Monday, May 29, 2006

Why Nokia may be good for Linux

Let's start off with an article in CNN's Technology section, "Making cell phones simple is hard." The article's primary thrust is that the cellular operators want people to buy more sophisticated handsets so they can sell more expensive data services, and thus make more money. The simple voice-as-business model just doesn't work for the cellular operators any more, so they have to convince buyers to pay for downloaded music, email, and streaming video services. The biggest threat to this? Push back from a lot of customers who just want simple, reliable, and easy-to-use mobile telephones that deliver high-quality voice. And by the way, you can count me in as part of this crowd.

The process of cramming ever-more functionality onto cellphones has made the cellphones ever-more difficult to configure and operate. Tiny screens, deeply layered menus, and the confusing user interface force many users to set up just the basics and then leave the rest of it alone out of sheer frustration. Operators and manufacturers now go through a lot of user testing to see what works and what doesn't in an effort to make the whole experience as pleasant as possible.

How does this figure into something good for Linux? Consider the following interesting observation from the article:
"If you bring somebody in and they have problems, it's not because they're dumb, but we were dumb with the design..."
Consider that nearly everything created for Linux is by Linux geeks for other Linux geeks, not for the average end-user, especially the cellphone end user. That's why, in spite of some distributor's best efforts (Novell and Ubuntu, for example), Linux's use on the desktop is in the very low single digits compared to Windows and Mac OS. And as long as the geeks are in charge of the end-user experience, that's all it will ever be. If you don't believe that usability is extremely important, consider this quote:
"We believe there's a strong correlation between our standard of success and how usable the products are..."
That's why, claims of monopolistic practices not withstanding, Windows has been successful and continues to be successful. And let's not forget Mac OS X. As part of an office where at least half are Mac users (with many of them former Linux users), the biggest reason I hear (and observe) for the Mac's success is the easy to use and consistent interface of the software and the fact everything Just Works.

So how will Nokia help Linux? First, Nokia is one of the major cellphone vendors who want to sell easy-to-use equipment to the providers, who in turn want to convince users to use newer, more cash-rich services. And Nokia is experimenting with Linux, especially on the 770. I've had lots of complaints about the 770, but to give credit where credit is due, the user interface is far easier to use than any full-blown distribution, and with the notable exception of the clock on the April 2006 release, everything Just Worked. The most spectacular example of something just working is the Connection Manager. Until I fired up the 770, I didn't know that Linux was even capable of easy wireless connectivity. The only Linux distribution that's easier is Suse 10.1 with the Network Applet under Gnome. And it's easier because it re-connects automatically when I turn on my notebook, something I wish the 770 would do.

Nokia's gone to a lot of trouble to create the 770's software platform, and to create it open and transparent. Nokia created the Hildon user interface and its specific look-and-feel for the landscape-mode display, and I think it's very good. They've increased the overall performance of the software with each release of the firmware as well as making it increasingly stable. I believe that the 770's user interface is evolving towards the same high quality of usability that Mac OS has attained (I didn't say look because eye-candy does a useful interface make). Since the Nokia 770's software platform is all open source, it should (if the theory works) filter back to the other distributions, and perhaps even show to the F/OSS community what it takes to build really good interfaces, as well as why it's so important. Otherwise Linux will continue to be dead last on the desktop.

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