The Motorola Q's all important, but erratic thumbwheel and back button

This is the third in an ongoing series of posts regarding my every day usage of Motorola's Q smartphone (pictured left). There are so many things to write about that it doesn't make sense to pack it all into one giant blog entry.
Written by David Berlind, Inactive
This is the third in an ongoing series of posts regarding my every day usage of Motorola's Q smartphone (pictured left). There are so many things to write about that it doesn't make sense to pack it all into one giant blog entry.  So, even though some people feel like one-entry per issue is the wrong approach for certain issues, I see no better way. In a blogging context, one giant 30,000 word review is the wrong approach too and so the question becomes where to draw the line in dividing it up.  In my last post, I talked about how you can't access company directories through their phone system since there's no way to tell which button (of the numeric keypad) to press for certain letters ("L" for example).

With previous versions of the Windows Mobile operating system, for example, the one that's on the Palm Treo 700w, a numeric phone keypad can be brought up on the display so you can see which letters map to which keys.  But that's because the 700w has a touch screen and the keypad is also a "soft" keypad where you can press the buttons with your fingers.  All I'm asking for is to bring up a dummy version of that as a legend.  Some readers thought that was a nit. But this has actually been a real problem for me which is why I noted. It was also the first real problem I had out of the gate with the Q which is why it went first. After all, why should we accept mediocrity. This phone should have what any other normal phone has if we're expected to use it as a phone. Nevertheless, one reader, who said that "I've got to be kidding" (to complain about this), asked for "some bones with some meat on them." 

So here's a bone with meat, in my opinion.

Aside from how great a job it did at doing one thing and one thing really well (wireless messaging), one of the most revolutionary user interface elements of the BlackBerry (beyond its thumb-able keyboard) when it first came out was the combination of its thumbwheel and backbutton on the right-hand edge of the device (see photo, right).

Until the BlackBerry came along, the world was still stuck in Graffiti & stylus mode when it came to PDAs. Every PDA followed Palm's lead after Palm showed the industry palm based computing was really possible with a touch screen, a stylus, and handwriting recognition. But for most people I know, those three elements really combined to make Palm-based computing tolerable. Possible? By today's standards, few people today would accept such a stylus-only device as usable.

Today -- having used nothing but thumb-board based devices for several years -- I look back to those days of wrestling with handwriting recognition engines, losing styluses and improvising with sharp objects, and solely dual-handed operation and I laugh. What on earth was I thinking when I thought "this is cool!" OK, so there are still some die-hards that prefer to work this way and to you, I mean no disrespect. But the market is clearly voting with their dollars judging by how few devices now lack a keyboard of some sort. 

But, while the Blackberry's keyboard broke some new ground for handheld devices, it was the thumbwheel and back-button that really made the device magical.  Unless you had to type a message into the device, everything else the Blackberry was capable of was doable with one thumb, the thumb-wheel, and the back button. It wasn't just a revolution in single-handed operation.  It was a revolution in single-fingered operation.

But buttons are just a matter of industial design. You can put also sorts of buttons and wheels on a device. It's not until some software-enables them that those buttons succeed or fail.  Enter Research in Motion's operating system for the BlackBerry.  Here are three great principles that are enforced almost all of the time in the BlackBerry operating system:

  • Everytime you need a menu for more options in whatever application you're working in (built-in or third party), depressing the thumb-wheel is the way to bring up that menu.
  • Everytime you have a choice of selecting multiple items on the screen, be they in a menu, a list that application is displaying at the time (eg: a list of e-mails), or in Yes/No/Cancel type of dialog box, spinning the thumb-wheel is what is used to navigate between those options.
  • Once you've highlighted one of those items, the way to activate it is through depression of the thumbwheel.
  • If, at anypoint, you feel as though you've drilled yourself into a place in the BlackBerry where you don't want to be, each depression of the back button will very logically work you back to where ever you came from, one level at a time.

As a result of these four basic user interface principles, the thumbwheel and back button worked in a consistent, reliable, and predictable fashion in almost every single context the BlackBerry and its applications had to offer. Even most third party applications designed to run on the BlackBerry operating system conformed to this construct. The net net was that even if the user interface wasn't intuitive to you, once you learned how to operate one application with the thumbwheel and backbutton, intuiting how to operate the other applications was a cinch.

But, despite its prowess as a wireless messaging workhorse, the BlackBerry fell short for people seeking a truely converged device -- that one device that could do your wireless messaging, be your cell phone, and do all the other things that you might do with an advanced PDA like keep pictures and movies of your kids as well as be your MP3 player.  Over the years, RIM tried out a few new industrial designs (including some I wasn't too fond of) and added telephone and wireless Web browsing capability.  But RIM stayed clear of going the route that Microsoft and PalmSource were going with their operating systems for converged devices.  One problem is that most such converged device were having difficulty with the convergence.  Whether it was the memory, processor, or battery life, they simply didn't have the horse- or staying- power to support convergence (battery life has always been a big plus for BlackBerries).

But time is Moore's Law is a function of time and as such, over time Moore's Law (in addition to wireless data -- 3G broadband style) intersected with the more complex handsets from RIM's competitors and, suddenly, RIM had company.  Very competitive company.  But for the most part, even the best handsets that RIM's competitors had to offer -- Palm's Windows Mobile-based 700w for example -- were haunted by the legacy of the stylus. Forget single finger operation. The keyboards and 5 way rocker buttons on the new breed of handsets may have served Graffiti-like handwriting recognition the death knell it so deserved, but it's difficult if not impossible to get through the day without calling upon the stylus.  Some buttons in some applications and dialogs for example, were simply inaccessible from the keyboard.

Enter Microsoft's Windows Mobile 5 for Smartphones (I'll call it WM5S for short). For the WM5S derivative of Windows Mobile which assumes no stylus is present to succeed, it's programmers would have to ferret out all of the stylus based dependencies and make sure end-users had an alternative way of accessing them.  Further complicating that challenge is the fact that Microsoft doesn't make the hardware the way RIM's control of both the hardware and the software has ensured that its industrial designs and its operating system work in the sort of harmony that you'd expect from a pair of ice skaters.  

In many ways, with the new WM5S as the backdrop, Motorola's Q tested the ability of two separate companies -- Microsoft and Motorola -- to integrate the industrial design of one with the software of the other in an effort to produce that sort of harmony in the user experience. To the extent that the Q has a 5-way rocker button (left, right, up, down, and center-depress) right above its keyboard, Motorola had an opportunity to learn from previous implementations of the same thing in devices like the Treo 700w or the AudioVox 6600. But Motorola's choice to add a thumbwheel and a back button -- the choice that, for me, was what really got me excited about the Q in the first place because of the implications to single-handed operation --  meant the company didn't have much to go on other than how RIM did it with its BlackBerries.  No doubt, a tough act to follow. But doable I thought and so did Motorola.  The word "revolutionary" appeared or was heard many times it Motorola's messaging regarding the Q.  But could it raise the bar?

Unfortunately, while Motorola may have recognized the magic that RIM produced with its thumbwheel and back button, the Q proves that it has so far been unable to match the harmony made through RIM's integration of hardware and software. Most notably, the back button doesn't work everywhere where it should.  Within WM5S, there are plenty of screens that the end-user can dig their way into where the back button is simply dead and instead, the end-user has to examine the user interface to determine whether there's another way out. 

In some cases, when one of the Q's two soft-keys (See photo, left. The buttons just below the Q's display whose role is defined by the application in the foreground) is programmed to be the "DONE" button, that's the fastest way out.  In other cases, a "CANCEL" option may be available through a menu that's accessible through one of the two softkeys. Compared to the BlackBerry where the back button works so predictably that people often end up pressing repeatedly without even looking, knowing that if they press it enough times it will take them back to the device's home page, with the Q, you have to keep an eye on things.  Whereas a single press of the Q's  back button sometimes does take you back one level, other times, it takes three descrete steps: open the softkey menu, scroll to the CANCEL option with the wheel or the rocker, and then depress the wheel or the the rocker to select that option). 

Another back button-related issue has more to do with WM5S under the hood than it does with the industrial design. Admittedly, this may be a matter of preference.  But, in my experience with the BlackBerries, you always had this sense that pressing the back button is what would get you back to the device's home screen and once you were there, you were essentially home. There was no farther back you could go.  You were essentially at the top of the menu tree.  As a function of the way WM5S multitasks (I think), movement between applications is less about traversing a hierarchical tree than it is about just going there (to the application).  In a programming context, I think of this as the infamous GO-TO statement found in unstructured code.  Another thing about the BlackBerry is that once you reach the top of the tree (the device's home screen), you had a sense that the applications you just backed out of had been shut down or close (even though they might not have been). 

With the Q, it's highly likely that before your day is over, you will have moved in and out of some applications in GO-TO style, the result of which is that even if the back button takes you back to the home screen (which as I just said, it doesn't always do very gracefully), you can sometimes keep going. In other words, you may be at the Q's home screen, and then, if you press the back button again, you'll suddenly find yourself in some application that you were using earlier in the day.  In fact, it could take two, three or more cycles of backing up through the home screen before you've finally backed your way out as far as you can go to what is essentially the beginning of a trail of breadcrumbs that you've left behind through the course of your day.

To some people, this is a complete non-issue and in fairness to WM5S and the Q, it doesn't seem to affect the actual operation of the device by bogging it down or anything.  But it does seem clumsy from a user interface perspective that you can cycle through the home screen as many times as the Q lets you. There must be a way around this so that once you've reached the home screen, it doesn't matter where you've come from or what was opened earlier in the day: you've been whisked to the front of the breadcrumb trail. Period. 

Of course, given the way it works, it makes it plainly obvious that a lot of applications that you may have thought were closed, actually are not. One thing hasn't changed since the early days of the PocketPC operating system -- once applications are opened, they stay active. In other words, even though you may have backed out of them and think they may have closed, a pass through WM5S's task manager will list them as "running programs." Fortunately, you can manually kill any or all of the programs that are listed in the Task Manager.  Attempting to do so however some of the inelegance to the thumbwheel's implementation. 

In the BlackBerry for example, when you've used the thumbwheel to scroll to an item in a list, the next thing you can do is press the thumbwheel to find out what your options are.  In some applications, as expected, that's how the Q's thumbwheel actually works. But in the Task Manager, once you've navigated to an item on the list, depressing the thumbwheel does nothing even though it should bring up the three available options: Kill, Kill All, Kill All Except Selected.  Instead, to access those options once a item in the list is highlighted, you have to press the "Menu" softkey which in turn reveals those three options as well as the option to exit the Task Manager altogether.

One place the thumbwheel's clumsiness really turns up again is in WM5S' Pocket Internet Explorer (for wireless browsing of the Web).  When Pocket Internet Explorer in WM5S opens up a Web page, for example, any of ZDNet's Web pages, that Web page is likely to have lots of links and, given the small size of the display on WM5S' compliant devices like the Q, a scroll bar to scroll the page.  Here, in Pocket IE is where some of the vestiges of the old stylus-controlled Windows Mobile applications have yet to be ferretted out.

The Q has two ways of navigating through options displayed on the screen. One is the thumbwheel. The other is the 5-way rocker switch just below the display. For years, BlackBerries have managed to get away with nothing but the thumbwheel to skip from one option to the next (of the ones being displayed on the screen).  For exmaple, while viewing a Web page, to skip from one link to the next (depressing the thumbwheel should take you to the Web page behind the link). But, with only one hardware device (the thumbwheel) for moving between links, you could see where a second one (one like the rocker button that can provide vertical as well as horizontal movement) would be good for tying to the browser's scroll bars. This way, you don't have to scroll through every link in view before getting to the bottom of the display at which point the page finally starts to scroll vertically. 

The wheel could be used to go from link to link.  But provided all you want to do is scroll, and read what's on the page, you could use the rocker button to scroll up, down, left or right.  Unfortunately, the Q completely missed out on this opportunity and in fact, is a bit of step backwards (I'm not sure who is to blame for this; Moto or Microsoft).  As far as I can tell, there's no way of directly accessing the scroll bar at all. In the older touch-screen versions of Windows Mobile, accessing the scroll bar required the stylus. You'd tap it and do the equivalent of a click and drag with a mouse. But WM5S devices don't have touch screens and so the scroll bar is simply there as a visual queue. 

Even worse, instead of taking you through each available link on the part of the Web page that's displayed in Pocket IE, the thumbwheel arbitrarily picks a vertical path through the links and sticks with that, completely avoiding the links to the left or the right of that path. To get to those links, you have to switch to using the rocker button which moves you to the left or the right. It's parts of the Q's overall implementation such as this that, as I said in the first piece of the series, leave me at a loss for words when I try to understand who it was in some Quality Assurance role at Motorola  or Microsoft that signed off and said this is ready for the market.

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