Fancy hardware is all well and good, but the one battleground that really counts in the war between the major mobile handset and service providers is the user interface. Moreover, there is still plenty to play for – we need handsets that anticipate our every need, just like Batman’s butler Alfred.
Nokia’s ascent to the top of the handset market was built on the easy-to-use voice and text-messaging UI in its handsets. Apple’s recent meteoric rise is being driven by the iPhone’s slick app-based UI, which broke new ground by making mobile Internet services a pleasure, rather than a chore, to use.
Playing catch-up, Google’s tactics with Android are to cede control of the UI to persuade handset makers and mobile operators to adopt the software. That means China Mobile, Motorola, HTC, Sony Ericsson and other Android converts can differentiate themselves with their own distinctive UIs, but it also means that Google’s services don’t necessarily get the prominence the Internet giant would like. Google runs the risk of seeing its search engine and mapping services, as well as its more avant-garde software, such as voice recognition and augmented reality, getting as little play as they do on the iPhone. In which case, Android does little for Google’s broader strategic ambition to be the leading broker of advertising in the mobile market.
Google’s response, according to TechCrunch, will be to build such a great UI into the next version of Android that no handset maker or mobile operator will ever want to tinker with it. Nice idea, but I suspect that won’t do much to reduce the fragmentation of Android, which is being fuelled by corporate ego and the need to differentiate. Google will only deter the tinkerers if it comes up with a major UI breakthrough that really trumps the iPhone.
To speak or not to speak
Ironically, some commentators believe Apple is about to achieve the next UI breakthrough – they point to its recent acquisition of virtual personal assistant Siri, which uses voice-recognition technology and an amalgamation of web services to reinvent the mobile user interface. Siri, which has generally had good reviews, apparently enables you to use fairly natural voice commands to ask the phone to complete an administrative task, such as finding and then booking a table at a local, romantic Italian restaurant. Siri does this by drawing on existing web services, many of them run by Google’s rivals, such as Yelp and Yahoo! Local. This is a bit of a headache for Google – if Siri takes off, it could replace the search engine and curb Google’s ability to broker advertising.
Anyone with an Android phone will know that Google already gives people the option of speaking, rather than typing, search terms into the handset. But they will also know that the technology is a bit erratic. Speaking the words “romantic Italian restaurant” into my Nexus One produced the search term “Mount Everest”, which is quite funny, but not very helpful. Admittedly, I have an English, not Californian, accent and the radio was on in the background. But, hey, this is real-life. Siri only works in the U.S. right now, so I haven’t been able to test it.
In any case, for me, voice-recognition isn’t going to be the breakthrough – I am quite happy typing in short search terms. Surely, the holy grail has to be a service that takes the contextual information it knows about me and then makes real-time suggestions. For example, if the service knows my tastes in music, knows my location and it is a Saturday and I’m probably not working, it could flag a couple of local concerts on my home screen. Ideally, it would already know I have three children and with one touch of the home screen I could book five tickets for a concert down the road. It would then tell me that the next train leaves in 20 minutes or there are eight free spaces in the nearest car-park.
Business travellers would also benefit. As soon as I land at London Heathrow, I want the home screen of my handset to draw on live transport information and show me how long it would take and how much it would cost to get home by train, tube or taxi. With one touch, I should then be able to buy a ticket or book a cab.
There would only be one way to improve on that – send Alfred to pick me up in the Batmobile.