So long, Symbian

This week, my phone contract came to an end and it was time to say goodbye to my old smartphone – a Sony Ericsson P1i. I thought it fitting to say a few words. Don’t confuse this with a review for a 3-year old phone – this is more like a comparison between the early days of smartphones, and the handsets you can buy today.

Sony Ericsson P1i

I’ve had the P1i for 19 months, during which time I have used it every single day – so I know it pretty well. I originally chose it because I wanted a smartphone – something that could handle web and email. My previous phone had been a Sony Ericsson K800i, which had GPRS, and a basic email client and web browser. It was slow, and it never really worked properly. I guess that’s what you might expect given that it wasn’t a smartphone 🙂

So I chose the P1i because it boasted 3G, wifi, a decent web browser, a more complex email client and other Internet-oriented features. It also had a QWERTY keyboard and a touchscreen with a stylus. There wasn’t a lot of choice because at the time, nearly all smartphones were sold intended for business, and the Apple iPhone had just been released but cost a weeks’ wages – even if you were the boss of Apple.

(I briefly owned a BlackBerry Pearl 8100, but it was so awful that I sent it back after 48 hours).

I had used a Sony Ericsson M600i at work, so I knew vaguely what I was getting. The P1i was pretty much the same, except with twice the memory, a newer OS, and wifi. When I started using it, I was excited that I’d be able to browse the web at will, read my emails on the move and never be bored again.

But my dream never quite came true. Why not?

The web browser

As mobile browsers of the day go, it was pretty good. It was an integrated version of Opera Mini which is a decent browser. It just doesn’t cut the mustard these days, as you simply can’t do without Flash or Javascript. Many sites simply don’t work.

Like today’s smartphones, it had options for portrait or landscape viewing. Unfortunately, you have to go into a menu to switch your view.

There’s no automatic resizing or scaling, so if you are looking at a “real” website, typically you only see the top corner and there’s an awful lot of vertical scrolling and horizontal scrolling before you find what you want. You also can’t scroll the way you can on modern phones such as the iPhone – by dragging the whole page with your finger. Scrolling was done using traditional scroll bars, which had to be dragged with the stylus (because they were too small for a finger).

And, as we now know, the concept of duplicating all web content in a special mobile web doesn’t really work. Sure, some sites offer mobile-friendly versions (e.g. Bristol University’s Mobile Campus Assistant) but it’s just not feasible to expect that you will never need to look at a “real” website on your phone.

The overall experience wasn’t great, and was mainly reserved for needing to find information on the move, such as store opening hours or a postcode for the sat nav.

The email client

If you only have an inbox folder, then you probably wouldn’t mind the email client on the P1i. However on my work email account, I have dozens of folders that incoming mail gets automatically sorted into. This is a nuisance on the P1i, as you have to go a couple of levels into the menus to choose which folder you’d like to view, and you have to go into each and every folder to see if it has any new messages in it.

I only really used the email client for writing emails when I was out and about.

The contract

Data contracts were expensive at the time I bought the P1i. They were most definitely targeted at business users, and my domestic mobile contract only included 1MB of data a month. That might let you view a handful of mobile websites, but it’s really nothing as soon as you start looking at “real” websites.

So I only used it in emergencies, because I knew that anything more would start to cost an arm and a leg.

The interface

The P1i has a QWERTY keyboard which is great for quick typing. It also has a jog-dial and some navigation buttons on the side, and of course the touchscreen. Depending the app or menu in question, you can sometimes use the touchscreen with a finger if you’re careful. Other times you’ll need the stylus.

The problem is that you have to keep switching between different input methods. The number of times I’ve started going through menus with the jog-dial, been forced to intervene by touching the screen, pressing the wrong thing, being forced to get the stylus out and then ended up typing awkwardly while also holding the stylus shows that the interface isn’t really mature.

Today, it’s practically impossible to buy a smartphone with a stylus (or a keyboard, for that matter).

The menu system

The main downfall of Symbian UIQ3 was its excessive complexity. Basic tasks, such as writing a new text message, would mean the user had to find their way through several levels of menus. Everything seemed to be hidden behind several menus, and there were pages and pages of options that would frighten most people. Consider also what I just said about constantly switching between input methods, and you might get an idea of the pain involved in, for example, changing the time zone when you go on holiday.

If this weren’t enough, the menus are slooooow and laggy. Opening a menu with several items might take a second, maybe longer. Opening your SMS inbox sometimes took as long as five seconds. That is an eternity in the world of technology users, and I often found myself hissing “come on!” at the phone when I was trying to do something.

Apps

Symbian was the forerunner of today’s smartphones in that it allowed users to download and install apps on their phone. There was no app store, and finding apps involved browsing the web endlessly and downloading them. It was a bit of a pain to do so on the phone itself, so I usually would find and download apps on my PC and transfer them to the phone using the cable or Bluetooth.

That’s fine for a geek like me, but the main problem was the fact that there were two Symbian based platforms – Sony Ericsson’s UIQ3, and Nokia’s S60. As always, there was a platform war and S60 won. It’s now quite hard to find any UIQ3 apps, and when most software developers say “Symbian” they mean “S60”.

Incidentally, Sony Ericsson are still making Symbian-based phones (such as the new Satio) but they now use S60.

The good points

Despite what I’ve said so far, it’s not all bad. The P1i did have some great features, such as:

  • Hardware QWERTY keyboard. I was almost as fast typing on this as on a laptop.
  • Relatively small size – it’s a lot smaller than my replacement phone – an iPhone 3GS.
  • An LED on the base that blinks when you’ve got a text message or missed call. The iPhone really needs one of these!
  • A battery that lasts a million years. So far, the iPhone has needed charging pretty much every night.

It’s been a good phone. It’s just time to move on now 🙂

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