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27/4/09

I tried speed dating once. Boy was it fun. A couple of dozen men lining up for their turn to talk to me. I don’t think I was quite as popular with the other girls but then perhaps I shouldn’t have worn that top. One of the daftest questions I kept being asked in my five minutes was “what kind of man do you like”.

The thing is you like different men for different things. More than just the bloke you marry and the boy you go out with; it is the variety which makes life interesting. The same is true of mobile phones. A constant cry from operators, developers and handset manufacturers is that we need less device fragmentation. That there should be continuity of the experience, that it’s too expensive to support all these devices.

Yet what consumers want is variety: Go into a supermarket they don’t sell one kind of bread, or one kind of potatoes. Developers might ask for fewer OSes or UIs or whatever thinking that they are serving consumers interests but the opposite is true.

One of the reason that the apps on the Blackberry Apps store are so pitifully bad is that they have been written for something else and ported.  The joy of Java. Standards don’t make things better they make them worse. iPhone apps are written from the ground up for the iPhone and that makes them great.

Fragmentation is a good thing, we want different experiences from different devices. The Blackberry should have made-for-trackball games like Centipede and Missile Command. Sony Ericsson has put the tilt sensor to good use with shake control and Marble Madness.

It’s the Mobile Experience Conference in a few weeks time and the speakers will no doubt  prize the value of understanding the rich tapestry of different needs and people, what so often missed is that they need an even wider, richer set of solutions to meet those needs. Tilt sensors could detect if an older user has taken a tumble, cameras used for measurement of relative distances.

When you try to cater for all kinds of people with one hardware and software solution it all falls down. You add more and more features to serve the richer experiences until you get cognitive overload. It’s ironic that the greatest work on this is the Nokia book Mobile Usability which I’ve mentioned in the past, and yet the user interface which is most suffering from this is the latest incarnation of Series 40. We need to start from the ground up and for this an excellent source is the Inclusive Design Toolkit.

Mobile phones sell in millions. No-one thinks twice about a custom UI for a personal music player that might only sell 50,000 yet it seems to be impossible for a phone. It’s only when a tailored experience like Blackberry comes along that people notice how much nicer it is.

I don’t recommend trying to go out with more than one man at a time just so that you get the variety, but I do recommend having different devices to do different things. It might make life harder for operators and developers but it’s easier for consumers.

Cat Keynes publishes her thoughts on the mobile phone industry every Sunday at www.catkeynes.com you can read the column  the previous Friday by subscribing here.
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