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User experience, not hardware, is the problem

Between denial of key mobile applications and issues with poor user interfaces, many mobile workers state that it is the user experience that slows mobility's development.

This article originally appeared on Brighthand.com.

Between denial of key mobile applications and issues with poor user interfaces, many mobile workers -- including Brighthand's Antoine Wright -- state that it is not the hardware but the user experience which is slowing the development of mobility.

This year, one of my resolutions was to be mobile more often. This meant I would use my phone and Internet Tablet as my main computers and pretty much go days -- or even weeks -- without touching my desktop or a laptop.

Looking at the devices out there, the 3G coverage that I sit under, and the Wi-Fi hotspots that I am constantly around, this would seem to be an ideal thing to do. Four months in, I am frustrated as all get out.

Let's start with the Internet experience. I have a 3G mobile phone in the Nokia N75. However, there is a limitation as to how much I can do with it. Between the operating system not seeing a major update in a long time, and the blocking of several mobile apps -- include two of the most useful: Gmail Mobile and Opera Mini -- I am stuck with a device that has minimal extra use. And it was sold under the moniker "this is what computers have become."

Or how about the vaunted Nokia Internet Tablet. Where it should excel, this device fails a lot. A mobile browser that doesn't handle AJAX well, slows to a crawl when more than two pages are open, is built on a flexible core but cannot take advantage of that flexibility because the core is flawed, and finally doesn't do anything to extend the Internet to an "anywhere, anytime" paradigm.

I say all of this not to bemoan the hardware. Every mobile device sold today has the ability to do everything and more, and do it simply. The problem is the software. Between short-sighted hobby developers, lack of code and user interface standards, and a general lack of discernible direction from major companies, its no wonder the iPhone was a breath of fresh air.

There are two types of software: the software that is developed to be used, and that which is developed just to show off some type of capability.

Software that is developed to be used is normally boring and feels constrained by developers. Marketers like it though, because it brings in the money. And end users like it because it makes some aspect of their lives easier.

However, take a look at the software landscape of many of the more open platforms out there, like the ones based on Linux. Most of it falls in to the latter category. Programs are developed that meet some nirvana for the developer, but have little resource for the marketer or end user. This is because people don't just care for functionality, they care for elegance. And developers aren't designed to know elegance (usually).

As a Palm OS user for a long time, I grew used to just searching for a program and finding several variations of it. Sometimes I'd find a gem like TCPMP. Often though, I'd find a rock. Developers were rightly concerned with getting something out there and making a few cents; but they ignored the greater gain of developing applications that solve a problem elegantly. The user experience was neglected until three or four versions down the line, but by then the market for their program was so small that it was no reason to continue development.

Let me give you an example. I'm writing this editorial using the Notes application on my N800 Internet Tablet. I should be in the browser using Google Docs, but the browser on this device was so rushed that going to Google Docs, even on a Wi-Fi connection, is more pain than joy. So I've opted to use something that won't choke when typing, despite the fact that its missing a spell checker and ability to share with my editor easily. It's not the hardware that's the issue. It's the software, and as soon as all parties really understand that, then maybe we can really have a mobile Web that works.

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