The Luddite Backlash
By Carlo Longino, Fri Dec 05 07:45:00 GMT 2003

As mobile phones grow more feature-rich, a growing number of users are resisting the trends to move to smartphones and advanced devices, expressing preferences for simpler devices with improved basic functionality. Is technology moving too quickly and passing most people by? Is the industry's emphasis on shoehorning as many cool functions into a device as possible causing them to overlook basic functions?


It's easy to get lost in a community of early adopters obsessed with the latest and greatest devices and services, and to forget that technogeeks and gadget freaks are the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of people don't know and don't care about Series 60 versus UIQ, Symbian versus Windows Mobile, or GSM versus CDMA. SMS is the extent of most peoples' foray into mobile data, and that's a stretch in some places, like America. And while we're here fawning over our new P900 or 6600 or Treo 600, there are plenty of people still carrying first- or second-generation digital phones. They perform basic tasks well, they're simple, and most importantly, these people are comfortable with them.

Conversely, advanced devices make these people uncomfortable. Color screens start to freak them out, then the polyphonic ringtones set them off -- and don't even mention camera phones. The moment of clarity for them comes when they've finally got to replace that old phone, only to be confronted by their carrier with today's more advanced devices. They'll typically replace their device with the cheapest, bottom of the line handset, and then complain (not necessarily without merit) that the reception's not as good or they can't get to their contacts as quickly on in their old phone.

It's easy for carriers and manufacturers to get lost in the excitement and wonder of something like streaming video to a handset, but sometimes that comes at the cost of overlooking very basic functionality -- like simple voice calls, for instance. It's great that my carrier, AT&T Wireless, has launched EDGE nationwide, but what good does that do me in the middle of a huge dead spot right on one of Austin's major highways? They've spent a considerable amount of money equipping their network for EDGE and remaking their mMode portal in XHTML when their coverage is still severely lacking.

Device makers aren't off the hook, either. Phones are approaching the functionality of computers -- and don't forget the incorporated MP3 players, and cameras, and everything else. But these features contribute to the luddites' favorite complaint, shortened battery life, and don't do anything to help with sound quality or RF performance. My first color-screen phone, from a manufacturer I won't name, was great -- it let me read the display saying "No Network" in 256 colors. At least I had a nice background to admire in lieu of it not dropping calls.

All the while, some of us are talking about ways to increase phones' features and functionality, ways to make smartphones even smarter. But what about dumb phones for smart people? Of course there's a range of phones with different feature sets and functionalities available, but carriers are keen to push the latest advanced models in hopes of driving data usage. Often this has the opposite effect, however, merely underlining peoples' resistance to these devices and services when they've got a handset with functions they're unaware of and don't understand, and little support available to help them.

A recent survey in the UK showed nearly a third of smartphone users have problems with the full range of features of their phone -- and consider this was a survey likely dominated by early adopters. An almost equal percentage had no idea how to download additional programs to the phone, and 20% were interested in getting e-mail on the device, but had no idea how to do it.

So what can carriers and manufacturers do to minimize and overcome these problems? First, they musn't forget and neglect basic functions. A smartphone, after all, is still a phone -- and making it more like a laptop shouldn't necessarily make it less like a phone. For carriers, they'd do well to give basic network functions, like coverage and capacity, equal or greater priority to advanced ones like high-speed data.

Second, they must focus on usability, both of devices and services. Advanced functionality and rich features shouldn't equal a complex and convoluted user interface. Device makers must make these new features easy to use -- and to set up -- while not letting basic functions like contacts or phonebooks get lost in the shuffle. Carriers seem to have learned from NTT DoCoMo that ease of use must drive all their data services, though many still cling on to outmoded portals and outdated ideas, like their walled gardens.

Finally, the industry must commit to strengthening its education and support efforts. That doesn't mean beefier user manuals, but rather making people aware of the capabilities of their devices and the services offered by the carriers through more intelligent marketing and significant after-purchase support. Too often services are hidden behind acronyms -- WAP has no meaning to an average user, and how should they know what MMS is or does? Come up with a useful name, like picture messaging. How hard is that? And support the user after they've plunked down a lot of money for a cool new handset. Use online tutorials with integrated OTA setup tools to get them going quickly and make them aware of and comfortable with all the new features at their disposal.

The message here isn't to slow down the industry, but rather to not ignore those people that don't move quite so fast. Basic, core functionality shouldn't be neglected at the expense of flashy new features.