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Cell phones, gestures, and 3G
Dec 23, 2009, 11:14a - Technology

(I'm sitting on a plane as I write this, flying to LA for Christmas. It's a 6 hour flight, and since I seem to be slightly phone-obsessed at the moment, I figured I'd pass the time by putting my thoughts down, since there's nothing on TV and I'm bored. Be forewarned - my blog is not turning into yet another gratuitous tech review site, and the irregularly scheduled thoughts on science and life will be back shortly. But here's some tech talk, for all my techie friends :)

I've been quite impressed by the quality of the recent Android phones (esp. the HTC Eris on Verizon and the HTC Hero on Sprint - the Motorola Droid is an unceremonious brick). They seem to have finally closed the gap with the iPhone, in terms of being a full touch screen with a bunch of apps. They even look a lot like the iPhone. But the user interface still seems to have some shortcomings.

Anytime I use something, I've always been particularly sensitive to how I interact with a device, most often dictated by its user interface. This is an instinct - I don't think I ever learned to be this way, it's just how I came. While working at Google, I refined these sensitivities quite a bit. So the fact that Android's web browser and maps don't support pinch-zoom leaves me amiss. I suspect some sort of Apple-related patent-fear or side-deal on the part of Google, a fear that Palm seems to lack since the Palm Pre does multitouch zoom just fine (maybe Google doesn't have as many touch-screen patents as Palm does, so they have more patent-fear). Also, the Android user interface seems a bit more kludgy and disorganized than the iPhone - apps in multiple places, too many physical buttons, options that shouldn't be hidden in menus are hidden in menus, stuff like that.

After playing with these 3 phone UIs (iPhone, Android, and Palm's webOS), I must admit that my favorite is the one on Becca's Palm Pre (which runs webOS). We've both had Palm Treos for quite a few years (my 650 is going on 6 years old, and still works as well as the day I got it). I'm not a Palm fanboy, as there are many problems with my Treo, but I do think that Palm did a good job with the Pre. What makes the Pre UI better than these other UIs? The plentitude of intuitive (to me) gestures and the dedicated gesture area at the bottom of the screen.

Most people have probably never seen a Pre (or the cheaper Pixi), let alone used one. I didn't realize how much I relied on the Pre's gestures until I was using a new Android phone and unintentionally tried to go back one screen by using a Pre gesture, sliding my thumb from right to left at the bottom of the screen. The Pre's gestures make so much sense to my brain that, after only an hour or so of using them, they've become embedded in my mind. On the Pre, no matter what app you're in, you can simply put your thumb below the screen and slide it to the left to go back one screen. No searching for a back button. This is made possible by the fact that the Pre has a dedicated area below the screen that is touch-sensitive. Nothing is displayed down there, so I'm not confused about whether I'm scrolling within an app or issuing a general gesture. I guess it builds off the idea of the Graffiti area from the original Palm, except you don't write letters there (which I always found very difficult to learn), you just gesture.

I find buttons more difficult to learn than gestures, I think, because it's a more abstract concept. I have to learn that pushing a button has a certain effect, and then remember that. That effect is rarely related to anything about how the button looks, also known as the button's "affordances" in UI-speak. Icons can help tremendously, but can also confuse. Gestures can be different, because they can build on our already-learned, often-practiced, naturalistic interactions with space. They can still be a bit abstract or perhaps more difficult to use than buttons (e.g. Graffiti), but a good gesture, once learned, beats a button press any day for me. On the Pre, to go back a screen, I don't push a special button arbitrarily assigned that function - I just motion backwards with my thumb. Of course, the concept of "back" is somewhat dependent on language (maybe Hebrew writers would prefer to go back by sliding from left to right), but it can always be culture-customized.

Another example of a Pre gesture that I find intuitive is how you can view all the apps that are running. Just slide your thumb up from the gesture area to the top of the screen, and you can see which apps are running. If I move my thumb again from an app to the top of the screen it flicks it off the screen, quitting it. This is built on the metaphor of "cards", where each app is it's own card. I like the metaphor of tossing the card off-screen to quit an app. It's somehow oddly satisfying, perhaps because I like playing card games and it feels a bit like dealing someone a card. If you get a chance, you should try it and let me know if you feel the same thing. The nice "swish" sound also helps.

The last gesture that is unique to the Pre is the way to get to the list of apps from any screen (iPhone users might call this the "Home" screen which comes up when you push the button). The gesture for pulling up the app list is identical to the one for seeing all the running apps, you just do it a second time in a row. It feels like I'm opening a hidden drawer. It feels right, so I like it.

Of course, I'm sure many of the Pre gestures can be improved, and some of them are inconsistent (as Sachin pointed out to me), and some described above may not seem intuitive to you, even after you've had a chance to use it hands-on. But so far, I'm impressed with the Pre's gestures and I think it's the right kind of interface for handheld devices.

The Palm Pre also has a physical keyboard, so call me old-fashioned, but I still prefer it to the virtual keyboard. If I have to enter text, and I have to use a keyboard, give me a physical keyboard any day. There's something about the space-specific tactile feedback, the feeling of not only pushing down on the button but feeling and hearing it spring back. I'm a huge fan of the keyboard on my Thinkpad for this very reason; Apple's MacBook keyboard is pretty good too. Unfortunately, though, the keyboard on the Palm is hidden behind the screen, and to get it out you need to slide the screen away. The physical mechanism isn't very stable, solid, or smooth, and it takes more time to start typing than if the keyboard was just right there in front of me. Also, the keyboard's buttons are smooth, concave, and don't press down very far (little displacement), so it's not actually that much easier to use than a virtual keyboard, because my fingers slide around and I make more mistakes.

The Pixi, Palm's second of two webOS phones, overcomes all of these shortcomings. In fact, I liken it to a streamlined version of my venerable Treo 650. The keyboard has good displacement and may even be better than the keyboard on my Treo. Also, unlike the Pre, the keyboard is always there, though you sacrifice 80 pixels (17% of your screen height) to make room for it (which I think might be worth it). The back is nice and rubberized, so easier to grip. I never understood the appeal of the smooth back of the iPhone - seems like it would slide all over the place and be slightly slippery to hold, though I guess Apple decided that people will buy shinier objects over less shiny ones (which may be true). The Pixi is also really light and thin, and I think it's the best choice out there for people who want a physical keyboard that's always in front of you (though I haven't used it extensively, just in the stores). I've always found the Blackberry hard to use - it seems to have a very specialized interface with a steep learning curve, one that seemed too much work to be worth it to me.

So why don't I just get a Pixi? For one thing, it doesn't have Wifi (which, like the lack of pinch-zoom on Android, boggles my mind). And for another, I can't seem to get Sprint to sell it to me without forcing me to change my phone plan to one with unlimited data that costs $70/month. I'm on a $40/month plan right now, and used to pay $55/month to also get data. I am concerned about the higher cost of data ($360 more per year), and I also don't really want 3G data service. Let me explain.

I had data access on my Treo for several years before the iPhone even came out. At first, I enjoyed reading my email, IMing, listening to streaming radio, and using Google Maps wherever I happened to be. Sure, the network was slower back then, but it was sufficient. After doing this for a couple of years, I realized that I was spending all of this time staring at my phone, when I could have been out in the world, talking to people, looking around, experiencing life. It is definitely super-convenient to have maps and driving directions, and that's the one app that I regretted having to leave behind when I cancelled my data plan. But I found that I was less phone-fixated and more conscious of my world, more aware of what's happening around me and less interested in Googling some random fact. It bugs me when I go out with friends and they spend a lot of time staring at their phones - I guess I must not be very interesting company. Maybe I'm just behind the times, but it's how I feel. I guess in the end, I didn't get enough out of data - it was a fun experiment while it lasted, but ultimately too much of a distraction to be worth it.

So is the desire to have Wifi hypocritical? I don't think so, since I certainly want to be able to install new apps (which have the potential to be useful), and without Wifi or 3G that would be more difficult.

In not wanting 3G data I'm probably in the minority, but what else is new? I can of course get the plan and just not use the data, but though it seems that I have above-average self-restraint, let's be realistic. More importantly, I don't enjoy paying extra for something that I don't use, especially when it's a life-long commitment (since I probably wouldn't be able to switch to a non-data plan later).

My ideal phone would actually be pretty simple - it would be a great device for making phone calls, with a keyboard and a few really useful apps. It wouldn't drop calls, it would have good coverage (Sprint and Verizon-level, if not better), and it would have crystal-clear voice quality, so good that you would be able to tell the difference between someone saying "B" and someone saying "D". Becca's Pre has a pretty terrible microphone, so poor that often it just sounds like she's mumbling if her mouth isn't positioned just right. I think I would pay more than $40/month for a simple cell phone with fast dialing, excellent coverage and superior voice quality, without any data access or even a built-in video camera.

Somehow, in the hyper-competitive arena of cell phones and service, features have won over product quality (and by that I mean *phone* quality). This is especially apparent as the *total* number of apps has become a major marketing factor, regardless of how many of them are actually useful (very few in my opinion, Google Maps being an exception). Maybe one day the momentum will swing back in the opposite direction, and we'll actually have cell phones that dial quickly, don't drop calls and sound as clear as someone sitting right in front of you. Such high quality of service is so foreign to me that it's a bit hard to imagine. But for the moment, let's just try to imagine that.

Read comments (5) - Comment

omar the french duke - Dec 23, 2009, 11:42a
I type this now on the google phone virtual keyboard. I was very skeptical of virtual keyboards but I must say this one is growing on me.

I too am baffled by the lack of pinch.

You should fiddle with the new phone when you get a chance. It is vastly improved.

Sachin - Dec 24, 2009, 11:47a
Obviously I'm highly biased towards the iPhone. But I will start by saying I too am very impressed by the new Android phones. I think Android will give Apple a run in the coming years and ultimately might win because it's open. (although rumors claim the new iphone in 2010 is the first true redesign, 3G and 3GS were just refreshes. so Android is sorta competing with 2.5 year old tech in terms of software and gestures)

Ok, i'm going to battle 2 points to this article (i could argue more)

1. I find the Palm Pre gestures 100% UNNATURAL. I remember saying that the first time i every used one. The various swipes, card metaphor, etc are 100% learned. NO ONE can pick up this phone and just use it. When both my mom and my dad got their iphones, i remember not getting a chance to show them anything. (I think both times I was leaving down right after we went to the apple store). I never had to teach them anything, they got it naturally. And they are old!

I think your bias towards the palm gestures is largely because it's the first touch device you've used. That's always going to feel more natural than something you see later. But all the palm gestures are modal, which i find to be terrible. you have to swipe to enter this "card view" before you can swipe up cards to quit. Having these modes will confuse normal people. What mode am I in? Why does this gesture work in mode X but not mode Y?

2. The keyboard. You really can't diss a virtual keyboard unless you've used it for like a week and gotten used to it. I can type so freakin fast on my iPhone, much faster than I've seen people type on their bb. now when I do use a BB or other physical keyboard phone, it's seems too laborious. Having to push down hard enough for the physical click slows me down. If i'm already touching the key, register it and let me move on. And then correct for my mistakes. It's such a better experience.

And of course the touch screen gives you more free screen space, but that's a separate issue. It is nice that the keyboard itself can change based on what you are typing. web address, email address, phone number, they each have their own layout. I think optimization of keyboard layout and correction on touch screen phones is going to be huge in the coming years.

and on a random aside, switch to posterous, dammit. You'll get way more page views, and i'll be notified of new comments via email. and all the other random stuff...

Sachin - Dec 24, 2009, 11:50a
You need a lot of faith to type a long comment here. I kept mine on my clipboard just in case it didn't appear in a few minutes :)

omar - Jan 1, 2010, 7:51a
nikhil's blogging technology is so last decade

nikhil - Jan 3, 2010, 11:58a
actually, my blog uses technology circa 1998. so it's actually from 2 decades ago!

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