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Saturday, October 22, 2011

Stop obsessing over specs and think about usability

I have a rant about what really sells phones. I'm talking about the things which get people to leave one device behind and move to another. These are the kind of experiences which grab you and tell you that this is the solution you've been waiting for.

Here's a hint: it's not the kind of CPU the phone has. It's not how much RAM it has, it's not how much flash storage space it has, it's not how many pixels are on the screen, and it's not how big the screen is.


It's how all of those things are used to create an experience.

Jump back in your head four years to the summer of 2007. The iPhone had just come out and one of my coworkers let me see how it worked. I got to see all of the bells and whistles it had as it was. Remember, there was no App Store in the first releases. It was just a stock device.

You know what really grabbed me? The map. Specifically, the pinch-to-zoom stuff. I could grab that thing and slide it around and push in on stuff, and it would just work. It was ridiculously good, and that alone convinced me that this thing was worthy of consideration.

For this to make sense, you have to realize that I was coming from a phone which only barely supported showing maps on the fly. It was yet another one of those horrible phones which only ran Java, and thus I was stuck with the "GMM" app version of Google Maps.

Besides the fact it was slow and hard to see, it was also a pain to navigate. Every time I pushed the button to scroll, it had to refresh the entire screen, and that took forever. If I made a mistake and pushed the wrong button, I paid for it right away with miserable lag. It was the best thing I had, so I lived with it... for a while.

The iPhone map showed me that a better solution was available right now and the user experience suffering could end forever. That is what really grabbed me. All of the other stuff was secondary.

What kind of CPU did it have? I have no idea. How much RAM did it have? No clue. How much storage space? Well, I think it had 8 GB, and I wound up with that one because the AT&T store didn't have any other type in stock at the time. How big was the screen? I don't know -- it's "iPhone size", whatever that is. How many pixels did it have? No idea. Who cares?

It looked good, it felt good, and it worked really well. The numbers may have mattered to the people who wrote the code for it, but here, I could blissfully just be a user and enjoyed every minute of it.

This is why I just do not understand when people get all twisted out of shape about how the new FooPhone 1000 from ZYX Tech will have quadro-core megaband gates with overdrive resistors. Who cares? All that really matters is whether it makes you happy as a device.

What is the fascination with these arbitrary numbers?

Epilogue: When the first Android holiday phone was released, I wound up with one. I tried the Google Maps app and discovered it didn't do pinching to zoom. It had failed at the one thing which really mattered to me, and they had over a year to improve on what was already on the market.

The G1 might have been an acceptable phone... if the iPhone never existed, that is.