Cell phones unusable? A ready-made problem for Apple?

Summary:Today's cellphones are unusable. Don't believe me (or my bitchin' and complaining about the latest greatest Treo)?

Today's cellphones are unusable. Don't believe me (or my bitchin' and complaining about the latest greatest Treo)? Then check out this story on the Discovery Channel's Web site (found it by way of Stephen O'Grady... Who says no one reads link blogs?):

Most cell phone customers don't use the camera, email, or gaming options offered by their wireless providers. According a survey by JD Power and Associates, most are satisfied when they can simply place a call efficiently....The organization surveyed 18,740 wireless users who've had their current cell phone for less than two years. While overall satisfaction was up four per cent from 2005, most people said that the physical design of their phones and the ease-of-use are the most important factors for positive user experiences.

Amen.  And the more complex these phones get, the less usable they seem to become (as evidenced by my Treo, which is supposed to represent years of ingenuity and thinking in handset design). 

Will the very latest -- the Motorola Q -- get it right? I'm hoping to lay my hands on one soon and will report the results back to you once I do (here's what I'll be looking for).  But, because of the software it runs, the Q is such a close kissing cousin to other Windows Mobile-based devices that it remains to be seen how much of a difference that it's unique industrial design can make. After all, with only limited control over a key part of the phone -- the operating system -- there's only so much any hardware manufacturer can do to revolutionize handsets compared to a company that has complete control over both the operating system and the hardware.

This is why overcoming the cellphone usability dilemma seems like a ready-made problem for the usability folks at Apple -- a company that has routinely, over the years, redefined what it means to be usable; a company that keeps tight control over both the hardware and software.   If and when Apple comes out with a phone (and it's rumored to be doing so), my expectation is that it will represent a quantum difference, if not a leap, in the way people interact with phones. 

If the company is doing a phone, my guess is that it's getting the personal oversight of CEO Steve Jobs. It's the kind of product that he wouldn't let out the door unless it's the sort of gamechanger the world has come to expect from an outfit like Apple. 

The only downside to such a device, if it happens to also be an iTunes client, is that it will include Apple's proprietary digital rights management (DRM) technology in it.  I won't go on one of my DRM rants right now (you can go here for a bunch of those), but the bottom line is that it's too easy to develop a dependency on proprietary DRM (Apple's, or anybody else's) given the way it works behind the scenes of your technology.  And once you've developed that dependency, a trainwreck like this one will come your way (especially if you decide to ween yourself off that dependency).   Speaking of such trainwrecks, in an attempt to better educate the world on the sorts of trainwrecks that proprietary DRM can lead to, the list I started on del.icio.us is in fact getting contributions from others.  If you have a real-life example of a DRM trainwreck, post it there under the tag DRMtrainwrecks for the world to see (here's the del.icio.us how-to if you're new to it).

Topics: Mobility

About

David Berlind was fomerly the executive editor of ZDNet. David holds a BBA in Computer Information Systems. Prior to becoming a tech journalist in 1991, David was an IT manager.

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