First Impressions For almost a year the hype has been gathering around the SonyEricsson P800, which is easily the most talked-about phone on Slashdot. It must be the most hyped handheld device since the Apple Newton.
I've had two weeks with one and generally, I'm as pleased as punch with it. As early reviews indicate, it's a great phone and a thoroughly respectable PDA, all in one, at a price that undercuts todays PDAs.
One dealer in the UK, where it began to go on sale for as little as $300 towards the end of last week, described it to me as the best ready for market phone he'd seen, and he's probably right.
But for the real news, and why I called it 'revolutionary', you can thank Opera. This is the first handheld that does the full web - Opera's native Symbian browser is quite amazing. I think this is the beginning of the end for two quite horrible, but related ideas: repurposing content through WAP gateways or "clipping" (the Palm VII/Danger Hiptop model); and closed-garden carrier services. People want the full web, and want to go where they please - not where some phone company wants them to go. This they can now do, at a very affordable price.
For three days at CodeCon I passed it around anyone who wanted to have a look. The reaction was generally positive, until people discovered Opera. Then, usually after some "fsck%7ng h311!" expletives, the reaction was ecstatic.
"Now that's convergence," said one CodeCon speaker.
The Opera browser handled everything I could throw at it in normal mode, where you pan around the page with the screen as a viewport. But the killer is "small screen rendering", as illustrated here (where you can even see how it handles El Reg), which shrinks the JPEGS to fit the screen.
So what else is there to like?
First of all, it's very fast indeed. I'd expected it to lag, given the demanding specification, but it feels snappy even under heavy load:- an ssh session, Opera and taking pictures. I didn't try playing Doom at the same time, because I only got as far as loading the engine, not the WADs. But multi-tasking only goes so far: the P800 suspends a data session when you get a voice call, so you can't talk and surf.
Battery consumption is good enough. Which sounds like a back-handed compliment but really isn't. It's good enough to leave Bluetooth on all the time, which I didn't dare expect.
The P800 comfortably gets through the day, and the only time I felt obliged to turn it off was on the TGV train from Marseilles to Paris last week. At 200 mph, it was noticeably draining the battery as the phone tried to keep track of which cell it should be in. That shouldn't trouble Americans, however, as trains simply don't go that fast here, given the country's preference for Stealth bombers. (Marseille to Paris is an incredible journey, by the way - not for the view but for the giddy sensation of tunnelling your way through the earth at such speed).
Contact management is excellent - for me it's the best on the market out of the box. You can do more with a third-party add on, such as Iambic on Palm OS, or a specialist package like Act!, but you have to pay for it. I found the camera on the Nokia 7650 (and the forthcoming, US-ready 3650) to be much better all round, especially in low-light conditions, but simply having a camera there is an added bonus for me, in such a gizmo. If I want to do photography, I take my Canon. The camera in a cameraphone is for serendipitous discoveries, visual notes-to-self, or snaps to friends or loved ones: lo-fi, spontaneous stuff.
Composing MMS messages is a treat - but one for the future, as networks haven't worked out interoperability issues yet.
And one-handed use is terrific. The phone has a five-way jog dial, and pressing it away from you takes you through the default icons of phone, messaging, calendar, contacts, and the applications list.
Still, this is The Register so you must get the grumbles, too.
Room for improvement
I rated Psion's old calendar software very highly, but Anniversaries seem to have got lost in the transition to UIQ, which is a shame. How can I remember anyone's birthday?
[Update: In fact Anniversaries are there, but not as a unique class of entry. The clue is in the "Set Repeat" field which allows you a number of options, including "Yearly by date" or "Yearly by day".]
There's no video recorder with the phone. (Nokia will bundle Hantro's recorder with the 3650). I still can't decide whether to leave the detachable keypad flip on or off. With the cover off, it's much slimmer, and only a little harder to use as a phone. But using the virtual keypad means three clicks to secure the device against accidental calls, if you slip it into a pocket. One prominent key on the case, or a better software interface would be enough to secure it.
And UIQ, while excellent, can still learn a few tricks from the Palm folk. Although Palm has decided to adopt the handwriting system used by default by the P800, Jot, Grafitti is indeed less prone to errors.
Also, applications don't save their state: it's frustrating when returning to a Jot, for example, to see the list of Jots, not the Jot you were working on. If you switch away from writing a text message, it saves it in the Drafts folder. Grrr. SonyEricsson tells me that this behaviour is likely to remain, unless you all ask nicely that it changes; nor are there plans to implement PalmOS-like short cuts.
The Handspring Treo also has one external button to silence the device. With the P800 it's more fiddly, at least in tablet mode with the flip removed. [Note to self: RTFM. If you hold down the 'C' button, it goes into Silent Mode]
The P800 does for some reason, however, have an "Internet" button, put there I suspect at the request of carriers rather than users.
My fellow Macintosh users should be particularly pleased with the P800, as it feels exactly like the kind of phone you could expect Apple to make itself.
And unlike Microsoft, which regards these devices as a mortal threat (literally), Apple appears to welcome them. And that means good support for Bluetooth.
So although there's no Mac-native suite on the CD, Apple's relationship with SonyEricsson which has produced such excellent support for the T68i phone in iSync and iCal ought to be mirrored on the P800. I see ought to, because right now it doesn't sync contacts. I've no doubt it will.
Now, barmy old Walt Mossberg seemed to have trouble getting it to talk to Bluetooth on his Mac, while I had no trouble at all. And this goes for the many Macs in evidence at CodeCon. What does that tell you about Walt? [Behave - ed.]
In all, it's a pretty compelling device. SonyEricsson will be relieved that the vast expectations won't lead to a Newton-style disappointment. It should sell by the bucketload.
End this WAP madness
Now onto the infrastructure significance of this. There may be some reasons for carriers continuing WAP gateways, but one of the biggest has just disappeared. Perhaps they can continue as the mobile phone world's CeeFax - a reliable public information service. OpenWave, for one, certainly believes that it can produce a good experience on cheaper devices. That puts the pressure on the smartphone manufacturers who offer a much more capable device to keep the cost down. I don't expect we'll see such a quantum leap as the P800 again anytime soon, and I'm sure that cheaper, less capable phones will take the majority of the market for the near future. But the P800 means carriers must justify supporting full-Web devices like this, alongside WAPized bretheren. And there's simply no justification for supporting expensive "WAP" gateways any more, now that punters can get the full web.
Phone networks still believe they can extract more money out of users (ARPUs, or Average Revenue Per User, it's called) by luring them to their own portals. But they don't have to. Flat rate pricing and the Net we've already got will do just fine now, thank you. The killer sites that will drive up ARPUs are not these portals, but Hot Or Not?, alt.religion.kibology, and... well, you've no doubt got your own favorites.
Carriers should do what they're good at: and compete honestly (well, it's a hope?) on service, quality and pricing. Ask CompuServe. ®