Five Things Nokia Needs To Address To Beat The iPhone

Update: Fast forward a year and four months later, and even S60 fans are griping about lack of consistency. Competition is good – it makes you realize your favorite platform isn’t perfect. Still, the annoying thing for me is that although this piece is routinely linked to from Nokia sites, there hasn’t been much practical improvement in a year’s time (my phone of the year for 2008, the E71, still exhibits most of the same failings).

So, all that mulling about the Series 60 and the daily use of a new 3rd Edition model has finally driven me to write about Nokia and what I think they should do.

The interesting thing about this article is that I could just as well write mostly the same regarding SonyEricsson (with an extra twist due to their Walkman co-branded handsets), but never about Motorola (who clearly doesn’t hold a candle to either) or some of the others.

What can they do about the iPhone, then? Well, quite honestly, they most likely can’t beat the hype surrounding it. But they can improve what they have to a good degree, and maybe even (just maybe) come out in front again.

To the Mac zealots currently scampering around the surrounding underbrush preparing to call me a traitor for dissing the iPhone – I use a Mac because it’s the best UNIX environment on the planet, not because it’s from Apple. Read the About pages and stop sniping.

1. The Series 60 UI is Horrendously Complex

I’ve been known to rant about this in the past, but I don’t think mere words suffice anymore. And even if pictures are worth a thousand words, I just don’t think pictures are enough here too.

So I did a little usability exercise: I mapped out the menu tree from a current Series 60 3rd Edition phone, and came up with this mindmap:

Get the Flash Player to see this mindmap.
I also have a PDF version with the e-mail options partially expanded - the top-level Settings tree is so big I couldn’t find a way to print it.

Bubbles are icons (either standalone applications or icons within applications). Forks are listings, input fields, you name it.

Notice that, although you can assign whatever you like to the six home screen icon shortcuts and to the two soft keys1, things like the call log, creating a new message and finding the media you want are three to six clicks away from the home screen – and that’s assuming you know that using the number keys will open the corresponding icon.

Most people use the directional pad to navigate, which triples the average amount of clicks required to get anywhere.

It takes three clicks to get to the calculator (assuming you know where it is), and although upcoming calendar appointments can be displayed on the home screen (as a sort of implicit shortcut to the application), that’s also three clicks deep.

Those of you who wrote in saying that icons are movable to anyplace in the menu tree are right, and yet have missed the point – it is very difficult for the average user to find most phone functions, and things haven’t changed that much since 2005.

Even though the phones are now much faster, the main point is that you still have to jump through a number of hoops to accomplish even simple tasks in a Series 60 phone. Even sending an SMS is horrendously complex and requires a number of operations (getting to the message editor, moving down into the edit field, tapping it out, picking the person I want to send it to from my contacts, then picking the right number, etc…)

Now try to change your e-mail signature to read “Sent from my nPhone”. It’s almost impossible to find it on the first go (or even the second time around, unless you’re very familiar with Series 60 devices).

Too tricky, you say? Too application-specific? OK, look for Bluetooth settings. Or for a music track, or for the last call you missed (in case you dismissed the home screen alert). It’s all buried a number of levels deep.

And, for an encore, try to find one of the applications I installed myself. Go on.

Let’s compare that menu tree to the iPhone’s.

Oh wait, everything’s on the home screen (except settings), so there’s actually no point in drawing a menu tree for the iPhone.

Those of you who don’t get that the above paragraph is ironic need to re-read some of my older posts. My point here isn’t that the iPhone’s spartan range of choices is good (it is, in fact, rather limiting), it’s that Nokia needs to stop designing UIs with such a tremendous amount of clutter and redundancy (note that you can actually find some things in two different places in the mindmap above…)

A two-year-old can find the video they want to watch on it – there’s ample proof of that on YouTube, and until Nokia fundamentally rethinks their UI, they haven’t got a chance2

2. Feeling is Believeing

No, I’m not going to go on about touch screens. I don’t think a touch screen is a must to beat the iPhone (more on that below).

My first thought when I picked up the N95 wasn’t regarding the size (it’s humungous, causing a seriously embarassing bulge in any kind of pocket, as if you carried a pet tumor around) – I had used an N80 previously, so I was used to the Nokia brick-like form factor.

No, my first thought was “800 Euro for this cheap greenish plastic?”

The thing looked like it was made in China (in the dodgy sense, since some of them actually are these days), and, worse of all, felt like it too. And I’m not talking about pre-production samples (I handle plenty of those, and am used to unfinished plastics) – I was handling a commercial device.

As a counter-example, allow me to point out that the E61 quickly became a favorite for people hesitant between it and the BlackBerry due to the magnesium alloy backplate.

You picked one up and it felt cool and solid, quite unlike the Blackberry’s usual plastics. Never mind if the keyboard input and the e-mail experience is inferior, people perceived the E61 as solid and long-lasting.

3. Design Needs To Be Clean, Not Crufty

As a sideline from casing materials, someone at Nokia needs to take a long, hard look at their product line and start shaving off the gratuitous coloring, festooned plastics and absolutely hideous UI color themes that they have been shipping.

I still don’t think it was a coincidence that they won awards for simple, straightforward phones (like the 8800, for starters) and not for their fashion line’s hideousness.

I would suggest tattooing the sentence “Less is more” on the tips of their designer’s fingers, were it not something that Catbert would go out and patent as a design guideline as soon as this post hits the net.

4. Symbian is (Sort Of) OK, Now Ship It In Decent Hardware

The biggest advantage I see Nokia as having is their OS. And I don’t mean that regarding their developer community, or the way in which you can just drop in pretty standard media formats via an USB cable3 and have them work – all of those are things that Apple can counter with a few fanatically devoted developers and firmware updates.

And yet, they cripple it beyond measure by shipping devices that are slow and/or have barely enough RAM to get by. The Series 60 platform is legendary for its “Out of memory” errors and sluggishness, none of which can be attributed to the OS – especially not when licensees like Samsung are actually shipping faster and more responsive devices than Nokia’s own.

Witness the slickness of the iPhone UI and the way Apple has turned the experience into one of perceived speed (or less attrition in getting to what you want, however you care to name it) only once, and all your expectations about how fast phones should do things are pumped up several notches4.

5. Point And Miss Browsing

And after having covered UI design, physical hardware, plastics, we finally come to the most obvious application of haptics on a mobile phone, and the keystone of Apple’s approach: Browsing.

Nokia has been using WebKit for a good while now, and the browser is just about every bit as good as a desktop browser when you understand the memory and interaction compromises involved in stuffing it into a phone with a keypad.

And yet, the thing is almost unusable on many of their devices due both to the way the cursor is “unsmartly” positioned atop links and to the invariably poor quality of Nokia directional pads/keys/rings (you name it, they tried it).

Now, I happen to believe that a touch screen is not essential for good interaction – in fact, it is a possible hindrance. For starters, I’m one of those people who carries their keys in the same pocket as my phone, and who likes to be able to use tactile feedback to text without looking at the keyboard or screen5.

Not to mention, of course, that it makes for more expensive devices. But my point is that it isn’t necessary for Nokia to go banging down Balda’s door just yet.

They can simply deliver better interaction and cursor control without adopting touch screens, and there is partial proof of that available today:

The Opera Mini 4 beta currently beats the proverbial waste out of WebKit on Series 60, not just due to its smart navigation features, but also due to my actually being able to position the cursor where I want (regardless of auto-snap to links and whatnot).

And besides moving the cursor more accurately, I can also scroll faster (much faster), and full-page previews are much easier to navigate.

Ironically, Nokia could have fixed this to a very large degree by adopting a Pearl-like trackball mechanism that actually let you move the browser cursor around in a more natural way.

After all, it isn’t as if they are entirely alien to the concept (remember the 7110 scroller?).

I suppose they will, eventually, go down the touch screen route (hopefully not with the N800 technology, OS or UI), but until then, they could do a lot of the smart moves they’ve been postponing so far.

1 Assuming your handset isn’t operator branded, of course. 

2 Granted, there aren’t many two-year-olds shelling out the price of a desktop computer for a phone, but you get the idea. 

3 And yet, although it has taken years for Nokia to ship standard USB ports in phones, they are still useless for charging. 

4 Yes, there are some pokey aspects to Safari and mail, but, on the whole, the thing feels like greased lightning when compared to just about any other phone. 

5 I’m also heavily myopic, which means I have gotten used to doing a lot of things by touch when I’m not wearing my glasses.