Get behind the touch screen

10 Nov 2008

It's often been said that the iPhone changed the mobile handset industry forever with its innovative use of the touch screen. According to ABI Research, touch-screen devices will be a $5 billion market by the end of next year. Meanwhile, handset makers are taking on the iPhone directly with high-end touch-screen handsets, the latest of which are the BlackBerry Storm and Nokia's 5800.

But not all touch screens are created equal. I recently tried two new smartphones from big-name brands boasting snazzy touch-screen features. Both were, frankly, crap. One phone in particular was so hard to navigate I put it back in the box after 10 minutes. I didn't even bother to stick my SIM in it. The problem with both phones wasn't the touch screen - it was the software sitting behind it.

To be fair, touch screens are a hard slog for anyone designing a mobile phone UI, especially when you've built your entire OS ecosystem around standard screens operated by keypads and soft keys. Apple wasn't burdened by a legacy OS designed for old-fashioned candy bars and clamshells. Neither was Google's Android OS, which is now available on the HTC Dream G1 and, from what I hear, getting good feedback on the UI.

But what's really clever, however, is that Apple and Google's OS approach doesn't just make their handset UIs purr: they also come with (more or less) open-source application development ecosystems that include centralized online stores (the App Store and Android Market). With the App Store sporting over 4,000 apps and reportedly generating $1 million in downloads a day, it's a strategy you may be seeing more of - RIM is allegedly planning to launch a BlackBerry Application Center for v4.7 of its OS when it debuts on the Storm device, while rumors have been swirling for months that Microsoft will inevitably bring Zune Marketplace, or something like it, to its Windows Mobile OS.

Focus on users

Symbian hasn't quite made that leap yet, but the company announced at its annual lovefest last month that it's officially committed to a migration to open-source (though the full transition won't happen until 2010), indicating that it at least knows the handset market is changing and must change with it. Meanwhile, Symbian's owner, Nokia, has been continuing its risky but daring push to compete directly with operators and content providers with new services like Ovi and Comes With Music, the latter of which bundles a 5310 handset with unlimited music downloads for a year.

The business models for all of these are naturally still under construction, and uncertainty abounds. For example, a potential downside to the centralized storefront approach, at least for apps developers, is that most apps on App Store (and all apps on Android Market) are free. Also, according to BusinessWeek, the App Store has attracted so many developers that it's become much harder for them to get their apps noticed. Meanwhile, users of Nokia's Comes With Music may soon realize that 'free' music doesn't necessarily mean free data download charges that service providers will probably bill separately. DRM that ties the music tracks to Nokia Comes With Music handsets is also likely to cause some headaches for users.

As for Google, it's no secret that the real objective of Android isn't to sell handsets or sell apps - it's to make mobile internet easier to use, and to help Google figure out how people will use it so that it can eventually build a workable mobile advertising model around it.

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