Warning: While this review was written with the intent to be a review about the Samsung Focus smartphone, it also ends up being a little bit about the Mango OS, and the behavior it induces, as well as the meaning it creates. I come from a school of thought that design teaches as it improves the user and the user’s expectation. It may also go so far, in really great mobile device and mobile software design, to eliminate the need for expectations by reducing difficulty and ensuring compatibility between user and phone.
It is possible that Apple does not deserve to be the top standard for mobile devices and that many types of devices and many types of interfaces can earn top billing because they do different things for different people.
I know this now because I have had experienced what for me feels like good fortune. Due to my social influence score on Klout.com, where I also serve as an advisor on their Klout Squad advisory panel, I was given a Samsung Focus Windows phone with a Microsoft Mango OS.
My experience with it and this review is not so much about what makes this phone – or any other phone – better, but what makes each phone different for each user and why different needs means different levels of enjoyment or frustration for different users. I will focus on my experience.
It should have been simple, right? I should have realized from the start that my lack of true adoration and love for the Apple iPhone meant it was not doing a job for me. I wanted something different. I was unsure what that different thing was, so I needed a different phone to help me define what that is.
I remember the first time I got an Apple iPhone. People, mostly women, would stop me on the subway and say, “Oh, an iiiiiiiiiiPhone…..”. Right. It’s an iPhone. And my reaction would be gleeful appreciation for the validation. It helped me forget that there was not much I was getting from the iPhone that I couldn’t get from other devices. The only thing that was really, truly, different, in my experience, was the ability to do all of the things normally found on a desktop, or in five different devices, in one tiny computer.
In retrospect, I think an iPhone served me one job – it gave me social credibility and attention, at a time of my life when I needed it most. I had just moved to NYC from Asia, after spending six years there researching digital media and social networks, and practicing journalism, mostly in China and Hong Kong. My experience in Asia came just as smartphones were launching around the world, but the true leaders in this technology were in Asia. I had seen something like a dozen smartphones and used them – and lost them in taxi cabs in Hong Kong – so I had a very sound experience in smartphone technology.
When I arrived in New York City in 2007, the first version of the iPhone was coming out, so I bought it. It was unlike any smartphone I had used in my life. But I realize now I was not paying attention to my user experience at all. I was paying attention to how people were paying attention to me. I had the first of what has become, and will continue to be, the most radical redefinition of small mobile computing devices used for communication.
iPhone is about communication consumption: it is about turning communication and media into pure consumption. It is also about taking how you are consuming something and making yourself into a brand. In other words,
Now there are other mobile computing devices that do this, but I have to say, the Microsoft OS case stands out for something different – it is purely about how to process information and organize and make my life simpler. I’ve had a chance to experience them. I’ve dated, so to speak, a couple of phones, and realize that I like phones that do something for me in return for me doing something for them.
The Samsung Focus doesn’t look like much at first. It’s smaller and less bulky looking than the iPhone 4, which I owned before being given the Focus. It’s lighter. The touchable interface is slightly larger than the iPhone, at four inches.
Here’s what the Windows OS does for me that iPhone didn’t readily help me do:
- Lock Screen Imagery I admit it. I am a sucker for gorgeous screens that seem to convey something to me. The Mango interface gives more acreage to image, meaning that not a lot of the image in my lock screen wallpaper is covered over by text, blocks, or infrastructure. I simply slide up the lock screen, and it reveals a very broad and perfectly aligned two columns of apps, contacts and tools. Done. There’s just something about the way this happens. I also sense that maybe the same designers that came up with the Bing search screen idea of having a gorgeously portrayed big image were used to do this technique on the phone.
- App Search Ease Search for apps I want to use and use them quickly – in the Mango interface, everything is aligned vertically, requiring one to scroll down the river of the phone’s touchable display to find what one needs. Unlike the iPhone, there’s no shrinking or expanding of an app icon, something that I now realize is pretty annoying for me. I have pretty good eyesight, but one thing that frustrates me is that even though I have named the boxes on the iPhone where I store my apps, for all but the apps I use regularly (Gmail, Google, Foursquare, Instagram), I still have to hunt, peck and then open the app, and I think the steps to do this are Three: 1 – find 2 – hit box to find app 3 – find app. In the Mango interface, I can keep some apps and some contacts even on the home screen requiring only two hits 1 – a swipe to find and 2 – a tap to open. I find that I actually really like this, and it seems like a simple and very obvious improvement. The iPhone apps and their presentation now seem over-designed to me.
- 3. An App In Time Saves Nine As would be expected, even the app presentation and layout in Mango is different and more pleasing to use. It’s simpler, and it seems more receptive to user intentions. I open up the Foursquare app and it seems like it’s ready for me in the Mango OS. In the iPhone, push notifications for Foursquare pile up on my lock screen. That doesn’t happen in Mango, they always stay behind the screen and come out when I want to see them or interact with them. In a way, when Foursquare notifications (and yes, I know I can turn them off) come out on my lock screen, a subtle meaning is conveyed. Yes, this is still my phone, but it’s broadcasting more and more about my friends to me. Do I always want to hear from my friends? Do I want to know everything about them? No, I don’t, as anyone with friends fully knows.
- 4. Passive versus Active I’m perhaps reaching here, but I find that the less active I have to be to make something happen on the phone, the happier I am going to be. I expect not very much from my phone, but one thing I really, really want is to not have to worry about taking too many steps to save information or organize it. I love the fact that today I opened up an email from a guy that I needed to interview for a project and clicked on the phone number in the text. The phone instantly gathered all of his other information from all the other social profiles openly available on the internet and organized all of this information into one contact. Do you realize how interesting this is? Do you realize what this means? It means I am no longer pre-exhausted before I know the new contact, because I don’t have to spend any time working what in essence feels like a pen and ink ledger of personal data. It’s there. It’s also social. It’s instantly accessible. I am pretty sure that as my data is arranged this way for others, too, this makes getting to know me an enjoyable experience both virtually and in the physical space-time continuum.
There are frustations. No phone is going to be perfect.
I can’t find some apps that I really like to use on an iPhone, especially Instagram. In fact, there doesn’t even seem to be a similar kind of Instagram, but I am new to the Microsoft app store, so don’t know what I am not seeing. Over time, I may discover more of these kinds of apps.
I don’t like the little vibratory bump that you get from hitting the sensor pad at the bottom of the phone to return to home screen, or the arrow touch pad that takes you back to the previous page. Something about the bump seems unnecessary, since I am looking at the screen already. I will be able to see that it’s taking the right action.
Users can toggle a change in the settings that makes every icon box on the home screen, and every proprietary Microsoft app icon one color. But there are only nine colors and I don’t like more than two: basic blue and red. It’s like I have a full closet of shoes, but I only want two different pairs. Eventually, even those shoes I like are going to wear down and wear on me. I’m going to get so sick of seeing them.
What a relationship we end up having with phones, then.
It reminds me of things I wish I had known in past relationships. I wish I knew that acceptance of someone else as they are is the hallmark of a relationship built out of compatibility. There is enough of a similarity between at least 90-95% between the two that the things that bother tend to melt away over time, and the things that are similar seem to catalyze a long term and growing sense of assuredness. There is a bond.
I’ve never felt a bond with my iPhone. I felt something more like a compulsion. I wanted it with me, but I didn’t want the phone. I wanted what was in it.
I always wanted to check m phone, see what was new. I was rigged and beaten into wanting to see those little red boxes with numbers in them. Simply and confusingly Pavlovian.
I can honestly say with this Samsung phone, I feel more interested in using the phone.
I like to set this phone down, and leave it alone for a while. I am happy when someone chimes in and sends me a text. I am happy when the phone rings. I am okay with this phone. I like this phone. I am going to keep this phone.
And when the monthly bills start to come, I am going to pay them. It’s the least I can do. I owe it to this phone.
Disclosure: Microsoft has given me this phone with, allegedly, a year’s free calling plan and unlimited data and text. I received it as a Perk from Klout.com. I was not instructed to write about it, and I was given no other incentive than the chance to have and use the phone for however long I want to use it.
- Samsung Focus Flash Review: High-End Feel At A Low Price (techcrunch.com)
- Review: Samsung Focus Flash for AT&T (phonescoop.com)
- Microsoft unveils $50 smartphone Samsung Focus Flash (usatoday.com)
- 2 Positive Signs for Mango (fool.com)