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    Jack of all trades?

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    Mobile music – handset design

    The mobile handset is becoming the Swiss Army Knife of the electronics world. But can it take on all-devices and win, asks Peter Whale, of Motorola TTPCom Product Group

    Pundits have big plans for the mobile phone handset which, apparently, is going to absorb the functionality of digital still and video camera, MP3 player, gaming terminal and web/email. With prices for basic telephone handsets falling sharply, vendors need these extra functions to protect revenues and make the business of selling phones financially viable. On the other hand, there is the real danger that, in trying to take on all of these capabilities, the “do it all” handset will fail to match the function-specific devices it seeks to oust from its owner’s pocket. In this view, the omni-functional handset will not deliver the sales success or premium margins that vendors desire.

    Successful implementation of audio, photography, web access and gaming in the mobile space is also crucially important to mobile network operators seeking to replace declining revenues from basic voice services. Of course, this intensifies the questions as to whether the future operator will exist as a vendor of content or as a conduit for high value data traffic. Regardless of the answer, the emergence of credible handset solutions supporting valuable media capabilities is critical to its success.

    In electronic design terms, of course, integrating MP3 player, digital photography, game playing and Internet functions within a form factor that is acceptable for a mobile handset is technically feasible. However, wider considerations will actually limit the functions that can be supported well enough to convince buyers that they can leave the MP3 player, for example, at home and instead rely on the mobile handset. These include power requirements, cost and — arguably most importantly — ergonomics.

    In encouraging handset owners to use their phones for extra functions, vendors are naturally inviting significant reductions in battery life. The new active modes, such as MP3 playback or gaming, for example, will be invoked during periods when an ordinary phone would be standing-by. Photography features also invite additional loads when basic call functions are dormant. Low power design and power management techniques such as turning off the screen when not required, for example during MP3 playback, can recoup some of these losses.

    These next generation handset capabilities will also require significantly greater storage capacity than their predecessors. Handsets comprising removable flash media or miniature hard disk drives are already entering the market. Removable flash has the advantage of allowing an attractively priced handset that will function out of the box, while activities such as file sharing and printing also become easier and more versatile. On the other hand, currently available handsets incorporating an HDD provide up to several gigabytes of user storage. In practice, there is no reason why a handset vendor should not offer both types in a comprehensive product portfolio.

    Tougher challenges, however, lie in the ergonomics and user interfaces of emerging multi-function phones, not least because 21st century mobile phone buyers do tend to know what they are looking for in this respect. Although menu driven controls are effective in standardising the ways an owner will exercise diverse handset functions, these rarely, if ever, support the fastest or most convenient operation. Navigating MP3 player controls, for example to stop, pause, skip or re-select, will become tiresome if the user is obliged to activate several soft keys to accomplish each operation. Instead a truly MP3 friendly handset, for example, must offer dedicated MP3 player control buttons. The ideal location may differ depending on whether the phone is a clamshell or candybar design, for example, and could be beneath the subscreen or on the side of the handset.

    The questions surrounding how users will exercise premium functions is pertinent to all of the end user applications that handset designers are seeking to penetrate. For example, the most convincing cameraphones appear to be those that are held in the same way as a conventional DSC; for example, with two hands thereby minimising camera shake. Controls such as the shutter button have to fall naturally to hand, and must operate instantaneously. Alternatively, in a handset designed to support email functions, the standard telephone keypad must give way to a more convenient device for text entry.

    For ergonomic reasons, then, as well as cost and power budget, handset designs will likely focus on maximising just one enhanced capability. For example, audio-centric handsets will major on delivering a top notch experience as an MP3 player in addition to basic telephony, but may offer only entry-level photography capabilities – if at all. The handset sales pitch can then leave behind the traditional sell – progressively greater functionality at a lower price – and instead position a smaller subset of features that are every bit as good as those of a competing, single-purpose product. The result is a more convincing value proposition for modern, mobile-savvy consumers, which should command premium handset prices and drive genuine growth in consumption of mobile services.