Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Midlets in Space

I've been agonizing a bit over whether it is a good idea to create a real, running web instance of the Skip phone client using one of the J2ME-in-a-J2SE-Applet phone emulations like ME4SE or MicroEmulator.

When I first saw a product being shown in one of these emulators (try before you buy!), I thought, "Why doesn't everyone in the mobile software business do this? What a no brainer!" This system lets people see real live apps, instead of screenshots. Here's a great geeky example.
It give a more believable presentation of the app experience that a customer would get (provided her phone has specs similar to what's being emulated, of course). This sort of thing is just what is needed, a lure to get consumers over the hump, where they'll download an app because they've really seen what it's like.

But I'm afraid I'm in a position to recant that statement. There are two issues which argue against that sort of demo.

First, the ergonomics: when you're holding your own phone in your hand, it's comfortable and intuitive to hit the directional keys, softkeys, etc. with your thumb. In the emulator, however, you're using a mouse pointer to click on tiny images of keys that belong to no phone in particular. So a user actually gets an impression of the app in the emulator that is much more awkward than an installation in a real device would be.

More importantly, however, is the user's context, and the way it informs perceptions about the usefulness and value of the application.

Here's an example of how relevant the gap is between the context of user-on-PC and of user-away-from-PC: on a Windows PC, the built-in notepad text editor is the most mundane and unimpressive of apps. But now imagine you don't have a desktop or laptop. You're using a mobile phone or a PDA to take some notes while sitting on a bus. All of a sudden, that notepad experience -- resizable window up to 1280x1024 or more, full-sized 104-key keyboard, mouse for selecting text -- would be a phenomenal luxury. Imagine if you could have that experience somehow with a palm-sized gadget!

Well, mobile software demonstrated on a PC has the same sort of issue: on the giant, 32-bit screen of a 3+ GHz PC, next to Half Life 2 and 4 Mbps of broadband, mobile software in emulation looks like some sort of hokey throwback. "It's so small and awkward, it's not pretty and it doesn't ever do very much." Well, when you're away from that PC, if a tiny piece of software does the one thing you need, it's pretty sweet. Consider BlackBerry email or SMS text messaging. In the right context, these are great communications apps. Never mind how they stack up to Outlook 2003 or a full-on IM client.

And that's basically the issue. I want customers to be intrigued enough to try Skip. But I want their first Skip client experience to be a discovery of how much that handheld device and 3G network can do for them when they're out living life away from a PC.

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