Mobile Device of the Year, 2007

It's very difficult to say what's the best mobile device in a given year, because different people have different needs and desires. The ideal device for me might be repulsive to you, and vice-versa. But most of the computer publications try to make a call anyway. If you read the end-of-year reviews online, you'll probably conclude that the best mobile product of the year was the iPhone. It was cited by the Washington Post, Wired, Business Week, and Tech Republic (which strangely listed it as a business technology product, alongside and LinkedIn).

Other mobile products getting mentions from major publications included the Nokia n95, iPod Touch, Razr 2, and Blackberry 8800. Amazon's Kindle was the only one that showed up on both best-of and worst-of lists. The best-ofs generally liked the wireless features and screen, while the worst-ofs disliked the closed business model and "eye-poking" industrial design.

I don't agree with any of those choices.

Since people have different needs, I think the best product of the year ought to be the one that best meets needs the needs of a particular group of users. It should be utterly compelling to its own audience. There are several questions to ask:

How efficient is it? Since people use mobile devices on the go, it should do just what the user needs, without any confusion or unneeded features. But there can't be any critical features missing, either.

How well does it trade off size vs. power? Because it's carried on your person, where size and weight are at a premium, it should balance tiny size with reasonable battery life.

How does it look? Because it's effectively a part of your wardrobe, it must look great (or whatever the target customer thinks of as great).

By that standard, I think the best mobile device of 2007 -- in fact, one of the best mobile products of all time -- was the third generation iPod Nano.

Don't get me wrong, iPhone fans. The iPhone is a very interesting and provocative device. There are some beautiful features in the user interface, and I love the turmoil it's causing in the industry. Several years from now we may look back on it and call it the most influential mobile device of its time. But that doesn't mean it's the best product.

To me, the iPhone is more an intriguing statement of direction than a completed product at this point. The lack of 3G is a huge compromise, and Apple obviously didn't think through the third party application thing. If you want a slow mobile browser that also plays music and videos and doubles as a somewhat awkward phone, then the iPhone is great. But for all of the cool highlights in the iPhone, I don't think it's enough to crush the phone industry in its current version. Future versions, maybe. We'll shortlist the iPhone III for product of the year in 2010.

The n95 is also a remarkable product in its own way, and I know it inspires a lot of technolust, especially in Europe. But in my opinion, it's just the latest Swiss Army Knife of the mobile world. Next year there will be another one from Nokia or Samsung or somebody else that has an even higher-resolution camera or maybe an electric toothpick or something, and people will be fawning all over that one. Like a lot of Japanese consumer electronics products, it's not a marvelous product as much as it is a marvelously ingenious bag of features.

By contrast, in third generation Nano is not just the latest model from Apple, it's an elegant culmination of the design work they've been doing for years.

The Nano doesn't look all that great in photographs. It's wider than its predecessor, which produced some criticism when it was announced (Engadget nicknamed it "fatty," which is asinine when you see it in person). In real life, the Nano's shape is compelling. It's much thinner than you'd expect from the pictures -- shockingly thin for something that has a color screen and plays videos. With its heavily rounded corners and brightly colored case, it feels a bit like a high tech chocolate wafer. You're almost tempted to take a bite out of it.

Physically, the Nano is almost all user interface -- the screen and thumbwheel take up the entire front of the device. Until we get flexible screens, the Nano is about as small as you can possibly make a device with its features. This is the endpoint, a form factor that's going to be with us for a while.

The biggest surprise to me about the Nano is the usability of video on it. When it was announced, I thought video was a throwaway feature -- who would ever want to watch video on a screen that small? But the reality is that when you're sitting down, you'll hold a Nano about 18 inches (45 cm) away from your face. At that distance, the screen is about the same apparent size as a 20-inch television (50 cm) at the other side of the living room. It's not like watching a flat panel monster screen, but it's very usable.

I'm not sure yet how much video will be used on the device, or what sorts of video, but that's a general question about mobile video rather than anything specific about the Nano. What I've observed so far is teenage girls using the Nano to watch music videos together, commenting on how cute the drummer is.

And that's just another sign that Apple made a great design for its target audience.

The new Nano doesn't have Bluetooth built into it, or Wi-Fi, or a camera, or a phone, or a hard drive. That probably accounts for why the technophiles online have been so dismissive of it (link). But to me, it's an almost perfect balance of functionality and art. Come back in ten or twenty years and I think you'll find it in design museums, when most of today's mobile devices will be long-forgotten and mildly embarrassing.

What do you think? Do you agree with my choice? If not, what do you think was the best mobile device of 2007?


Anonymous said...

iLounge has also named the 3G iPod nano the (Apple) Mobile Device of 2007:

Anonymous said...

"Mobile Device of the Year". For me, that means the mobile device that proved most useful. And for me, most useful means does the most stuff. Stuff that I do every day: Make phone calls, read and reply to e-mail, take pictures, browse the internet, travel using GPS, and listen to music. The N95 does all those things, in a mobile context, and at speeds which are "good enough" for me to have replaced the stand alone cameras, GPS devices, etc. which I used to carry around with me.

True that the N95 won't be remembered for its HW design, and the Nano may very well find its way into a design or art museum. But then the title of the article isn't "Most Beautiful HW Design of the Year" or even "Most Elegant UI of the Year". It is "Mobile Device of the Year".

Mirko said...

I agree with you Micheal. The Nano 3G is my device: i use it everyday as an iPod, as a PDA, as a game platform, as a video playback devices. It has no connectivity, i know, but i do not think that connectivity is the "conditio sine qua non" for consider a device "mobile". The mobile patent does not come from connectivity, it comes from the right mix of portability and features. But features you really use.
What do you think of an hypotetic iPod Nano 4g with, let's say, 20 grams more, same size, touch screen and GMS/UMTS inside?

Andy said...

Very fair points. I too mocked the Nano's form factor until I actually got my hands on one, whereupon I fell in love with it. It's a delightful little thing.

Anonymous said...

for this next year one very interesting device may be the sony mylo2. what i love about is that it looks and acts very much like a full featured cell phone. sure it only works on wifi(but most every cities in america you have an open wifi access point practically everywhere you go - more likely a choice of 3 or 4)

but the reason to love it is you can set it up with a free VOIP provider and have a phone with absolutely no phone bill. or if you insist you can go with a 3 dollar a month skype plan. this has potential to be distruptive.

at the end of the day more than any feature set, technology or inovation price and ongoing costs will drive the market for consumers.

Michael Mace said...

>>The N95 does all those things, in a mobile context, and at speeds which are "good enough" for me

That's cool; as I said, the right device for one person might be the wrong one for someone else.

To be clear, though, I didn't pick the Nano because it's pretty. I picked it because, in my opinion, it's the culmination of a design direction in an important part of the mobile market. By design, I mean the whole mix of physical appearance, functionality, and software. The Nano is great on all of those aspects, and the parts all work together very well.

>>for this next year one very interesting device may be the sony mylo2

Yes, it's an interesting one to watch in the future. Thanks.

Dean Bubley said...

Hi Michael

I had 3 devices in my post on this issue -

The iPhone, the N95... and also the Huawei "soap on a rope" 3G USB "dongle" modem.

I'm not sure if it's got any traction in the US, but in Europe it's completely changed the mobile broadband market. It's taken it from a corporates-only market to a consumer play.

In the UK, Hutchison 3 even sells them in black & pink, and offers "skins" including furry leopard-print.

Services based on the modem start at £10 / $20 per month for 1GB data cap. It's changed the game.

All the hype about 3G embedded modems in PCs has gone out the window. It's all about USB - Sierra Wireless, ZTE & others are also in the market now.


Anonymous said...

For me, it would be the iPod Touch. It is a 'complete' product and offers superb multimedia playback- a real jump up from previous iPods (apart from the memory of course).

Danny K. said...

Have you seen the TyTN II "Kaiser". That is the mobile device of the year. Phone, Pocket PC (Office), GPS, Camera 3 mexgapixels, front camera VGA, Comm. GSM/UMTS/HSDPA (3.5G), and sliding tilting keyboard, ALL in one distintive and beautiful unit. Check it out

Danny K. said...

Have you seen the TyTN II "Kaiser". That is the mobile device of the year. Phone, Pocket PC (Office), GPS, Camera 3 mexgapixels, front camera VGA, GSM/UMTS/HSDPA (3.5G), and sliding tilting keyboard, ALL in one distintive and beautiful unit. Check it out

Anonymous said...

My device of the year was the BlackBerry 8310 Curve. Features I use all the time:

- email of course, work and personal
- built in GPS with Google Maps
- 2MP camera
- emailing pictures directly to my Flickr album
- emailing pictures to friends - cause you have everyones email addresss in your contacts
- quickly catching up on headlines via the RSS feed support in the browser
- and the browser itself - not the greatest but works OK
- great battery life - 3/4 days
- facebook client.

Can't wait fo the 3G version...