Here's Hoping Google Can Fix The Phone UI Problem - InformationWeek

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11/6/2007
10:36 AM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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Here's Hoping Google Can Fix The Phone UI Problem

Google's "vapor-phone" announcement (as some people have branded it) has me hoping they can do something about the mobile phone market that so far only Apple, of all people, has done anything about: Make the phones less of a clumsy eyesore.

Google's "vapor-phone" announcement (as some people have branded it) has me hoping they can do something about the mobile phone market that so far only Apple, of all people, has done anything about: Make the phones less of a clumsy eyesore.

I talked to a friend, a sometime Mac user, about what Google was cooking up, and his comment was: "I don't see how Google brainpower can fix the phone makers' demonstrated incompetence at making a complex gadget that people can actually use."

I knew exactly what he meant.  I recently replaced my Samsung (T-Mobile) handset with a more recent model.  The hardware design was unquestionably better -- the phone itself was lighter and had more features -- but the software, which is of course totally closed-ended and impossible to change, was a huge step down.  The menu system placed some of the most commonly-accessed functions in the system several levels down, and some features (like instant messaging) were so excruciatingly slow they might as well have not bothered.  Now I understand why I got those features "free": they're virtually worthless.

Whatever else you want to say about the iPhone, it's brought something to wireless communications that has been given almost total short shrift until now: real, honest-to-Jobs ease of use.  People are apparently more than willing to set the price and the locked-hands policy with AT&T aside to have a good user experience.

Google, however, doesn't seem to be talking much, if at all, about user experiences.  They've got two things in mind: to build a platform that lets them easily extend their ads and search services to the mobile world, and to create a set of relatively open standards for mobile devices.  The second is how they plan to accomplish the first, and I suspect their commitment to Linux here is only insofar as that Linux is free and open, too.  As my friend pointed out, if Linux vanished tomorrow, they'd probably turned to FreeBSD or something similar to fill the gap.  They, of all people, have good reason to be platform-neutral.  They use their system to monetize their search algorithms; they're not "UI people."

I know I'd love to see an actual Google phone, something with the straightforwardness and unpretentiousness of Google's own site.  Sadly, that doesn't look like what we're getting -- not courtesy of Google, anyway. I suspect Google will leave specific implementations -- including UI -- to the phone manufacturers, the very people who gave us such abominations of design as the Motorola RAZR's horrifically laggy menus.  (Another case of great hardware, horrible software.)  And the odds of the UI wizards at Apple picking up Google's toolkit and building a phone with it are microcosmically small.  Maybe Google just figured that for all their know-how this was, indeed, a job for Someone Else.

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