A touch misleading?

I hope you’ve all read “Life with an HTC Touch”, the engaging series of reports on the PC Pro website by our esteemed editor Tim Danton, and companion piece to my LA-based RWC colleague Ian Wrigley’s series “Life with an iPhone”. Both of these devices are interesting in that they’ve abandoned traditional buttons and keypads in favour of a touchscreen for their main interaction with the user. Of course, this isn’t wholly new since HTC has been marketing various touch-only devices for several years now, but manufacturers claim the user interface has been enhanced to make touch-only a far more usable proposition on the iPhone and HTC Touch.

A touch misleading?

With my “gadget fan” hat on, both these phones sound fantastic, but when I come over sensible again I find a couple of nagging doubts in my mind. First, I think I’d be paranoid about screen protection. What happens, for example, if I put one of these devices in my pocket alongside a bunch of keys? Would the touchscreen survive? I’m really not so sure. But my biggest concern is about ergonomics. I set Tim a little challenge, which went along these lines: “You’re sitting in the pub with some friends. You suddenly spot a telephone number hastily scribbled on the back of your hand and realise you’ve forgotten to make a very important call. There are two phones on the table in front of you, your HTC Touch and an old-school mobile (let’s say a Nokia), which has a traditional numeric keypad plus the normal red and green call buttons. Which phone does your hand instinctively reach for to make that vital call?” I was predicting that Tim would go for the Nokia, and I was right.

Tim’s full response was that, “if your primary reason for buying a new phone is to call people on it, the Touch probably won’t be for you”. I’m guessing the same would almost certainly be true of the iPhone, although I haven’t checked that with Ian yet. But this could be a big issue for many potential users: we really shouldn’t forget those last five letters of the word smartphone. For the majority of business users, being able to make phone calls quickly and easily is the primary requirement, and I can’t see it disappearing any time soon. I guess things might be a bit different in the “personal user” space, as I’m sure there are people out there for whom the phone functions have now become secondary to other stuff like playing media – there may even be some user groups for whom style and “coolness” are the most important factors. I’m wondering whether perhaps, rather than calling devices like the HTC Touch “smartphones”, we should really be calling them “smart media players” – after all, isn’t the concept of the iPhone simply an iPod with a simple phone function glued onto it?

Map of the future

Last month, I wrote about my love-hate relationship with TomTom products and mentioned that while I loved the TomTom user interface, I’m baffled by why the company continues to stick with Tele Atlas as its map data provider, given the relatively poor quality of these maps compared to the other player in the digital-mapping marketplace, Navteq. Well, over the past month that mystery has been solved, at least partially. Those of you who keep an eye on the financial pages will know that TomTom has recently made a friendly bid to buy Tele Atlas outright, offering just under $30 per share, which is a whopping 32% premium over the market value at the time of the offer.

It wasn’t immediately obvious to me what TomTom was hoping to gain from this deal. I certainly don’t think it stacks up financially, since although the firm will no longer have to pay Tele Atlas for access to its map data, TomTom’s business accounts for only around 40% of Tele Atlas’ revenues – there’s another 60% coming from other customers, many of them portable navigation product manufacturers, too, some of whom are bound to jump ship rather than pay fees to a direct rival. Plus, the wholesale cost of the map data supplied with a typical TomTom is reckoned to be around £10, so any savings won’t be huge. I also don’t believe that TomTom sees this as a way to improve the quality of its products, as it could do that far more simply by just switching mapping suppliers to Navteq.

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