Designing mobile presence: The Nokia N75 and the web

I don’t use my cell phone for voice nearly as much as I use it for internet access. About a year ago I was ready to update my then two year old Samsung cell phone for many reasons; one was because it couldn’t run java applications. After working at Vulcan on the FlipStart for a year, I’d knew it was possible to access real time traffic and bus information, view rss feeds, gmail and and google maps, or run an app called Widsets (basically widgets for a mobile device), but you needed a phone capable of java. I also wanted a robust browser and was not impressed with what I’d demo’d on the Blackberry, the Trio and other cellular devices.

Sometime last year Nokia’s Symbian 60 (mobile OS) came out with a cool new browser that received rave reviews for it’s ability to display full size websites that could be selectively zoomed. I had fond memories of the Nokia UI from my first cell phone many moons ago and had read enough to believe they had the best UI currently available. I really hated the Samsung UI and hadn’t seen anything better on other brands of phones. Unfortunately, none of the US providers were offering S60 devices at that time and didn’t feel comfortable buying an unlocked phone that wasn’t supported through a carrier. So I waited. I’m good at that.

In January the iPhone buzz began. Apple was redefining the user interface for a mobile device. The product was stunning. So although I was still waiting for a US carrier to offer a S60 device, I briefly considered buying an iPhone six monthes hence. The thing is, I never buy the first generation of anything – especially something as revolutionary as the iPhone. I’d much rather let the early adaptors blow the big bucks on the first gen device while I wait for the bugs to get fixed and the price to come down.

Finally word came down in April that Cingular the new AT&T was offering the Nokia N75. This was precisely the phone I wanted. And since Cingular had a five year lock on the iPhone, I could rationalize the two year contract, as I can switch to the iPhone next year. So I bought the N75 for a sweet $150 from Wirefly.com

I’m now three weeks into my experience with the phone. And although I do think the UI is far superior to my three year old Samsung, I’m sadly not blown away. I’ll provide one example for this post with more observations to follow.

It took me DAYS to locate the S60 browser.

Cingular places MEdia Net, their internet portal, on the top level screen via a softkey. The UI for their service is – well – uninspired and clunky, with a design that looks straight out of 2002 (and that’s generous.) Their goal, one assumes, is to keep you in a walled garden of content — not really let you explore the wild world of the web where their chances of monetization are greatly reduced.

So where was the GOOD browser – the one that would burst me free of mobile web constraints? Nokia has about 12 categories in their top level menu. One is called “Games and Apps”, and that’s where Gmail landed when I downloaded it so you might think it would live in there. Nope. I finally stumbled across a link called “Web” in a folder called “Tools” There’s nothing to suggest this web link is any different from the Cingular MEdia Net link as the icon is exactly the same, so imagine my surprise when it indeed launched a new browser with the S60 zoom capabilities. Days after desiring and searching for this well touted feature, I’d finally FOUND it.

What’s wrong with this picture? The primary driver for my purchase took my hours to find. And I WANTED to find it. The user guide didn’t tell me where to find it. An hour’s worth of research online didn’t tell me where to find it. Cingular’s website didn’t tell me where to find it. I had to stumble across it and take a stab after having already taken many other stumbling stabs that hadn’t found a target. This experience did nothing to enamour me to either the new AT&T (there, I said it) or Nokia. While I would love to build some brand loyalty to a manufactor and/or a carrier, it hasn’t happened yet.

More observations to come.

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