Mobile devices, particularly smartphones, are often introduced and talked about as sole entities with this feature and that feature. The spec sheets about the devices and the review of the hardware and software running on them is usually the focal point. But what is often left out is the interaction of the device with the larger system. Sure, reviews tend to include quality of reception on a carrier’s network and what features tend to be locked down (e.g. MMS, IM). But what is often missing is talk about the ecosystem. Here I’m talking about how well the phone is supported through OS updates, how easy it is to find/download/install applications, etc.
The experience of the device – i.e. the full user experience — isn’t about device specifications. If the device is built well and has solid hardware and software under the hood, the specifications shouldn’t matter. In fact, if done well, the particular specs (e.g. camera resolution, screen resolution, speakerphone loudness, etc.) should fade into the background and fall out of focus for the user. The user can then focus on the tasks – sending a message to a friend, taking a picture, placing a call. It is when the hardware and software isn’t up to snuff that they become more obvious, more obtrusive, and tend to interfere with the user experience.
But getting back to the often one-sided reviews – leaving the ecosystem out of the discussion and focusing just on the device provides only half the picture. Getting my first Blackberry – a 7100 from T-Mobile – is a case in point. I had had several Treos and two Sidekicks by then, but was really interested in this device that looked and felt like a phone (tall/narrow) but had smartphone features. I was particularly interested in the modified QWERTY – the SureType keyboard – which seemed to be a nice compromise between the standard T9 entry and a full QWERTY (like on the Treos and Sidekicks). I spent time learning how to navigate the often cryptic menu system. I felt like I was becoming a power user as I learned more and more shortcuts and settings. But what I really started to long for was additional applications. Where do could I find applications for a Blackberry, for my particular Blackberry. I relied on reading Blackberry Forums to find the nuggets, the cool apps, along with the reviews of these apps by discerning Blackberry Forum members. But the apps were all over the place. Often, the could be downloaded from the app’s website. This frequently involved downloading it to your computer and then uploading it to the device during a sync – similar to the Palm Desktop model. Occasionally I’d find direct downloads to my device (which I thought was the coolest thing – no computer involved!) But all of this was work, and it felt like needless work. Why couldn’t all the apps be co-located in one place, searchable by the type of Blackberry I had? And why couldn’t they all be downloaded to the device directly? If I could do it with a few of the apps, why not all?
It seemed to me that RIM should have been in charge of corralling all of these into one place. To me, and I’m sure to a lot of people, having the ability to quickly and easily add functionality to my device so I could do more things was not just a feature, but part of my overall experience. And it seemed that RIM didn’t quite pull this together. Maybe it’s not the device manufacturer’s issue? My frustration was with a particular device, but in a way it was with the carrier as well. Either way, the ecosystem could have been much better and to stay competitive in the consumer space I think creating and maintaining a robust ecosystem aroudn a device is key.