Get smart: What makes a clever phone?
What makes a smartphone smart? I've been trying out the latest entrants to what some call the "converged mobile device" market and pondering what the real test of a smartphone might be.
I wanted to compare three phones doing three essential tasks. The handsets were Nokia's new N8, the Samsung Omnia 7 - one of the new Windows Phone 7 handsets, and Apple's iPhone 4, probably still the yardstick against which other smartphones are measured.
First of all, I needed to work out what tasks I should set so I initiated an online debate. What, I asked, was essential in a state-of-the-art phone?
Making calls and texts, according to the veteran technology journalist Jack Schofield. Well, surely those are a given - though it's true that the iPhone 4 has had an issue with dropped calls - and we expect a lot more from a smartphone. Others agreed, suggesting an array of more sophisticated tasks: turn-by-turn navigation, social networking, web surfing, GPS, watching TV news clips, multi-tasking, recording audio, and... playing Angry Birds.
What stood out was a combination of hardware and software. For many people now, the camera is the second most important thing in a phone after its calling capabilities. But they also want the software on their phones - and increasingly the apps - to make life on the move a bit easier.
In the end I chose these three tasks.
(1) Send an e-mail, with a photo attached: E-mail used to be a specialist and mainly a business use of a phone, restricted to Blackberry users and the brave few who could fiddle with the settings on an early smartphone. No longer - it's becoming an essential.
So I sent an e-mail with a photo attached using each of the phones, then checked my inbox for a reply.
On the iPhone it was simple - go to Photos, choose "Email Photo", and as soon as you start typing in the "To:" box, the phone offers an address if the recipient is in your contacts. Off went the picture - with an option to choose the size of file - and very quickly I was able to check for a reply.
On the Samsung Windows Phone, which I'd synchronised with my Gmail account, it was just as straightforward. Go to the big Photos pane on the desktop, find the picture, choose "Share", and you get a number of options including e-mail. Once again, my friend's e-mail address was quickly recognised, and off went the photo - though I didn't have the option of sending a compressed version.
The Nokia N8 is an attractive and very well-made phone using a new version of the Symbian operating system, which is supposed to make life a lot easier. I have to say this was not my experience - every action which seemed to take a click or a tap or two with the other phones took several more on the N8. I thought I had synchronised my Gmail account with this phone; although it was receiving my messages, it did not have my contacts, so I had to remember my friend's address and type it in. It all worked eventually - but there was just too much friction in the process to make it comfortable and natural.
(2) Take a photo and upload it to Facebook: Social networking is one of the main activities on a modern smartphone - and sharing photographs is a good test of both hardware and software.
The Windows and Nokia devices both have physical buttons which activate the camera, making picture-taking a lot easier than on the iPhone, where you have to find the app. Uploading from the iPhone was a doddle: go to the Facebook app, and off you go. In fact, it is rather simpler to upload from an iPhone than from a computer because everything is so integrated.
The Samsung phone made it even easier - the whole Windows Phone 7 system is designed to integrate with Facebook so you can "share" straight from the camera roll. There is, however, no Facebook app, and I found it slightly annoying that I was given a Windows-crafted version of the social network rather than the original when I tried to go to my Facebook page.
The Nokia has a much better camera than the other two, but the interface is once again extraordinarily fiddly. Getting to the social app which takes you to Facebook seemed to take an age, writing a caption was painful - and I reckon the whole thing took me about three times as long as on the other phones.
As for the actual pictures, you can see them on Facebook if you have an account.
(3) Use the phone to check the time of a film and work out how to get there: I remember the first time I tried to get on the web with a mobile phone. It was a Nokia, and there were so many menus and sub-menus on the route to the information I was seeking that I could probably have gone to a library and looked it up more quickly. But it still seemed streets ahead of anything else.
Nowadays, despite the Symbian upgrade, the N8 is still in the slow lane. Looking for a cinema where I could see the film Despicable Me took me first to the web icon on the desktop, which then offered me another sub-menu, which then offered me Google, which then offered an old-fashioned dialler text input - until I switched to landscape mode to get a proper keyboard. After endless tapping and cursing, I eventually found the film times - and set off anew in search of information about whether the London Underground was working properly.
A complete contrast to the other two phones, which both offered speedy access to a search box - Bing on the Windows phone, Google on the iPhone. Checking up on the Tube was also simple on the iPhone with the Tube Deluxe app, and I found that, for a small payment, I could get a similar app on the Samsung Windows device.
By the end of the three tasks I was clear about one thing: it's software not hardware that matters. Or at least a shiny, touchscreen handset with a decent camera is now the minimum requirement for entry into the smartphone league - and it's the software and the apps which are the real differentiators.
Microsoft may have finally cracked it. After years of desperately trying to bring computer levels of complexity to the mobile, it has realized that big buttons, an uncluttered clean desktop and a minimum of clicks are the route to a smartphone user's heart. There is still some work to be done - no copy and paste ("coming soon - and it took two years on the iPhone" is Microsoft's rather lame response) and a very thin selection of apps in the marketplace. But Windows Phone 7 is a system which looks to have a promising future.
Can you say the same about Symbian? Three years after the Iaunch of the iPhone, it has still not come up with software which matches the usability of the Apple phone or its integration with the rest of a user's digital life.
One operating system I haven't mentioned here is Google's Android. It has proved itself as an innovative and accessible platform - and one which leading handset manufacturers are happy to offer their customers.
When I was foolish enough to suggest a few weeks back that Nokia just might consider ditching Symbian for Android, there was a chorus of abuse from Nokia fans. But the Finnish giant's new boss Stephen Elop is promising new thinking. What do you think: couldn't marrying Nokia's undoubted hardware prowess with Android's superior software be a really smart move?
Update 1500: Lots of people seem angry that I haven't tested an Android phone in this post. Perhaps they haven't read to the end where I praise Google's operating system, even going so far as to suggest that Nokia might do well to adopt it instead of Symbian
Just to be clear, I did not test an Android phone for two reasons. The post was not meant to be about the smartphone market as a whole, but about two new phones with new operating systems, and how they matched up to the competition. And if I'd had an Android phone in my hands over the weekend I would have used that instead - but I'd lent the Samsung Galaxy to a colleague who was testing it for another BBC outlet.