The Sony Ericsson P900

It’s commonly believed by folk in the US that the iPhone was utterly new and without precedent. I think it’s because before the iPhone, smartphones weren’t very popular in the US. Things were different elsewhere in the world, though. In 2005, I had a Sony Ericsson P900, a smartphone launched in 2003.

I found it in a closet the other day, and I couldn’t find many screen captures of the P900 software online, so I decided I’d take a few snapshots. Apologies for the quality, but I don’t have any actual screen capture software, so I just took photos with my current phone.

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This is the exterior of the phone. It’s about the same size as an iPhone, but a bit thicker. As you can see, it has a physical keyboard. However, that flips down to reveal an iPhone-style rectangular touch screen with 640×480 resolution—better than the original iPhone!

It’s a small screen, though: 65x42mm, so there’s a small stylus you can pull out and use for operating the smaller controls.

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The home screen shows a grid of app icons. You can tap an app icon with your finger to open that app. Unlike the iPhone, however, scrolling is performed using the scroll wheel on the side of the phone, rather than by touching and dragging your finger. The latter would have required a capacitive touch screen to work well, and that technology wasn’t widely available in 2003.

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Here’s the phone dialer. Just like today’s smartphones, except the back and call buttons are at the top rather than the bottom.

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Similarly, here’s the calculator, which is entirely finger-operable.

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Here’s a card from the address book. The photo of the person is on a separate tab. Tapping the phone number calls that number.

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The obligatory calendar, with monthly, weekly and daily views.

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You thought pop-up keyboards were invented by Apple? Think again. This one is too small for finger usage, because of the screen size, but the principle is there. One curious decision is that the data entered is shown in an extra box above the keyboard, as well as in its proper place on the form screen.

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There’s a checklist app as standard, unlike with Android.

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The checklist app is fairly sophisticated, and supports due dates and alarms.

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There’s an image browser for your photos.

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Also on the multimedia front, there’s an MP3 player app. It has rudimentary playlist support, but it’s no iTunes. Still, it understands ID3 tags.

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Here’s some e-mail I got in 2005. Yes, Internet e-mail client with IMAP.

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Obviously there’s a web browser as well.

Now, remember, this was on sale in 2003, some 4 years before the iPhone. Yes, there was a stylus to operate the small on-screen controls, but it’s pretty obvious that if you made the screen bigger and cleaned up a few design issues, you could operate it entirely by touching the screen.

The P900 supported third party apps too, written in Java or C++. You could download and install them via the web browser.

Let’s be clear about this: Apple did a fantastic job of taking existing smartphone UI ideas, and polishing them to perfection. But that’s the point—they built on other companies’ work, and copied a lot of things other companies had done first. They didn’t invent the entire design of the iPhone themselves, whatever Steve Jobs may have believed.

Technology and morality

The New Republic recently carried an interesting article about Apple (the full text may be available via Readability). The piece started out as a review of the Steve Jobs biography (ho hum), but soon diverged into a discussion of the morality of design. It helped me to crystallize some thoughts.

There’s a famous anecdote about how Steve Jobs spent weeks making his family discuss what they wanted from their washing machine.

Jobs’s meticulous unpacking of the values embedded in different washing machines, and his insistence on comparing them to the values he wanted to live by, would be applauded by moralistic philosophers of technology from Heidegger to Ellul, though it may be a rather arduous way of getting on with life. But Jobs understood the central point that philosophers of technology had tried (and failed) to impart: that technology embodies morality.

Emphasis mine. Technology may be morally neutral in the abstract, but when we make technology choices, we are making moral choices, either because of the details of how the technology is made, or because the technology filters moral possibilities.

The problem was that Jobs, while perfectly capable of interrogating technology and asking all the right questions about its impact on our lives, blatantly refused to do so when it came to his own products. He may have been the ultimate philosopher of the washing machine, but he offered little in the way of critical thinking about the values embedded in the Macintosh, the iPod, and the iPad. When he discussed his own products, he switched from philosophical reflection on the effects of consumer choices to his Bauhaus mode of the vatic designer.

I would put it this way: Towards the end of his life, Jobs took his passion for product design in the autocratic and paternalistic mode, and applied it to everything about the products he oversaw.

“Steve believed it was our job to teach people aesthetics, to teach people what they should like,” [one of his ex-girlfriends] said.

This is the real reason why the App Store exists. This is why iOS is locked down, and why the Mac is being moved to an App Store model. Sure, the revenue stream is welcome, but it’s really about paternalistic control.

“It just works”—Jobs’s signature promise at product launches—was soothing to a nation excited and addled and traumatized by technology. Nothing could go wrong: Apple had thought of everything. The technology would work as advertised; it was under total control; it would not get hacked.

This is the new Apple philosophy. Sacrifice control to paternalistic Apple, and you can relax. The benevolent leader will teach you what to like and what not to like, keep you safe from danger and ugliness. The fact that this philosophy is utterly opposed to the values expressed in so much Apple advertising is remarkable, and shows how cunning and slick their advertising and marketing people really are.

People fall for it, too. I know many self-professed libertarians who believe in absolute freedom of speech and say that they trust nobody to be a censor, but who nevertheless line up to buy iPhones and iPads and give Apple control over what software they can run on their phone, what books and magazines they can read on their tablet, even how they are allowed to arrange app icons. (Try removing Newsstand from your iPad.) Business travelers with iPads complain all the time about being forced to submit to the TSA when they take a plane flight, but what is the App Store if not the TSA of software?

Some iOS users engage in doublethink, recasting their lack of “freedom to” as a positive “freedom from”. (“Sure, I’m not free to download a wifi scanner… but I’m free from viruses!”) It’s true, all apps have metaphorically gone through the scanner and had a minimum-wage drone check their boarding pass, and you can be sure they aren’t carrying bottles of water that compete with the drinks sold by the gate, but that’s not how real security works.

Some iOS device owners ease their sense of guilt by rooting the device, ignoring that they’ve already cast a powerful vote for loss of freedom by buying it. Most, however, seem content to live in cognitive dissonance, apologetically pointing out that Apple hasn’t been that bad a dictator, and has mostly not eliminated competing services. I mean, yes, they’ve forced other magazine and book sellers to move their stores to web only to escape Apple control, but so far they haven’t blocked those web sites, so it’s OK, right?

Which brings us to the web. Criticize the lack of freedom represented by the iOS devices, and before long you’ll likely be told that it’s simply not a problem, because there’s a web browser. Sure, Apple says no porn on the iPad, but you can get porn on the web via Safari so somehow there’s no censorship occurring. But people are pointing out that Apple’s ‘app economy’ is increasingly threatening the web itself. Apple (and other corporate entities like Amazon) are managing to mold the web to be what they want it to be. And that doesn’t appear to be what I want it to be.

[...] Jobs outright rejected the possibility that there may be a multiplicity of irreconcilable views as to what the Web is and what it should be. For him, it is only a “direct-to-customer distribution channel.” In other words, Jobs believed that the Web is nothing more than an efficient shopping mall, and he proceeded to build his business around what he believed to be the Web’s essence.

Some people even claim that the web is dead, and that as we move into a post-PC era of tablets and phones as the primary Internet access devices, the web will be replaced by apps. And freedom will be replaced with complete corporate control.

Our choice is between erecting a virtual Portland or sleepwalking into a virtual Dallas. But Apple under Steve Jobs consistently refused to recognize that there is something valuable to the Web that it may be destroying.

A virtual Dallas, a prospect that will make every Austin web developer shudder.

So I now realize that this is where I parted company with Apple. When the Jobsian paternalism was restricted to matters of hardware design, I mostly appreciated it. I wish my laptop had a replaceable battery and anti-reflective screen, but mostly I’m happy with what I was told I should like—the large trackpad, the solid metal casing, and so on.

But when the paternalism was extended to books and movies and video games and applications, and when it started to threaten the web—well, that was several steps too far.

Everyone says they love freedom, and that freedom is important. But as the cliché says, “freedom isn’t free”. Freedom means ugliness. Freedom means danger. Freedom means complexity. Apple, in a stroke of marketing genius, offers you freedom from those things. And by accompanying that promise with images of freethinkers and a ‘think different’ message, it manages to make you overlook the fact that what you are really doing is giving up your freedom, and financially rewarding the very entity you are giving it up to.

So what’s the alternative? Well, sadly you won’t find a mobile platform with a rich ecosystem that doesn’t require ceding some control to others. Many people have said to me “Well, since that’s the case, what’s the point? I might as well go with the best.” But I’m not an absolutist; I don’t believe in the idea that if you can’t be perfect, you might as well not try. Rather, when it’s time to make a choice, I’ll choose the imperfect option that’s better.

Even Google, with its naïve technocratic ethos, is more committed to questioning the impact that it is having on the Internet and the world at large. They fund a bevy of academic and policy initiatives; they have recently launched a Berlin-based think tank dedicated to exploring the social impact of the Internet; they even started a quarterly magazine. [...] Apple, by contrast, holds itself above the fray. It seems to believe that such discussions of meanings and consequences do not matter, because it is in the design business, and so its primary relationship is with the user, not with the society.

And then there are things like the Data Liberation Front, AOSP, and the periodic table of open APIs. You can even run Android devices without Google, pretty much. Try using a new iPad without an Apple ID.

So until something better comes along, I’m going with Android for my phone and tablet needs. Freedom is too important. Google might not be perfect, but in the specific area of mobile platforms, they are a lot better than Apple.

Wake up, Android device manufacturers

Apple’s Q4 results were its best ever. They even managed to claw back some marketshare from Android. This should be a loud wakeup call for Android device manufacturers. I’ve been an Android user for a couple of years now, but let me say that there are some areas where Apple wins hands down.

Choice

Too much choice is a bad thing. I like that Android has phones with and without keyboards, phones in a variety of sizes, and so on. Unfortunately, HTC, Motorola and Samsung seem to crap out a new phone every couple of months, most of them indistinguishable from each other.

HTC Amaze, Wildfire S, Sensation, MyTouch 4G, Evo 3D, Evo Design? They’re all keyboardless. Apart from one of them being 3G, I’d be hard pressed to decide between them, or even tell them apart in the store.

And yet, the amount of real choice is less than ever. The phone I want is nowhere to be found (see end of posting).

Support

If you get an iPhone, you know there will be OS updates for a couple of years. In contrast, Android handset vendors have screwed over customers so many times that I won’t buy a phone unless I know for sure it’s supported by CyanogenMod. People who don’t care about freedom so much will just take the easy option and buy an iPhone. Trust matters deeply when you’re not technically minded.

I want to buy a tablet. Right now, I’m waiting, because I don’t trust any of the vendors to actually ship Android 4 for their tablets in a timely fashion, even if they’ve promised that it’ll be here in weeks. (I learned that lesson from HTC with my phone.) Again, people who don’t care about freedom so much will buy an iPad, because at least they can trust that Apple will ship OS updates for a year or two.

Experience

Part of the reason why manufacturers say they have trouble shipping OS updates, is that they all insist on layering extra crap on top of Android. But that’s not the only reason to dislike the value-subtract which handset makers keep applying.

My phone used to have HTC Sense. Installing CyanogenMod was the best thing I ever did to it. Suddenly the address book worked properly and I could star favorite contacts. The launcher lost the horrible bubbles around the icons. The useless social stream app and the voice search that never worked were gone, and the phone search button did something useful again.

I went to T-Mobile to look at phones. The HTC ones still have Sense UI crap all over them, and it’s still ugly. I don’t want it. And if you’re one of the people who does want it, there’s nothing to stop HTC from offering it as an optional add-on exclusive to their phones, without forcing it on people.

Motorola have claimed that the carriers are forcing them to layer UI crap on top of Android, because otherwise they’d end up with a half dozen identical Android phones on their shelves. Well, yes, see “Choice” above. Screwing up the UI so your multiple identical phones will look different is solving the wrong problem.

My perfect phone

OK, so support and experience suck, but at least we have choices, right? Well, it doesn’t seem that way to me. Here’s what I want from a phone:

  • A good camera.
  • A microSD slot for music, so I can replace my aging iPod.
  • A hardware keyboard.
  • Stock Android 4.x.
  • GSM compatible with T-Mobile.

So many Android phones out there, and yet precisely zero of them seem to meet my fairly mundane requirements, even if you relax the demand for Android 4. In fact, right now T-Mobile has no stock Android phones at all. Yet it wasn’t too long ago that they were selling the HTC G2, a stock Android phone with keyboard.

Something is very wrong here, and unless Google and the phone manufacturers can do something about it, the iPhone might get back the position of #1 smartphone platform.

Android is #1

NPD reports that Android is now the #1 platform for smartphones in the US. 33% Android, 28% BlackBerry, 22% iPhone. And that’s including iPhone 4 pre-orders.

Meanwhile, Nielsen confirms that Android has beaten iPhone,  though they have Android still lagging slightly behind BlackBerry:

Canalys have a slightly different spin on the same result, citing Android’s 886% YTY growth rate.

Fanboys on MacWorld (who should just give in and rename themselves iPhoneWorld) have been desperately saying that the iPhone 4 is going to turn things around any moment now. However, as noted, NPD’s figures include the iPhone 4 pre-orders, and the popular HTC EVO and T-Mobile MyTouch 3G Slide didn’t start selling until right at the end of the surveyed period, just like the iPhone 4.

Also interesting is that while existing iPhone users’ professed loyalty remains formidable, Android users are almost as enthusiastic about their chosen platform. The big losers are RIM.

On which note, BlackBerry OS 6 has been launched. It looks as though they’ve finally provided a proper set of widgets for developers and a proper web browser. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s a case of too little, too late. If they had delivered OS 6 a year ago (and made their SDK multiplatform), I might still be using a BlackBerry–but now? Too late, I switched. The new OS will slow their decline, but they’re still playing catch-up to their competitors. I hope they’ll be able to continue keeping iOS in third place, but I’m not optimistic about their chances.

[By the way, don't bother logging in to comment that the numbers are flawed because Android is sold on lots of phones but there are only three models of iPhone, or that iPad and iPod sales aren't included. This is a comparison of smartphone platforms, because platforms are what developers are interested in. If the fragmentation argument was valid, nobody would develop for Windows and Mac OS X would be #1, because the most popular model of Mac outsells any single one of the millions of models of Windows PC out there.]

Extracts from “iPhone Four” by George Orwell

Winston woke up inside 101 Infinite Loop.

“I told you,” said O’Brien, “that if we met again it would be here.”

“Yes,” said Winston.

O’Brien picked up an iPad from the table, and brushed his fingers over the screen. Without any warning except a slight movement of O’Brien’s hand, a wave of pain flooded Winston’s body. He grimaced, and tried to remain silent.

After a few moments O’Brien moved his hand again, and the pain receded almost as quickly as it had come. He turned the iPad screen towards Winston. It showed a set of candy-colored sliders, and a selection of buttons, but Winston was unable to make out the text.

“That was forty,” remarked O’Brien. “It goes up to one hundred. Please remember: if I need to inflict pain on you at any moment and to any degree I choose, there’s an app for that.”

“Yes,” said Winston.

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