Dear Apple, Please Cell Out

Treo 650Caveat lector: This is a rant, and it contains no facts.

Seemingly forever, there have been persistent and vague rumors that Apple is going to build some sort of handheld device — based on the Palm operating system, based on the iPod, based on the Newton, based on smoke and mirrors, whatever — and I’m sick of them not being true. There’s even recent evidence that certain Apple patents strongly suggest a forthcoming announcement of some sort. The time for a truly user-friendly portable device is now and that device should be, at least in part, a mobile phone… mostly because all of the mobile phones now in the market are just terrible.

I have a Treo 650 that’s bulky and over-featured, but the only reason I hang onto it is that it’s truly the best of the worst. It has a reasonably good user interface for call management and text messaging, but the only crucial thing it does really right is integrate my contacts on the phone with my contacts from Apple’s Address Book, via iSync. For me, that’s the whole ball of wax.

Not on Speaking Terms

But since reinstalling Mac OS X 10.4 after a hard drive failure earlier in the year, I can no longer get the two devices to sync. Notwithstanding the fact that synching in general just stinks, I fault the Treo. PDAs are obscurely designed and uncooperative in all but the simplest use cases, and trying to get a Treo that had previously been synchronized with the exact same computer to sync again is too much to ask, apparently.

Every time I think about spending the time to resolve this, to get the Treo to somehow get back on speaking terms with my Mac, I groan and I procrastinate. This is a familiar feeling; in spite of the Palm’s much ballyhooed elegance, I’ve always had this experience, since owning my first Palm OS device in 1998. There’s a veneer of elegance to a Palm device, but it doesn’t take much digging to unearth the aging, uncooperative infrastructure beneath the superficial user interface.

The Moribund Mobile Phone Market

As I said, the sad thing is that all mobile phones stink, not just the ones sporting Palm OS user interfaces. Few enough of them work with iSync, and when I go down the list of such phones, none of them seem to promise a particularly pleasant user experience. Which is to say, none of them capture the right combination of hardware compactness and software elegance that, well, only Apple can produce.

It might have been reasonable and even canny for the company to eschew the PDA market while it slowly entered entropy, but the mobile phone market seems like an inevitability; it’s not just their existing customers who would rush to any cellular device that bears that trademark Apple ease of use, it would be legions of new customers, too, who are constantly looking for an improved mobile phone experience, and who regularly and enthusiastically chuck out their current handsets in favor of cool new ones. How can the company resist? I’m hoping they can’t.

  1. i like blackberry, it’s much easier to use than the Treos

    syncs okay with my computer, doesn’t require a stylus to use…it has a jog wheel to navigate through the very simple interface

  2. Gawd, the last thing I need in my life is a Blackberry. I find them to be fairly alienating devices; the number of conversations I’ve had with people while they’re semi-distracted by their Blackberry devices has really left me with a low opinion of them.

    To be honest, I myself am already sufficiently rude to people with whom I’m having live conversations; I’d like to get better at giving those people my full attention, so I don’t need a Blackberry to make that process more difficult. I suspect other people might have the same take on it.

  3. After various Palms and Treo 180 & 320, I gave up. I didn’t use the features at all, and it was a big pain.

    Now I have a Sony Ericsson T610 (after using a T68i for a while) and I mostly love it. Bluetooth sync, small phone with a simple interface… but it could be easier.

    The sync works, but not perfectly, and it’s slow enough that I do it infrequently. Also, the phone interface for calendar and address book are just hard enough to make it easier to pull out my powerbook to setup appointments in iCal, that love/hate app.

    I’m hoping with you.

  4. I totally, completely, entirely agree. It’s EXTRAORDINARY that among all the hundreds upon hundreds of mobile phones released in the last ten years, NONE of them has come close to creating a great user experience, and most of them fall somewhere short of ‘crap’.

  5. Amen.

    My way-too long service contract with my current provider is about to expire. I have never spent more than $50 for a phone. If apple came out with a phone, I would pay $200 and sign up with whoever the provider was because of two things:

    1. User Interface
    2. Syncing of data (contacts, todo, calendar)

    Hopefully apple will replace my ugly idiot phone before September, or I may have to purchase a bad phone 🙁

  6. I, whole heartedly, agree. I just picked up the new Motorola Pebl. Brilliant industrial design. Last years’ tech, but really all I need. The trouble is, the User Interface is so crappy, makes using the thing half as fun. Apple, please wake up. Thank You.

  7. Hard to believe that just three years ago, Research In Motion could have been snapped up by Apple for less than a billion dollars.

    Waiting painfully for the Treo 700P…

  8. khoi – that’s the thing about blackberries…they’re so easy to use that it’s addicting (hence the moniker ‘crackberry’)

    it’s not the blackberry’s fault, people just need more manners/self-restraint

    but yeah, the device just works too well

  9. I’ve heard many rumors that Apple wants to buy Palm, for the simple fact that Palm has always made nifty devices and it would jumpstart their position into the cellphone/PDA market. As far as I’m concerned, Palm’s the only company to make a decent mobile device UI.

    Having said all that, I’ve just purchased a new cellphone that I think is pretty rad. I’ve actually been looking for a phone that doesn’t suck for almost a year now, and finally ended up with Helio Kickflip. The UI on the new Helio phones is actually something to check out Khoi, it’s very intuitive and Mac-looking, almost Aqua-esque. Not something you’d normally think a cellphone would have.

  10. I agree with everything you said, and I too long for an Apple phone that Just Works. However, there’s an insurmountable problem that makes such a thing impossible. Namely, that Apple won’t control the network, and therefore won’t be able to provide any kind of quality service, since it will be reliant on the carrier. It doesn’t keep me from wishing for an iPhone, but I know it probably can’t ever happen.

    Anyway, it’d probably be a candybar. I hate candybar phones 🙂

  11. I don’t agree with Matt’s comments about the networks being the problem. OK, maybe in the US it will be an issue to some extent, what with their strange system of only having certain phones available on certain networks, and none of the networks having complete coverage.

    The biggest barrier I see to Apple making the ‘perfect’ mobile phone is that it simply isn’t possible. There’s no such thing. I’m sure some of you would like a camera in your phone, but I wouldn’t. I’m sure some people would like a phone/mp3 player hybrid, but I wouldn’t.

    So really, Apple would have to make a whole line of phones with different designs and feature sets, and while this isn’t impossible, it’s not something that will happen overnight. Chances are they will try to come out with the 1 ‘perfect’ phone to begin with (and chances are it will be an iPod/phone hybrid).

    Back to reality, the closest thing I’ve seen to a perfect phone for me is the soon-to-be-released SonyEricsson M600. No camera or mp3 crap, qwerty keyboard and big touch screen for text input, still manages a fairly thin and sleek design, excellent built quality. My experiences sync SonyEricsson phones (I have a K700) have also been good. The only thing missing is WIFI 🙁 but I can’t decide if that is a deal-breaker.

  12. I’m with Daniel … Sony Ericsson’s got my vote for mobile phone (until Apple pumps one out). You should give the K750 or W800 a look if all you’re wanting is solid synching, phone and text messaging.

    There’s also the yet-to-be-released K790a that looks nice.

  13. When it comes to cellphones, I like simplicity. Four years ago I stopped having one for a while and then out of a need for friends (not me) to contact me, I decided I’d get one. The phone I was using prior to this was black and white and had a very simple menu.

    I miss those days.

    I have this Samsung phone from Sprint. It has countless menus with buried items hidden in each. It’s not intuitive at all. Things I think should be upfront, are somewhere in a menu I can’t find without much animosity.

    I’m surprised that the many friends I have who have bought a RAZR or one of those trendy phons all complain about how much it actually sucks but you know, aesthetics cover up some, if not all sins.

    And so I wholeheartedly agree with your comments and wish Apple would hurry up.

    After all, Japan has one up on us.

    I provide some evidence again that the East is far, far ahead of the game: 01, 02.

  14. I couldn’t agree with you more, Khoi. I have been in cell-hell trying to find a phone that does everything I need it to do. Went through the Motorola V551, Sony Ericsson T637, Motorola SLVR, Sony Ericsson K750i and finally settled on the Nokia 6682.

    The Nokia and Mac work together better than any of the other options. It’s like they were made for each other. And the 6682 gives me some PDA functionality without being a PDA. It’s bulky but not as bulky as the Treo 650.

    I want Apple to come out with a phone because I believe they’ll rock the cell phone world with a clean, simple-to-use interface. Then everyone will copy that interface, a la iPod, and then I’ll have to read about how every other phone is better because they have an FM tuner and can play OGG files.

  15. I hated every phone interface I ever used until I got a Series 60 Nokia. It’s still not perfect, but it’s a damn sight better. It’s not quite the uber-PDA that the Treo is, but it’s got an OS that runs open-source (and just plain free) apps, which is handy.

    I have a 6682 and I love it.

  16. Man, do I need this. I completely believe that an Apple phone would rock. The Palm interface is decent, not great, but better than the Microsoft experience with number of clicks. The Blackberry has a long way to go with many things that I can do easily on my Treo 650.
    But, the syncing drives me nuts.

    One thing that takes some of the pain out of it is Missing Sync. It is not perfect, as it occasionally will get hung up and keep from syncing until I reboot (I rarely reboot my Mac, it just runs for days and weeks).

    The other problem with the Treo is lack of multi-threading (it should download e-mail, sync, grab web pages, etc. in the background.

    I believe Apple could execute on this as they are dealing with one OS to sync with the phone (at least as a first step). A familiar simple interface for the phone would be great. Syncing calendar, address book, and to do lists is a first step (few phones get this syncing right). The next on the wish list is syncing my passwords and access. Use .Mac to store files and provide easy links in my phone to files and resources stored there. Updating iCal that is published and syndicated would be killer. Music from iTunes is not a priority for me. Having my life sync is important.

  17. Hey Khoi. I’m going to throw another vote up on the board for Missing Sync. It has literally solved all my sync issues with my Treo 650. I couldn’t be happier.

    That being said, the second Apple offers a phone/PDA, I’m going to be first in line.

  18. Let me preface by stating that I’ve been employeed by both Apple and Palm in the past. Thus my opinions on this subject come from experiences at both places.

    Palm phones suck. Always have, and likely always will. They have lost the plot on innovation, IMO. The Treo650 would have been killer, had it come out 3 years prior… Is that their fault? Not 100%. Palm no long caters to “end users”. Their customers are few – Verizon, Cingular, T-Mo, Orange (Europe) and Sprint. These companies demand features, specs etc. for each Treo rev. They demand specific functionality be added, or blocked. (Remember how Verizons blocked Bluetooth?)

    With that being said, the very reason I believe Apple would never make a phone/PDA is they would be forced to follow the demands of the carriers. The carriers don’t care about user experience, they care about selling you ring tones, charging you to surf the net, and whatever else they can convince you to do on a 1.5″ screen and EVDO connection. Just recently you saw how Jobs bent the will of the music exec.’s to stick with $.99 pricing for iTunes… Pretty bold move, I just don’t think he’s good enough to do the same in regards to the carriers.

  19. I started to think about this recently, and I’m guessing Apple will introduce a phone when the technology has a small enough footprint for the following designs:

    1) A PDA type cell phone based on the current Video Ipod size and interface. A slide phone would be a decent interface for this, and when it’s closed, it could easily function as an Ipod.

    2) A standard cell phone, based on the current Nano size. Would be the perfect size, and again, I could see it sliding open to reveal the phone features, and sliding close to act as an Ipod.

  20. Based on feedback from questions on an Apple forum I chose the Sony Ericsson K750i. It syncs perfectly with iCal and Address Book, and using Dreamsicle it even syncs with iTunes. You can also very cheaply put 1GB of memory in the phone. The question I asked in the forum some ways directly mirrors this post, so you’re not alone.

    Here is the link to my Apple forum question with recommendations below.

  21. I agree, my motto is pity the poor user, apple tends to care about the user. cell phones today are about the carrier. if someone can create a retail model that would be great, but with the net neutrality law in question, looks like carrier centric is coming to the internet *sigh*

  22. I’ve always thought it would be a fabulous product as well, but my ULTIMATE mobile dream is Google entering the market with an Apple-engineered device.

    Wireless + VOIP + All the information I need for one low monthly fee + Apple’s incomparable design proficiency.

    Yummy dreams.

  23. As fate has it, Steve Jobs’ wife is the daughter of Raymond W. Smith, the former CEO of Bell Atlantic. Before retiring, Smith acquired NYNEX in 1997 and GTE in 1998, forming the largest communications company in the U.S.

    I’m sure this topic must have come up at some Thanskgiving dinner at the Jobs’. 🙂

  24. Whoa! Why do we think it’s not possible Apple can create a cell/PDA based solely on the fact that they would have to comply with a carrier? Who says they have to go with a carrier at all? Look at Virgin Mobile and the new Helio. They are MVNO’s and piggyback on carriers’ lines like a freight company using a rail line. Why is it not possible that Apple could do the same and thus create their own rules for syncing, bluetooth, sharing music, et al? This is ultimately what I see Apple doing. Setting up an MVNO and then evolving the iPod into a PDA/phone to use on those lines. This is probably the reason why we are always teased with rumors of an Apple cell phone, because Apple can’t release it until their own MVNO is set up. We’ll see, but I refuse to believe that with the stagnant cell phone market coupled with how astronomically well the iPod has done (both in industrial design and user effectiveness) that Apple is NOT chomping at the bit to get in there and rule the cell market as well. Apple would then be the ruler of 2/3’s of the handheld market (cells and music players) with Nintendo firmly dominating the video game sector. This would also lead to even more converts to Mac and OSX as their PDA would undoubtedly run a form of mobileOSX. The idea being that once people saw the simplicity and sturdiness of their phone’s OSX they would convert their main computer as well. Hey it’s a philosophy that has worked so far with the iPod, doesn’t it make even more sense in regards to PDAs/cell phones?

  25. I’m in complete agreement that it would be a wonderful thing if Apple were to produce a mobile phone at the level of the iPod. I also agree with nick, it’s essential that Apple take control of the service experience via the MVNO structure (which is basically where you lease/purchase usage of existing infrastructure of the major carriers, and use that to provide your service). Existing mobile phones suck, but existing mobile phone _services_ suck even more.

    But, I wonder what the requirements are to become a MVNO? Could the carriers just say no to Apple doing that? Could they simply price it too high to be possible? Could they let Apple do it for a couple years, become successful, and _then_ raise the price to the point where it wouldn’t be viable?

    I guess my point is, the major carriers know that their customers hate them. They don’t care, because all the carriers suck, and are hated essentially equally, so they can grow revenue with new phones and ad campaigns, instead of trying to actually serve customers.

    With that in mind, what incentive would they have to let Apple come to the table, provide a quality of phone and service that would show them for what they are, and cost them customers? (If the universal agreement here is any indication, lots and lots of customers.)

  26. I think I must be one of only a handfull of people on the planet who wishes cellphones had fewer features rather than more.

    I’d love to see Apple release a phone, but to be honest I wouldn’t buy it if it was trying to be an iPod, a camera, and a PDA as well.

    I just want a really great PHONE. For making phone calls. I don’t want a Swiss Army knife.

  27. Two things excite me about a possible Apple cell phone:

    First, the fact that, as made by Apple, it’d likely be the first cell phone done right.

    Secondly, as made by Apple, it’d probably integrate very closely with my Macintosh. So that, for example, when they’re within Bluetooth proximity of each other, iCal alarms would only set off on one device, and not both. Things like that.

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