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CTIA: Thin Phones and Fat Interfaces

The recent CTIA show in Las Vegas was awash in new mobile phones. If you didn’t make it to the show, here’s one highlight and one lowlight:
The highlight: Thin is in. The hot-selling Motorola Razr kicked off a thickness-reduction craze among mobile phone companies. Motorola now has several thin phones, and Samsung has copied them and in some cases created even thinner devices.
The biggest loser in the slim-down campaign is Nokia. Dominant in most of the world but an also-ran in the US market, Nokia has been investing heavily in trying to build up its American presence. But just as Nokia missed the trend to flip phones several years ago, Nokia missed the trend to thinness. As a result, its new phones feel thick and plastic compared to the sleek metallic wafers coming out of Motorola and Samsung.
The lowlight: User interface (again). There seems to be a general rule for mobile phone interfaces: the more sophisticated a phone’s hardware is, the more impenetrable the user interface will be. The interfaces of many mobile phones seem to be designed according to the same principles as Las Vegas casinos – the glitzier the better. Why use easily understood words to label a function when you can substitute a cute color icon? And why use just a static icon when you can have it bounce around and animate when the user selects it, or better yet have several more icons pop out of it to the accompaniment of a sproingy sound effect?
What the phone industry doesn’t understand is that the interface needs for a mobile data device are very different from the interface needs of a traditional mobile phone. A phone that does just voice and texting can have a fairly playful interface because it’s only doing a couple of things and the user isn’t too likely to get lost. But the goal of a data device interface must be first and foremost to be usable. If people can’t figure out how to find the data service, or how to use it, the whole purpose of the device is defeated. That means as the phones get more sophisticated, the interfaces need to become more simplified. Right now the interfaces are going in the opposite direction.

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