Wednesday, 7 June 2006

Trouble with a 3G smart phone

Several months ago Sprint contacted me with an offer to become a "Sprint Ambassador." They said they had noticed my blog, and wanted to send me a free 3G phone, with service, for six months. No obligations, no requirements, and no restrictions on what I can write about it. If I choose to, I can send them feedback on the phone via a web form. At the end of the six months the service will be terminated (unless I want to pay for it).

Being the basically greedy tech geek that I am, I took them up on the offer. Within a couple of weeks I got a shiny new Samsung A920 mobile phone, and a free-ride, all-expenses paid account on Sprint's EVDO high-speed network. That includes free downloads of any content, games, or other services I want. Sweet!

I'm not sure what Sprint was hoping to get from me -- nice word of mouth or user feedback. But for sure I've been a disappointment to them, as I haven't posted any feedback to their website, and I haven't written anything about the phone on my blog.

Until now.

I have so many things I want to say about the phone that it's hard to know where to start. I guess I should do a summary. Here goes:

The best thing about the phone: It's a great data pipe. I can cable it to my laptop and use it as a high-speed data link. It works quite well, and has coverage in every urban area I've been in. I never thought I'd say this, but I like it better than WiFi.

The worst thing about the phone: Everything else. And I mean everything. The interface is borderline unusable, many of the services are a joke, and I'd be demanding a refund if I had paid for it.

My advice to Sprint: Embrace your destiny as a big data pipe. You do that superbly, and I think people would pay you for it. Meanwhile, you should stop over-complicating your phones with data services that you're clearly not competent to create.

Here are the details:

The good stuff

I was at a dinner with Barak Berkowitz of SixApart a couple of weeks ago, and I talked about the prospects for WiFi networks spreading in urban areas. Barak challenged me on it. "EVDO rocks!" he said. Who needs WiFi?

I think he has a point, with a couple of caveats. Here in Silicon Valley, WiFi is both enticing and frustrating. I have yet to find anywhere in the entire urban area where there's not a WiFi hot spot. I go to my son's little league baseball game, out at the edge of the suburbs, and I can see eight different hotspots in the neighboring houses. But usually all of them are locked -- I can find the connections, but I can't get in. At this year's CTIA conference in Las Vegas, there was a very extensive WiFi network, but it was saturated or I wasn't accessing it correctly or something. I couldn't get in.

In both of these situations, I just popped out my EVDO phone, cabled it to the USB port of my computer, and I was on the Internet. I look like a geek, but I'm used to that, and the great feeling I get from having access anywhere is enough to compensate for any loss of social status.

I haven't done any formal benchmarks, but data transfer speeds seem about the same as my WiFi network at home. I have had occasional Outlook mail sync problems in which the program reported that it couldn't establish a secure connection, but other than that the connection has been very reliable.

There is no EVDO network outside the cities, of course. But there's rarely a WiFi connection there either.

Does EVDO kill WiFi? I'm not sure. The cool thing about the municipal WiFi networks is that many of them will apparently be free, supported by advertising. At worse, they'll probably be fairly low-cost flat rate. EVDO is more expensive, but it's easier to access once you pay the fee.

I don't know if I personally need connectivity around town badly enough that I'd pay for the service with my own money, but I'd definitely try to talk an employer into paying for it. They'd get enough added productivity from me that it would be worth the investment for them.

I'm going to miss EVDO when Sprint turns off the phone. If they fix the bugs in Outlook sync, I think they have a potential winner on their hands.

The bad stuff

I'm sorry to say that if it weren't for the EVDO-to-PC connection, I would be almost completely negative on my Sprint 3G experience. I've been struggling to decide what frustrates me more about the phone, the user interface or the services bundled on it. I've decided that it's the user interface, because some of the services are okay, whereas almost every aspect of the interface has problems.

Rather than trying to explain everything that's wrong, I'm just going to give you some representative examples:


Web access that isn't. The phone has twelve icons in its first-level launcher. One is labeled "Web." It has a little picture of a globe and an @, just to make sure you get the point. I know from doing market research on mobile users that when you say "Web" they expect to get a full-function web browser. That isn't what Sprint gives me. There's no way for me to input a web address; all I have is a list of categories: Downloads, News, Weather, Sports, Entertainment, Money, etc. There's also a search function, but it searches only within Sprint's walled garden.

Within each category there are several choices that Sprint has pre-selected for me – in news there's CNN, USA Today, Reuters, etc. I can also get the NY Times, but that's $2.99 a month. I bought the Times (hey, Sprint's paying), and the phone downloaded a Java app that runs a special NY Times player. After all this hassle and $3 a month, the content looks almost identical to what I can get for free on CNN et al. I'm disappointed.

Just below the icon for Web is an icon called On Demand. I select it, and it gives me a series of options almost identical to what I had in Web – there's news, sports, weather, money, movies, maps, etc.

After a web search (on my computer, not the phone), I discover that On Demand is a Java-based content service provided by the nice people at Handmark. I should have realized this, because the app flashes the Handmark logo at me whenever it's downloading something.

Why does Sprint bundle a Handmark service that offers pretty much the same stuff as it bundles in Web? I have no earthly idea, but the clear implication is that Sprint threw things into this phone without any coordinated thinking about how it all fit together.

Slow, inaccurate, difficult to use mapping. Location-based services are hot, so I tried out the Maps function within On Demand. At its launch screen, I can either select the current location (via a check box) or enter an address. First I check the current location box. Sometimes the service fails to work at all, but on the most recent try (at a little league game) it cooked up a location that was about a mile northwest of where I actually was. I presume that's the nearest cell tower, but the app never warned me about this inaccuracy.

I tried to scroll the map over to my actual location, but every time I scrolled the map, the app had to call out to a server to retrieve the data. This took from five to 20 seconds per click, and reminded me of what it was like to browse the web on a 28.8 modem. This is one reason why I am not a fan of thin client apps on 3G networks.

I decided I would try inputting an address instead, so I scrolled down to the address entry section of the main screen and tried to type. But the phone beeped at me and would not accept any input. It didn't explain what was wrong either; it looked like the app was frozen. After fumbling around for a while, I realized that I need to manually uncheck the Current Location check box before I can input an address. Hey, Handmark, why not uncheck the box automatically when I start to input an address?

The service seems to work okay at issuing driving directions, but because the phone can't tell where it really is, I have to input both the current address and destination, which is very tedious using a keypad. I could get a lot faster results just using a printed map.

Video: Paying for commercials. This is a multimedia phone (I know because it says "MULTIMEDIA" right on the bezel), so I had to try the video services. The first challenge is to find them. I try Web, which has an Entertainment choice within it. Sure enough, about five TV shows are listed. I pay $2.99 a month to get into Lost, assuming I'll get episode videos. But instead I get content like character summaries and 50-word episode recaps. What a colossal rip-off. I could get this stuff, in a lot more detail, for free on the Web; why am I paying for it here?

So Web clearly isn't the place to get video. There's an icon labeled Media Player, and an option within it says Channel Listing. I select that, and we're in business. A sub-menu lists Sprint TV Live, Sprint TV Ultimate, Music & Radio, Sports, Cartoons, News, and so on.

Sprint TV Live appears to be streaming of some basic cable channels, such as Fox News and Weather Channel. When I try it at the Little League game, the frame rate is noticeably low – maybe ten a second. And sometimes the audio gets choppy or pauses. I think what must be happening is that I'm at the edge of the EVDO network, so I'm not getting full throughput even though the phone reports four bars. (Keep in mind, though, that I'm at a junior high school within the city limits of the tenth largest city in the US, so I'd kind of expect good coverage.)

I tried the same streaming when I was downtown. There the sound was solid, and the frame rate was much better. So it's a network coverage problem.

Fox News and the Weather Channel get old after a while, so let's try a different option: Cartoons. Several channels are listed, including Cartoon Network Adult Swim. That's a late night cable channel that features obscure Japanese anime mixed with very strange original cartoons. Just the thing to amuse me when the little league game gets slow.

I pay my monthly fee for Adult Swim, and the program dumps me back into the top-level listing of channels. I expected it to launch Adult Swim, but instead I have to scroll back down to Cartoons, open that, and then launch Adult Swim. Bad interface design.

First nasty surprise: Not all the shows in Adult Swim are listed. There are only seven shows, and some of my favorites are missing. But okay, here's "Samurai Champloo," which is a very quirky and stylish Japanese samurai / hip-hop thing. So I select that one.

Second nasty surprise: After I select Samurai Champloo, I get a list of only two items – and they aren't episodes. They are just two-minute clips from episodes, each ending with a graphic telling me to watch Cartoon Network. That's right, I am paying these bastards $3.95 a month to watch commercials.

There's another channel dedicated just to anime. It costs $5 a month, and lists only five shows. Each has a single episode posted, cut into several five minute segments. At least I'm getting full episodes, but this is far from a generous selection when I'm paying $60 a year just for this channel!

I didn't try all the other channels, but it looks like you have to pay separately for most of them other than Sprint TV, and this video clip behavior seems to be the norm. Either I get little excerpts from episodes, or a couple of episodes are posted in full, but cut up into a series of clips.

Previously, I thought watching video on a notebook computer via WiFi and DSL was unpleasant – you had to wait a long time for downloads, and the pictures were small and grainy. But that seems like flying on the Concorde in comparison to the Sprint experience.

Disappearing music. I had my daughter try out the phone, and she naturally downloaded some songs. That was dodgy at my house (which, like the ball field, is on the edge of network coverage). She ended up standing in the living room, holding the phone up next to a window to make the download happen (coverage is better at the front of the house). Eventually we got several songs onto the system. The difficult trick was finding the songs again once we had downloaded them. I looked in the My Content icon, where downloaded games and ringtones were saved. But no songs. I tried Media Player, which has a function called "My Play List." The songs ought to be there, right? Nope, the play list is empty.

No, my songs aren't in the Play List. Maybe if I tell it to copy from the Media Listing (whatever that is)...

Dang, the songs aren't in here either.

So I went back to the Music icon, which holds the music store (powered by Groove Mobile). It has a tab labeled Player. When I open that, I finally find the songs. What's more, I discover that I can sort them into playlists. That looks good. I create a new playlist and save it, then exit the music store.

Then I go back to the Media Player icon, and look for the new playlist. Nope, still nothing there.

I decide to try something else. One nice thing about this phone is that when you close the flip cover, there's a small display and music controls on the outside so you can use the phone like an iPod. I try them. But it turns out they don't connect to the music store either. I can't see my playlist, and I can't play any of the songs I paid for

So I have to go back into the music store. While there I notice two other challenges:

--The music store disables the phone. You can't dial out while it's running, and all of your incoming calls are routed direct to voice mail.

--The music store and its cache of songs are all one thin client app. So if you don't have coverage you can't get to your music. That means no listening to your tunes while you're in an airplane.

So here's how it apparently nets out, folks: If you rip or steal MP3s and download them from your computer to the phone, they end up in the phone's built-in media player. You can receive calls while listening to these songs (the phone pauses them automatically), and you can turn off the radio and still use the phone as a music player. But if you buy the songs legitimately from Sprint's online store, the media player can't see them, you can't play them when the radio's off, and you can't receive calls when you're listening to music.

Having worked in the mobile industry, I know how this sort of thing happens – Samsung designed the phone separately from Sprint's service, and there wasn't enough time or money to integrate the phone and service properly. But what a nasty thing to do to the user.

Sirius: Streaming music (with limitations). The Media Player also gives me access to Sirius radio, which I thought was fairly interesting. The client is built into the phone, and costs $6.95 a month. Unlike the video downloads, I got full channels. Good. I'm not sure how pleased a Sirius fan would be, though – there are only 20 channels, all of them music (no sports, no comedy, no Martha Stewart, no Howard Stern). So for a little over half the price of a full Sirius subscription, you get 1/8 the channels. Not a superb value.

Still, I found a channel I liked and the sound quality was okay and I was feeling fairly good about things. I decided to leave the music on in the background while I tried other features.


I have to exit the Media Player to do anything else. The music stops. Same thing if I want to dial the phone – I have to explicitly quit the Media Player first. In fact, if I try to dial a number while Sirius is playing, the phone thinks I'm trying to pick a different radio channel.

As was the case for downloaded music, it appears that you can't receive calls when you're running the Sirius client. The main reason for owning a mobile phone is to make and receive calls; this app is equivalent to a car whose radio doesn't work unless you park.

I'm not sure how often most people would want to use this service.

(After some searching online, I think I've found out why incoming calls are blocked. Apparently the phone is set up to block incoming calls anytime there is an EVDO data session. This is supposedly a compatibility feature because Sprint's older, slower 1XRTT data network can't interrupt a data session. So the built-in media player can play MP3s and still accept calls because it doesn't talk to the network, but Sirius and the music store can't accept calls because they initiate an EVDO session. There are online reports that you can use a secret code to enable incoming calls on the phone during an EVDO session. Sprint doesn't encourage this and says it may disable some future services, such as push e-mail.)

Games do work. To be fair, I should mention that games seemed to work properly on this phone. I lent it to my 11-year-old son, and he downloaded games at a furious pace. Filled up about half of the memory card. Regular old telephony seems to work fine as well.

The interface

Inconsistent navigation. When a phone has a lot of functions embedded behind icons, it's important the user easily undo commands and get back to where they were in the interface. This encourages the user to explore and try new functions. If it's easy to get lost in the interface, the user will become very reluctant to try things – which translates to less usage of those lucrative data functions that the operators want to sell.

This phone has three different ways to go back – there's a Back button, an End button, and sometimes one of the soft buttons is designated as an undo button. It's never clear which one will work in a particular situation, and sometimes I had to use them in different combinations. In some sub-menus within functions, there was no way back at all – my only option was to use End to go all the way back to the start of the interface.

For example, when I tried the New York Times player, I was not impressed with the newspaper content. So I hit the Back button. Only that didn't do anything. So I tried the soft button labeled Quit, but all that did was take me back to the splash screen for the NYTimes app. This is confusing, since I thought that splash screen was part of the NY Times app. If I were a normal user I would be totally lost at this point, but eventually I realized that Quit exited the Java runtime and dumped me back on the splash screen from which Java had been launched.

This must have made sense to someone at Sprint, but it won't to most users.

Anyway, from that point the back button works. I try to back out all the way to the main menu, but the program dumps me into a Downloads screen and refuses to go back any further. I have no idea why I'm in Downloads, but I press End to get away from that before I accidentally buy something.

I think this sort of screwiness happens in part because the phone has applications produced by various third parties, each of which does its navigation differently. But that's no excuse – Sprint should provide interface guidelines, and enforce them on its developers. By failing to do that, Sprint is neglecting its job as the integrator of the device.

Graphical toejam. Each of the twelve icons in the main services menu animates when it's selected (this is called a "focus effect"). I can customize the animation – in one effect, the icon grows larger and changes shape. In another, it's backed by flames. In another it's superimposed over a blob of purple Jell-O. In another it's backed by rippling water effects. All of this is cute, but it's mostly a sign that the people working on the phone had no idea how to allocate their time. They made visual fluff while major parts of the phone didn't actually work.

The synesthesia user interface. Sometimes the people designing a multimedia device feel the need to add a lot of sounds and graphics to it just to prove that it has multimedia capabilities. This is the technology equivalent of a 15-year-old girl who wears halter tops, lowrider jeans and heavy makeup just to prove she's developing curves – and it's about as attractive.

(In other words, a 15-year-old would think it's hot, but I think it's alarming.)

In this phone, the teenage tart routine shows up in the dialer. Instead of making the standard tone noises when you press a key on the keypad, this phone generates offbeat plink and bing sounds, and every number you dial shows up on screen in a different color. It reminds me of the articles I've read about synesthesia, a sensory condition which causes some people to mix their senses – they can hear colors or see sounds. One of the phenomena they sometimes report is that letters and numbers each have their own distinct colors.

Sprint's phone helpfully lets you experience this condition for yourself:

Lookie! It doesn't know enough to insert a line break after the hyphen, but it assigns a cool color to every number.

I count myself lucky that the phone can't generate smells, or the caller ID might work by odor.

"Woah, dude, did you step in something??"

"Nah, my boss just left me a voicemail."

(By the way, it turns out there's an obscure menu command that turns off the rainbow numbers. But I had to study the user manual to find it. How many users are going to do that?)

What it all means

I have very fond memories of Sprint. They were one of the first operators to support Palm OS, and I had a great working relationship with several of the people there. I wish them well. But I think they're on the wrong path with mobile data.

Sprint's going to get a distorted view of public demand for data services. Because the games are relatively easy to find and use, they're going to get more usage. Many other data services won't be used because they're hard to find, hard to figure out, and often deeply disappointing.

If a handheld vendor produced a product this broken the company would go bankrupt. But of course that's not going to happen to Sprint because the mobile data thing is a sideline to its successful voice business. All that will happen to Sprint is that it will waste gobs of R&D money and frustrate its customers.

I think it's arrogant for a mobile phone company to try to make decisions for its customers on what they should or should not do with data. The voice equivalent would be if they tried to regulate what subjects could be discussed on a voice call. Who would tolerate that?

I strongly encourage the folks at Sprint to ask themselves if they're truly competent to create wireless data services. The strong evidence is that they're not. I think they would have a much better chance of making money if they opened up the data network to all third party developers and let customers choose which services will win. Maybe Sprint could make money by taking a cut of the billings, just as DoCoMo does with iMode. Or maybe it could just focus on being a carrier for other peoples' data, which is what it does with voice. Either choice would be better than creating more media hairballs like this phone.


PS: Is the Sprint Ambassador program a good idea?

I'm a big fan of "influencer marketing," the process of working with early adopter customers who advise others on whether or not to buy a product. It's a very affordable way for companies to work with vertical markets without making a huge investment in each, and it allows even small companies to have a big marketing impact if they make a great product. It's also an outstanding way to get feedback from your most enthusiastic customers.

The Internet made influencer marketing possible for most firms. Because it's a new field, the ground rules for it are still being worked out. My colleague Nilofer Merchant recently wrote about an influencer marketing program that Lego runs, and Microsoft has been running a program called MVP for years.

Most influencer marketing programs focus on building two-way relationships with a relatively small number of users. The Sprint program is different in that it appears to be recruiting a relatively large number of people, and the approach is not very personal – they just send you an e-mail (and one that isn't signed by any identifiable person). There's a whole sub-thread of discussion in the blogging community on whether the Ambassadors program is a good thing. Sprint has made almost no effort to engage in a dialog with me, other than an occasional automatic-looking e-mail asking me to send in feedback. They basically just threw a free phone at me.

One school of marketing thought says that any form of publicity is a good thing (although some former Firestone Tire executives might beg to differ). A Google search for the term "Sprint ambassador" yields about 23,000 hits, so the program is generating some buzz. But a random walk through the comments shows more discussion about the program than actual discussion of the phone and service. Some of the comments complained about the impersonality of Sprint's approach, and there were a number of complaints from Ambassadors who wanted to transfer their current phone numbers to the Ambassador phone (something Sprint says it can't do for billing reasons). This hamstrings the program for many people because it means they can't make the Ambassador phone their main phone. It's more like something to play with on the side, which is the way I use it.

There's also an amusing post from a blogger in Copenhagen, who was invited to join the program even though the nearest EVDO cell tower is about 4,000 miles to the west.

So is the Sprint Ambassador program good marketing or bad marketing? Hard to say because I don't know what Sprint's goal was. It's not a home run, that's for sure, because so much of the online discussion is about the program itself rather than the phones.

On the other hand, maybe Sprint should be grateful for that since the phone and services have so many problems.


What do you think? Am I being unfair to Sprint? Do you have this phone and like it? You're welcome to post your thoughts.

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