More Than Just a Pretty Face
By Eric Lin, Thu Oct 28 23:30:00 GMT 2004

Now that the networks are up and the handsets are down to a reasonable size, the user interface is where 3G needs the most work.

3G's shaky start is no secret. Chip manufacturers and handset makers have dedicated all their efforts to creating phones with the right hardware features. They needed to be smaller, more powerful, and longer lasting. After a year of hard work, handsets have finally come to market that meet these demands. Well designed phones may convince users to sign up for a 3G subscription, but it will take well designed interfaces and software to convince them to use 3G services.

Everyone from Motorola to Intel to UbiNetics claims manufacturers were too overwhelmed with new engineering issues that arose with 3G handsets to focus on the user interface. Now that those initial problems have been solved, companies are actively testing interfaces just as they have with 2G phones. However 3G phones present new problems for interface designers as well as engineers. It is difficult to develop small, easy to use interfaces when there are so many new features that must be packed into 3G devices. Even advanced users of 2G handsets are still novices when it comes to 3G, so designers must create solutions that work, even for novice users.

One conclusion many manufacturers are reaching is that a simple interface is actually a combination of software and hardware. If a feature is buried in a menu, most users are unlikely to use it, or even find it. However a hardware button that instantly takes the user to a video call setup, a music player, or a carrier portal, makes that feature much easier to use. Designers still must prioritize which features are most important to 3G subscribers, since filling up a phone's surface area with too many hardware buttons is just as confusing as an overcrowded menu.

Manufacturers can help simplify access to applications that are on the phone, however it will be the carriers that have to simplify access to applications that are online. 2G networks already are packed with too many applications, content pages, and ringtones for most customers to find the rare gem that will appeal to their particular sensibilities. If carriers want to interest users in 3G applications, they will have to come up with ways to help subscribers find the content they want. Just as link blogs help Internet users find sites that interest them, mobile users need a resource to find worthwhile mobile content.

Philip McKinney, VP and CTO for the network/service provider business unit of HP suggests that operators could build consumer profiles of what subscribers buy or the sites they visit, similar to what supermarkets or large brands do for their customers. This would help them suggest similar content to those subscribers. Carriers could also let users build their own profiles, much like how Sony's StreamMan allows users to select their favorite genres and fine tune their preferences based on those channels. The model that works best on the desktop is probably the least likely to succeed on the mobile. Since most operators do not allow users to access pages outside their own content, subscribers would have no way to browse or then act on user created link blogs.