Everyone welcome me back to the frustrating world of feature phones. Given the bills we have, Mrs. Fetched had been complaining for a long time about how much having iPhones cost us, and when my iPhone 3G started flaking out just as our contract was finished, it seemed like the time to downgrade.
Just to make things a little simpler, all three of us (the parental units plus Daughter Dearest) got Sony-Ericsson W518a “Walkman” phones. I usually steer clear of Sony products, since they seem to go out of their way to make them incompatible with Macs sometimes, but they offer software on their website to connect with iSync and iLife apps, so I thought I’d make an exception. Everything pretty much works as advertised. Because we’re on AT&T, and not Verizon, we can connect a USB cable (or use Bluetooth) and copy pictures to the computer, music and ringtones from the computer, and so forth.
Feature phones have made noticeable advancements in the last two years: they’re faster, have more megapixels in the camera of course, they play AAC as well as MP3 files, some have FM radios built in, and the default web browsers are a little better. But what hasn’t changed is the horrendous interface: a twisty maze of menus, all different. This led to an epiphany of sorts on my part: people are missing what the iPhone really did different. It isn’t the app store; I can press one button on my Sony to visit an app store. It isn't the touch screen; for some things buttons work better. What the iPhone did that’s radically different is twofold:
1) Everything (including the phone) is an application.
2) All apps can be accessed equally, or in a low hierarchy defined by the user.
Feature phones provide a lot of the same features that iPhones have, and several (including FM and even XM radio) that iPhones don’t have — or got after the 3G (camera controls, video recording, voice control) — if you can remember which cascade of menus to step through to find them. On an iPhone, or any related device (iPad, iPod touch), the menu is the main screen. That’s it. Yes, there are hierarchies, but they consist of a strip of icons at the bottom that appear on all pages, and a double-click of the Home button to return you to the first page. For most people, up to two flicks and a tap start any app on the iPhone.
I remember enjoying Platinum Sudoku on my old feature phone (a Samsung Sync), so I bought it for my new phone. To get to it, I have to: click the Menu button, press 9 (the “Entertainment” sub-menu), arrow-down twice to Games, select, then arrow-down four times to get past the demoware they stuff on all non-iPhones… then I can (pant, wheeze) select the Sudoku game. On an iPhone, I’d have already been filling in spaces by now.
Why can’t feature phones have a better user interface (besides the obvious, carriers and manufacturers are lazy and complacent)? Shoot, borrow a leaf from the iPhone. Display up to nine icons on the screen (optionally overlaid with numbers), use the 1–9 button grid to pick the app you want, left and right function keys move from page to page, arrow keys are programmable like they are now. You’ve got the buttons, make them work for you.