Design by Committee

A while back I upgraded to an HTC Touch (well, technically a T-Mobile MDA Touch Plus) because I wanted to try out a ‘Smart Phone’ and T-Mobile was willing to let me have it for £15 and helped me to adjust my account so that I get ‘unlimited’ (known is the real world as 1GB) data access for the same price as my existing plan. Plus, the iPhone is only available from O2 here in the UK.

It’s been a few weeks now and I have had a few thoughts on its user-interface, but they can be summed up in the old saying that a camel is a horse designed by committee. I used to have a SonyEriccson K-something-or-other (a 750, IIRC) and SE phones aren’t sexy but they are damned good phones. They also last forever on each battery charge and sync properly with my MacBook Pro.

Of course, what I gained with this fancy new thing is the ability to smear my screen with my greasy mitts in such a way as to be unable to read anything in bright daylight (I guess it’s a good thing I live in London) and swear in frustration at the tiny targets (i.e. touch buttons) that I can only hit if I curl my finger in such a way as to hit the screen with my nail. Say what you will about Apple’s iPhone (a.k.a. The Jesus Phone), but at least they’re willing to pick a touch-friendly style and stick with it.

The HTC Touch phone feels like someone thought they could bolt some touch-friendly features on top of what is a fundamentally point-and-click-and-a-keyboard OS. Why the hell does my phone now take over a minute to start up? I assume it’s because it’s starting a whole host of services that I’ll never want or use and have no way of disabling. The SE phones start up in about 10-15 seconds flat, but what’s really smart is that they seem to make features available as they are processed, rather than waiting until everything is hunky-dorry. So you can pick a contact number while still waiting for your phone to find the network.

But now I have to wait for F-Secure (which I don’t appear to be able to uninstall using only software available to my Mac) to complete its warm-up process before I can dismiss the alarms that went off and then poke around to get to the contacts. Which brings me to the contacts. This is currently assigned to the left soft-button. Which is the same soft-button used by the phone to enable me to access missed Reminders. But if I don’t want to dismiss a reminder right away, then I can no longer access the contacts except through the start menu because that button has changed to just read ‘Reminders’. And I can’t switch this function off even though I can still access reminders from the top menu using the bell icon which also alerts me to missed reminders. Thanks.

And to add insult to injury, all of my contacts can only be listed in the order Last Name, First Name. Gee, that’s useful. It’s been ages since I spoke to Lynch, Dave or Batty, Mike. Maybe I should call my dad Reades, Denys. Yep, it’s a phone so it makes sense that it works just like an Outlook address book database. WTF?

I also now appreciate the enormous jump that the iPhone’s browser represents to us users.  Safari starts out by showing the entire width of the page and then, using your fingers, you can zoom in on the area of interest. Since most web sites have a fairly standard layout you can skip over the chrome and get straight to the content this way. IE for mobiles resamples images so that they fit width-wize (but not text) and there’s no ability to zoom in and out, nor is there a gyro to automatically change the layout of the phone from portrait to landscape. So half the time, when I open a web page and I’m too lazy to dig through some other set of menus to change the orientation of the phone then all I see is white because the page content doesn’t start until further down. So using a grid search pattern I have to go scrolling for the bit of information I was actually interested in because there’s no other way (including a ‘Find’ feature as far as I can tell) to locate it.

Wait, I hear you asking, is there anything you do like about this damned phone? Well yes. For starters, it’s fairly thin so I don’t feel like I’m carrying around a brick in my pocket. But rather more importantly it recharges over a standard mini-USB cable. So now when I travel with my laptop the only thing I need to carry with me in order to recharge both my Bluetooth headset and my mobile phone is a 6″ USB cable. That’s pretty cool and a nice choice by HTC. I also like HSDPA access when I can find it in downtown London. It’s fast. Really fast.

The email client is also quite good since it’s basically Outlook Express. Uh, I never thought I’d say that about Outlook Express, and I guess all I mean is that I’m not locked to some asinine walled-garden system provided by the telco. I have full IMAP mail access to both of my university accounts (UCL & MIT), as well as to my personal account (Gmail). That’s pretty sweet and I can customise how much of each email gets downloaded along with how far back to go (1 day, 3 days, 1 week, 1 month, Forever). Given how much junk is sitting in my inboxes I figured that 3 days was about the right balance. Apparently, this will sync online with an Outlook 2007 server, but the only thing I have is SyncMate which, to give them credit, appears to work rather well and well worth the $40 that a single-user license costs.