter more!

I've written stories based on this opinion. Last week, I wrote on ZDNet about how users are too dumb to pick up smartphones, because they "can't tell the difference" between a data-oriented device and a phone with a camera.

Now, I think my take was completely wrong, and I base this result on unbiased user research.

On Monday, my phone died and I needed a new one from T-Mobile. I rang up and asked what I could have on my current plan (or, actually, on the new Flext plan which sounds like a boon for people like me who don't want to understand plans).

I ruled out the expensive options, and found myself offered a Nokia E70, Symbian smartphone. I know people who are happy with this, and it's widely seen as "the Symbian phone you wind up using". I checked the size, the weight, and the talk time, and rejected it.

Instead, I picked up the next in a series of Sony Ericssons, the W810.

I am someone who CAN tell the difference between a smartphone and a feature phone, and I still went for the feature phone. In terms of my news story last week, I am a dumb consumer. So much so, that I now have a phone with a Walkman brand on it. Can I erase it?

But, here's the point. Just as RIM predicted, I chose on the basis of size. How puerile!

My Sony Ericsson Pearl is sitting on my desk now, next to my BlackBerry Pearl. And I'm ashamed to say, it's the first smartphone I've seen that I can imagine owning.