Enough Already! Cellphones Are Not Unwieldy

Let's get this straight: cellphone screens are not too small for Internet use, handset batteries are not too weak to be practical, and the tiny keypads are not too hard to type on.
Renfield Kuroda

I had the pleasure of going to New York again a couple of weeks ago for a wireless strategy meeting and once again I heard the same complaints about wireless data devices: "The screens are too small -- who's gonna read email on that?" "The batteries don't last long enough." "It's too hard to type." And so on. These tired tirades are my current beef because they're simply not true anymore. Ten years ago, when a portable phone resembled a briefcase with a shoulder strap, sure, that was unwieldy. But the technology exists today (and has for a couple of years now) to make cellphones small, light, and easy to use. Let's take these one at a time:

** Screen Size
Top-of-the-line 256-color screens (from Panasonic and Sharp, among others) use less power and have higher resolutions than their gray-scale brethren of a year or two ago. Sharp's Zaurus has been sporting a clear, bright color display for a while, and now with mass production thanks to cellphone numbers in the millions, prices are down, too. All the carriers in Japan offer color-screen phones, including handsets from NEC, Kenwood, Fujitsu, Sharp, and Mitsubishi, to name a few.

Why American and European makers like Motorola and Ericsson don't offer better screens is beyond me. For example, Nokia offers a whopping four lines of text on the monstrous "green banana" 7110 WAP phone in Europe, yet Nokia's NM502i in Japan is half the size, with a screen resolution of 111 by 106 pixels, capable of displaying six lines of 16 ASCII characters a line. Maybe Japanese suppliers can't (or won't) meet Western demand, but anyway I have no problems reading my email on the 10-line display of my N502i.

** Battery Life
For whatever reason, brilliant American cellular operators decided to charge customers for incoming calls. This motivated people to leave their phones off 99 percent of the time, which put zero pressure on handset makers to make long-lasting batteries (even though the No. 1 complaint I hear when I go to the US and Europe is short battery life). In contrast, Japanese cellphone customers pay only for outgoing calls, which means phones are left on all the time to receive free incoming calls, which means phones must have long standby times. Every phone in Japan is outfitted with a top-of-the-line lithium ion battery, and most handsets are very low power. Typical standby time is over 100 hours, meaning regular users recharge at most twice a week. (Mame-chishiki: the slim, long-lasting battery for Nokia's old NM206 also works on Nokia's 5110, 6110, and 7110, and last four times as long as the Western native.)

** Typing
This one really curdles my yogurt. Let's get our facts straight: America (and parts of Western Europe) is the anomaly. Most of the people in the world never have used and never will use a QWERTY keyboard on a PC. The billions of SMS and wireless email messages thumbed every day are mostly written by people like the typical Philippine or Japanese user: their first and only messaging device is a cellphone. And they're perfectly happy pecking away on a ten-key pad because they have no preconceived notions that a QWERTY keyboard is any easier.

This is what I call the "Fork vs. Chopsticks" debate. Americans, most of whom are used to a QWERTY keyboard, naturally assume that QWERTY is the way to type -- just like most Americans (my mother included) cannot manage the simple grace of eating with chopsticks and are therefore convinced the fork is the superior eating utensil. Well, a few billion Asians (for a couple thousand years) do just fine without forks, and their kids have been clocked by trendy wireless cellphone teen culture magazines at messaging upwards of 60 words per minute. In fact, most high school kids can simultaneously pretend to be paying attention in class whilst typing out messages on the phone hidden in their pocket. Besides which, I doubt most Americans (even in IT) really know how to type on a QWERTY keyboard anyway -- hunt and peck with 108 keys is much harder than with 10. Of course, many Asian languages are arguably easier to type on a 10-key pad because of the phonetic input systems utilized. Finally, type completion like Tegic's T9, excessive use of abbreviations and picture symbols, and smart dictionaries that remember common phrases and words make it even easier to input with minimal clicks.

Since most of the planet's future Internet population will email and surf via a non-PC device, and may never own a PC as we know it, this QWERTY keyboard fixation is distracting people from pursuing more creative, workable solutions, like voice-command and biometric input (tap your fingers on your lap like you're typing, just without the keyboard.)

Thus ends my current beef. Gochiso-san.

Beef back to the Chief of Beef: wireless_beef@renfield.net