Column: the all in one gadget

Loose Wire — All-in-One Gadgets: Compact But No Cure-All: The Sony Ericsson P800 is an Internet-enabled PC, hand-phone, digital organizer and camera rolled into one; But some things are better kept separate

 
By Jeremy Wagstaff
 
from the 10 April 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
If you’re anything like me, you hope the next gadget you buy will solve all the problems with your existing one — phone, palm-held device, lawnmower — only to find that in most cases, you’re forced to settle for something that may be better, but not necessarily in the way you imagined, or hoped. Call it Feature Disconnect.

Take my new hand-phone, for example. I needed something that didn’t keep switching off mid-call, where the keys didn’t stick, and which had some extra features such as a decent calendar, contacts list and whatnot. After much deliberation I settled for the Nokia 7650, a beast that combines camera, digital assistant and phone.

The Nokia 7650

Two weeks on, I like half the features and am somewhat disappointed over the other half, but in most cases the things I like about it are not the reasons I bought it. I’ve had to abandon synchronizing my data with Microsoft Outlook because the Nokia slows to a crawl with all my contacts aboard, while the short messaging (or SMS) feature, while comprehensive in terms of storing and displaying messages, is actually more fiddly than its predecessor. On the other hand, I’m addicted to taking pictures of people and linking the picture to their contact details, so on the rare occasions they call, their visage appears on the screen. Completely pointless, I know, and certainly not why I bought the thing, but it makes me happy.

I suspect similar problems with Sony Ericsson’s P800 (about $650). As I’m sure you know, Sony Ericsson is a trial marriage of Japanese electronics-giant Sony and Ericsson, the Swedish hand-phone manufacturer. They’ve been dabbling for a while in handsets and with their most recent model appear to have hit something near the jackpot. It looks a lot like a normal phone, but flip open the keypad and you get a screen the size of Hungary, an interface to die for and an almost fully fledged digital organizer. It’s a marvel of engineering, delightful to hold and look at, but sadly it’s still vulnerable to Feature Disconnect.

The Sony Ericsson P800

It’s like this. The P800 is out to replace your hand-phone and your personal digital assistant. It has handwriting recognition and will synchronize with Outlook and Lotus Notes; you can write and read e-mail and surf the Internet on it. Flip the keypad back into place and you have a normal phone that’s no larger than most existing hand-phones. Oh, and it takes pictures. For many folk it’s what they’ve been waiting for: a convergent device that means they can leave their Palm or PocketPC at home, as well as the digital camera. Lighter pockets all round. Out of the 100-or-so user reviews I read, only a handful said bad things about the P800.

My experience was different: While the handwriting recognition (scrawling letters on the screen which are then interpreted by the phone into digital text) is no better or worse than its peers, it’s one thing to tap away in your spare time and another to try to enter notes or phone numbers while you’re on the road taking a call from the boss. Errors creep in and frustration mounts. The software aboard the P800 is a departure — it’s neither Palm- nor Microsoft-related, instead drawing on the Symbian platform — and is nicely designed, but has its quirks. There are some treats — tap on a phone number and a menu appears, allowing you to phone, SMS or add the number to your contacts directly.

But there are also some oddities — I could not find, using a keyword search, any of the folk I had added to the contacts directory, and was horrified to discover that the phone does not support the “predictive text” SMS function used by everyone and his dog (predictive text anticipates what word you’re trying to tap on the keypad, allowing you to press keypads once to form words instead of several times). To not include this is, in my view, like selling a car without a steering wheel. My verdict: The P800 is a very impressive device but it’s too limited to replace my Palm — making it just a very expensive phone, albeit a full-featured one.

The problem as I see it is this: As all these gadgets get better, we demand more out of them. Then we want all those features in one device. Seeing the P800 — the closest anyone’s come to an all-in-one gadget — I can’t help wondering whether we’d be better off keeping some things separate. With a keyboard and Bluetooth, today’s Palm or PocketPC can, under certain conditions, do a very good job of mimicking a laptop, something that wasn’t really intended when they first appeared in the mid 1990s. Hand-phones now are messaging devices — transmitting not just voice, but messages, pictures and whatnot, storing music and taking photos — something that certainly wasn’t envisaged with the launch of their brick-sized ancestors in the early 1980s. All these features, in my view, make it less likely — and indeed, less preferable — to have an all-in-one device. So long as they communicate well with one another, I think manufacturers should focus on combinations of devices, allowing us users to mix and match according to our whim, however quirky. That way we might get what we want and not lose the features we like every time we upgrade.

Now keep still while I take a picture of you in case you call.

02. April 2003 by jeremy
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