Trade-Offs, Evolution and the Truth About Mobile Phone Development
Aug 25, 2009 4:00 AM PT
It has been said that a great user experience in mobile phone offerings is a combination of good engineering, marketing and graphical and user interface (UI) design. More importantly, it is about keeping the balance between all these elements. This is why the term "trade-off" is a recurrent one in the mobile phone industry.
In the current state of mobile device evolution, the UI screen size has reached the maximum deemed acceptable to customers; therefore, the focus by mobile experts is now more on depth-enhancing capabilities such as touchscreen UI with haptic feedback, for example. For the next generation of handsets, industry collaborations such as the LiMo Foundation, Open Handset Alliance and Symbian Foundation aim for faster time to market and cost reductions for middleware by ensuring that all those affected by the contribution have a voice in their creation within the organizations.
Despite ongoing collaborative efforts within the industry, the basic work to produce one special phone will always be the same. Having specified the target user and considered all the trade-offs, a manufacturer takes the first step in production, which involves customizing native applications and UI in order to create an identity for the phone. This results in the birth of a one-of-a-kind device that can be fully adapted to mass production.
UX: The User Experience
Delivering the best mobile user experience (UX) possible means providing choices and offering the best combination of UI technologies, from hardware acceleration to 3-D effects, within the available handset's capabilities.
Here are some examples of trade-offs from a user's perspective:
- Battery Life vs. Game and Camera Usage: Battery life is a real problem. Mobile TV viewing and camera functions are intense activities that do not generate ARPU (average revenue per user) for many operators. They can even be costly features to implement and not be profitable. As a vendor, we are tasked to provide the best performance possible. There is still room for long-life batteries that can better allow users to engage for an entire day without recharging.
- Basic Phone Capability vs. App Store, Internet Usage (Text Input):There are two types of phones on the market. One type comes from traditional mobile phone handset makers, and the other type comes from newcomers and Internet service enterprises, such as Apple and Google. Accessing the Internet from a phone is actually a different experience than accessing it from a PC. Users carry mobile phones 24 hours a day, and accessing data in real time from a phone is as important as making a phone call.
The phone does not have a powerful CPU and is not multifunctional like a PC. Nonetheless, user demand is high for access to high-bandwidth services such as YouTube from a phone as well as a PC.
How can we keep everything accessible from a phone? The answer is simple: Virtual and horizontal developer collaboration, a strong focus on joint development in a community such as LiMo or Joint Innovation Lab, or some other open source community. It's about contributing activities with other companies to limit the burden of development.
- UI Touchscreen Pad vs. Keypad: Mobile phones are called "phones" despite the fact that they're also capable of Internet data traffic and rich bandwidth usage that brings large revenues to operators. The basic function remains the phone. Lately, the traditional keypad has shifted to a touchscreen pad on some models and changed the form of the phone closer to that of a PC.
Making Software and Making Sausage
Software implementation in this world of trade-offs is a challenge and not glamorous: Drivers sometimes are not implemented correctly; lower level components are not sufficiently optimized; and we often find ourselves trying to work around problems. Crashes resulting from bugs while APIs or test devices are under development are not uncommon. A two-minute job easily becomes days of work on a bug-related problem. Instability of the test device results in performance output being half of what it should be. Additionally, time constraints can put a squeeze on creativity. Sometimes specifically required extensions improve the actual features of the phone, and these can be accomplished by close work between software vendors and handset makers. Sometimes device capability limitations (memory, texture size, etc.) restrict what the phone itself can potentially offer.
In order to address the various issues described above, many organizations work collectively to solve common development issues. For instance, LiMo enables us to work collaboratively with OEMs and operators on specifications at an early stage and to take into account the needs of the different stakeholders. In this organization, the format of contributions can address any issue cohesively, permit the discussion of strategies, and enlist support through problem resolution sharing, while helping to define the future middleware Linux platform.
The Unified Phone
How did the iPhone make an impact on other competitors in the market?
The iPhone represents the best example of trade-offs for a mobile phone. Its success arises from supplying a middleware platform that can leverage the creativity of content developers by allowing them to express freely the user experience and the vision they want through an application platform to the user. The iPhone is a unified phone, assembled by one company, whereas traditional phones are assembly-plant like combinations of products by software vendors. To bring about innovation, operators and OEMs had to shut down the assembly plants and enable secure, easy access to content services and middleware functions to offer built-in products. What Apple brought to the market is a motivation to work together to produce a unified phone, and a reminder that the true user experience goes far beyond giving customers what they want and being self-explanatory.
That is why companies like Acrodea, Azingo, NEC and Panasonic come to work together in organizations such as the LiMo Foundation, Symbian Foundation and Open Handset Alliance, where the experts work together with an extensive focus on usability to move away from the assembly plant approach, so that users do not find the experience overly complicated after they make an investment in a purchased phone and get the best trade-offs.
Joint work in these consortia allows the industry to act in unison, compared to a market that used to be an assembly plant. Real-world issues never go away, but we are passionate about giving the best user experience, despite the trade-offs.
Now that the mobile industry is acting more and more as one through joint efforts in mobile industry in consortia, you may start see some differences in the mobile phone. That's because the industry can offer more to the consumer working together than individual efforts offer today.
Yuki Endo is the international business manager at Acrodea.