Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Not So Smart Phones

As part of my job, I carry a Blackberry, which I use as a mobile phone, an email client, and a web browsing device. It has undeniably benefited my productivity and flexibility- I'm tapping this note as I wait in a train, stopped in a tunnel for some unknown reason- but through my incessant usage I've identified some ways in which it could be enormously improved:

1) Always show the time!

The only screen in which the time is visible is the 'home' screen, which is only visible when I'm either doing nothing, or in the process of selecting an app to launch. Once I'm actually doing something (such as composing this blog post on the train) the current time is hidden, and I would have to save this message as a draft and exit the 'mail' application, or look at my watch- which seems like a brutish workaround for an otherwise advanced piece of technology.

2) Allow sensible multitasking

Multitasking has different demands on a mobile device than a desktop computer- it doesn't make sense to have both your web browser and your email client open at the same time, due to limited screen real estate and the methods of interaction unique to mobile email and web. However, there are times when I wish for at least limited multitasking- mainly when I'm using the Blackberry as a phone. Typically, I'll be gabbing away on the phone and the individual on the other side will ask me about my availability for a meeting, or need some info from an email I've sent or received- and I'll have to apologize, explaining that the info they need is on the device I'm using to speak with them, and that I won't be able to access it until I terminate the call.

This may be a limitation of my current device- a corp-issued Blackberry 7250- my carrier's version of the software, or even myself- there may be a way to swap into another app while I'm talking. If there is, I haven't found it- during a call all I see is a button indicating how to end the call. Being able to look up contacts or access email during a call would be a welcome improvement (and something I seem to recall was possible on my dear departed Sidekick II- but that may just be nostalgia talking).

3) More info about incoming email, please!

Similar to the note above about poor multitasking, I'd like some more informative notification of the content of incoming e-mails.

When I'm tapping away at an email, or browsing the web, new incoming email is denoted by a blinking red light on the device. Urgent messages from my boss get the same treatment as a piece of spam... blink blink blink. If I want to stay on top of incoming emails I need to interrupt my session to view the latest messages.

A brief popup preview, with the subject, sender and first line of text, overlayed on the top of the screen would be extremely helpful. If it's something I want to see, I could 'jog' up and select it to view the full message, or I could 'cancel' to dismiss it if its presence offends me- or I could just wait a few seconds for it to disappear on its own. Either way, I could continue my current task secure in the knowledge that I wasn't missing anything important.

4) Spell check- even a painfully slow one, please!

This entire post was tapped out on my Blackberry- it's how I pass the time on various trains and buses I travel on each day. The email composing software is savvy enough to catch common misspellings- it will automatically correct a transposition in 'their' for instance- but it falls down in both grammar (it won't catch the dropped 'd' in 'peas an carrots') nor will it catch longer manglings, such as 'portotyppe'.

This weak spellchecker is unfortunate, since the cramped ergonomics of the thumboard and the pint sized screen make it more likely that I'm going to commit a typo. I understand that space and processing power are limited on a handheld. How about a function where I can submit my composed email to some online spell checker that then returns it with errors flagged along with a little XML payload that lets me choose from possible guesses? Google and Blogger seem to do a pretty good job with online spell checkers- I'd wait ten seconds for a submit and response if it means a cleaner outgoing email from my Blackberry.

I suspect some or most of these shortcomings will be addressed by upcoming handsets, more purpose built for mobile work (such as the iPhone) and more aware of the challenges and opportunities posed by mobile multitasking. None of my requests require new technology to be developed- they just require some thoughtfulness and good interface design.

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