Device and Desires

All the big guns want an iPhone killer. Even I, mad for all things Apple as I am, want an iPhone killer. I want smart digital devices to be as good as mankind’s ingenuity can make them. I want us eternally to strive to improve and surprise. Bring on the iPhone killers. Bring them on.

YOU might, somewhere along the way, have picked up the impression that I am a passionate Mac advocate: I bought my first 128K machine in 1984, the second Macintosh to be sold in the UK – at least so I’ve always maintained and believed (the first went to the still desperately missed Douglas Adams) and I have never had fewer than ten working Macs on the go since the late 80s. It is true that I value both the platform and the hardware, that I admire the imagination, flair, elegance, quality and pioneering spirit of the Apple corporation. All quite true.


I have, over the past twenty years been passionately addicted to all manner of digital devices, Mac-friendly or not; I have gorged myself on electronic gismos, computer accessories, toys, gadgets and what-have-yous of all descriptions, but most especially what are now known as SmartPhones. PDAs, Wireless PIMs, call them what you will. My motto is:

I have never seen a SmartPhone I haven’t bought

After all, the Mac itself was founded on a notional smart device, the Dynabook, fruit of the many brains of the legendary Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC). The Dynabook concept gave us the WIMP user interface, (Windows, Icons, Mice, Pull down menus) and thence the Apple Lisa and its successor, the Macintosh. The Dynabook was a posited form, a notional device that would deliver information to its user with the greatest ease and intuitive functionality. As a result of this mission statement, the command code line found in all standard computing of the time was made to yield to a Graphical User Interface (GUI). Apple took up the call (poached some PARC staff) and produced the Mac OS; IBM and latterly MS took years and years to get the message. But that is how the GUI was born, out of a quest for a better relationship between man and machine, individual and digital device.

Whether you talked into it, stroked it, operated a stylus or pointing device the essence of the Dynabook was not that it might actually be built (technology in the 1970s couldn’t begin to provide such an object, nor indeed can it now) but to predicate a useful Platonic Ideal. The Device. The Chosen One. One Electronic Object To Rule Them All. Like any Platonic ideal, it cannot ever exist: to postulate its existence is enough to set clever people on the right path to creating remarkable technologies that contribute to the digital world and our interactions with it. It is in this sense the computer designer’s Holy Grail – the adventures, romances and interior quests along the way are what counts – the Grail itself will always be out of reach. We are getting closer however. A single handheld device that can summon up a vast repository of human knowledge, communicate with anyone, tell you to within five meters where on the planet you are, take and show photographs, record and play music, send and receive vox or data communications; a device you can speak into and that can speak to you, a device that you can manipulate without fiddly controls or technical knowledge, a juke-box, a cinema, a radio, a library, a community centre, a parish pump, the school gates and the city university. Not considered to be computers, although computers is most assuredly what they are, these devices are for the moment designated SmartPhones, and it is on them that I wish to discourse and expatiate in an entirely disinterested (if you think I mean uninterested, think again and look up the difference) and mostly non-technical way.

Of course, this essay, if it can be described as such, is a response to the rise and rise of the SmartPhone, as most publicly trumpeted a few weeks ago with the arrival of Apple’s iPhone. I am not here to laud or review that device however, it has had enough publicity and I really want you to believe that, Apple addict as I am, my eyes have always been open to the virtues of anything good, exciting, functional, elegant, pleasing to use. In fact the real precipitating reason for writing this is the fact that within three weeks I have bought/been sent, aside from my iPhone (which, yes, I dearly love), three soi-disant ‘iPhone killers’ – the HTC Touch, the Nokia E90 and the Sony Ericsson P1i. While I don’t intend fully to review, road-test or benchmark each device (as if I could, anyway), I do want to share my thoughts about where these devices appear to be going. (I’m not even going to mention outside these parentheses the LG Prada phone, that’s an iPhone beater in the same way Tim Henman is a Federer beater).

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This blog was posted in Blessays and Techblog

223 comments on “Device and Desires”

  1. lisa simpson says:

    i really enjoyed this entry, being something of a mac enthusiast myself. i am dying to get an iphone but i really can’t justify it yet, what with being contracted to the wrong network. i think i might try to get an ipod touch around xmas and deal with not having the phone aspect.

    however i have just ordered a new imac – i have a G5 which is about 4 years old and on its last legs so i have rewarded myself (ha! for what?!) with a 24″ behemoth of a machine, and i’m duly incredibly excited about its imminent arrival – it was shipped today so should be soon. if i weren’t carrying the lurgy i’d be jumping in excitement!

    i used to work in mobile phones (sort of) so it was interesting to read your potted history of mobile tech as well. hope you enjoy your new iphone!

  2. Nessie says:

    Hi, sorry if this has already been mentioned but I’ve got an old Nano and I’m thinking of buying the new Nano after Christmas and wondered what we all thought about it!

  3. conkeringheroine says:

    Mr. Fry,
    I much enjoyed your Guardian article, familiar though much of it was to us blog followers. I saw the photo of the ereader, and hope you will discuss them soon. I read enormous quantities of stuff for work, most of which I download, and printed 12,000 pages last year alone, as I can’t read off a computer screen for very long no matter what size I make the type. Same with all the ereaders I have tried–none have really convinced me, yet. I long for one, as you long for an Iphone killer, because it would make my life so much simpler, not to mention the paper it would save. Like so many of us, I have more books than I can read in my lifetime, at present rate of consumption and giving myself an average lifespan, but this has not prevented me buying more. What I want is a wonderful looking, easy to read, reliable, compatible and very portable reader that doesn’t cost the earth and won’t become obsolete about the time I get to grips with it. Oh, do help, as I can’t be buying them all and giving them a go-I’m but a humble cog in the publishing world.

  4. welshcake says:

    Oh so lovely to see someone as bothered about the real meaning of disinterested as I am! Also as an owner of more defunct gadgets than my desk can contain any more, I feel cleansed and refreshed to know I am not alone in my addiction. I will not be buying an IPhone – or so I say…

  5. elisalucia says:

    The best breakdown of Smart Phones that I have read.

    I love gadgets, all gadgets but what I think is most interesting right now is where these gadgets will take us next.

    There’s been alot of hubub about mobile TV ( and how it will effect society.

    I imagine, as the developments continue in these types of phone and the number of consumers carrying these devices increase – we may very well be watching your documentary on the tube.

  6. philbuk says:

    Hi, Stephen.

    A great blog post. Wonderfully quotable. Thanks.

    I’m one of a posse that shares your passion for good design. And as you discuss, “design” applies to the whole experience of choosing, setting-up, using and getting rid of a product or service.

    I’d like to extend an invitation to you, for a stimulating day out.

    The posse alluded to earlier is called Flow. We spend a lot of time talking to ordinary folk and watching them as they use high-tech gadgetry. Then we apply what we learn to making said gadgetry more useful, simpler and more joyful. (We helped the Guardian to improve the design of their new look website by doing just that).

    Would you like to come and visit us, and watch the process in action? It’s absolutely gob-smacking seeing people battling with stuff that the designers genuinely thought was a delight. It’s the best way I know of getting people to design things better.

    I think you’re in the US right now. But when one day, perhaps, you’ll have a minute.

    Do contact me on phil at if you’d like to come. We have lovely cakes.

  7. amiluski says:

    Apple continues to amaze and delight. There are few products on earth that give me such a feeling of confidence and joy that my macbook. I know it sounds crazy, but just the feel of the buttons, and every little detail make me glad that some somewhere still cares about the design.

    I’m slowing beginning to love my iPhone as much. I have to admit my finers are not what they used to be so its a bit hard for me to navigate the screen, but Apple seems to have hit another home run here. In fact its already spawned a line of clothing – see – for a smile.

  8. mikemcminn says:

    We all enjoyed your post very much indeed. It is refreshing to get a truly personal view on a subject close to all our hearts over at Devicewire. 308 comments so far, wow! Now this really is a shining example of how you can use web 2.0 to great effect.

  9. A really good and well written, I will be a regular here :-)

  10. manele says:

    i have an iphone but i’m not so satisfied. i think that with the money for an iphone you can buy a better phone

  11. clovis sangrail says:

    The science, the models; they are exquisite!

    But lo! The models are but a small selection from the many plausible ones which fit all the available data. Occasionally, climate scientists forget and say this out loud. More often not. Thus, from amongst the models which fit the data and make predictions ranging from “a new ice age is coming” to “we’re all going to fry” (no pun intended), a few are reported at conferences and then the more (but usually not most) unpleasant ones are chosen. You will often hear climate scientists talking about “the range of models” and using them to generate pseudo-probability estimates.

    This renders the normal transparency of scientific discourse opaque, and obscures the selectivity of what is reported.

    At a recent conference, a colleague of mine (a statistician) talked to the most senior climate scientist present. “Bob”, he said, “why do you say that Global Warming is almost certain when, in your talk, you said there was a forty percent chance that we were moving into the next ice age?”
    “Well” said Bob, “if I said 50%, that would mean that we knew nothing. Compared to that, 60% is near certainty.”

  12. Bob says:

    P.D JAMES!!!! Devices and desires- it’s a PD James novel!!!!

  13. Ghigo1961 says:

    The following is a wish list I sent to Apple. It’s really asking for small but fundamental improvements to a silicon work of art…..

    Dear Apple demi-gods,
    I have written previously but would like to respectfully remind you to observe several missing items of functionality whose development would make iPhone perfect, for me at least:

    P H O N E:
    a) My wife and I each have an iPhone and we both sometimes make the mistake of distractedly hitting the home button to end a call. The call could then remain active for a long time unless you notice the green bar at the top of the screen. It’s quite an easy mistake to repeat since the home button, being the only vaguely sensual button on the glass slab, is rather difficult to resist. I appreciate this is more of a user habit issue but I’m willing to bet many people make the same mistake. ACCEPTABLE, BUT ALSO VAGUELY SUSPICIOUS.
    b) ‘Recents’ neither logs nor displays call duration. Since Settings/Usage displays total call time without bothering to split this into ‘made’ and ‘received’, it’s hard for anyone to guess how many minutes of user-initiated call time have been used in order to approximate how many minutes are left on the cellular plan. Perhaps this is only affecting 02 users in the UK, like me? BAD – ALMOST MAKES APPLE LOOK GREEDY FOR SURPLUS CALL REVENUES.

    C A L E N D A R:
    b) Calendar event alarms are too timid. Let users set the sound preferences for this. You might prefer the zen discretion of a single glass ding but I often need the urgent insistence of an evacuation alarm with the unrelenting assertiveness of a nagging wife. NOT ALL ENVIRONMENTS ARE THE SAME, YOU KNOW.

    M A I L:
    a) I prefer not to use it because there’s no junk filtering and, since there’s no way to perform multiple deletions, the app simply becomes tedious. I don’t use it except to send the odd email. PLEASE FIX ONE, OR THE OTHER, OR BOTH
    b) Someone emails me a photo from an iPhone, I can’t even add it to the albums. REALLY NOT HELPFUL

    C O N T A C T S:
    a) Without a global search function, users can’t look up a contact who’s name or company they can’t remember. There are common keywords which are easy to remember and which can be placed in contact notes for this very purpose: easy lookup. Say I need to contact a plumber but can’t remember his name in a list of over 1000 contacts. Annoying, unless you left the word “plumber” in the note fields of all contacts involved with plumbing and Apple had thoughtfully included a global field search function. When you tap the first two letters of a contact in MAIL you are immediately presented with a shortlist of possibilities. The search function already exists in the OS….SO PLEASE, PRETTY PLEASE, ADD ONE TO CONTACTS.
    b) It would be nice to have the same Contacts button as on the iPod Touch. This would save me one tap!..

    iPhoto always wants permission to import photos which have previously been imported – irritating. I should be able to set iTunes to automatically import only NEW photos into a specified album in iPhoto. BAH!

    Some of these gripes are minor, yet some allude to a few very basic flaws or omissions which unnecessarily handicap the iPhone to the point where I may consider switching back to my trusty Treo. I had expected some of these to have been addressed by MWSF 08 but I find it worrying that they were not. There was also, conspicuously, no mention of the promised iPhone SDK. My logical assumptions about iPhone were that it’s a software work-in-progress with plenty of evolution in the tank. Thing is, the only specializations I’ve witnessed in 7 months are the google maps triangulator and the wiggly icons editor. You demi-gods better not be saving all this for iPhone Mk 2…it simply wouldn’t be fair.

    No 3G, no GPS, no Cut & Paste, no SD card slot, no mpeg recording…..these are the accoutrements I willingly chose to live without, for the love of this siren beauty, and her simple charms would be more amply rewarding with some modest refinements.

    PersiPhone “she is wise and touches that which is in motion.”

  14. Darren Evens says:

    I used the ipod touch and thought it excellent! no so the iphone I am afraid. There are far better handsets for a lot less, o2 have done themselves no favours restricting tariff choice.

    Anyway have enjoyed catching up with your blog and shall be a regular in future.

  15. newsletterz says:

    i really enjoyed this entry, being something of a mac enthusiast myself. i am dying to get an iphone but i really can’t justify it yet, what with being contracted to the wrong network. i think i might try to get an ipod touch around xmas and deal with not having the phone aspect.

    however i have just ordered a new imac – i have a G5 which is about 4 years old and on its last legs so i have rewarded myself (ha! for what?!) with a 24″ behemoth of a machine, and i’m duly incredibly excited about its imminent arrival – it was shipped today so should be soon. if i weren’t carrying the lurgy i’d be jumping in excitement!

    i used to work in mobile phones (sort of) so it was interesting to read your potted history of mobile tech as well. hope you enjoy your new iphone!
    Kevin (the Gadget Guy)

  16. popjacq says:

    My enthusiasm for matters small and digital has not been blessed by the capacity to experience as broad a range of delights as Mr Fry. I have had to be a little more selective over the years. Briefly, the evolution of my hands on can be summarised as Psion – HP Jornada – Palm – E90. Notice how I have been drawn full circle by the delights of what started off as EPOC and is now Symbian.

    For a period of time the Psion Series 5 PDA was a workhorse that held the
    promise of a glorious future for truly mobile computing. It worked well and
    seemed to be a beacon for what might follow through incremental development.
    Sadly, the dream ended when the chill wind of commercial reality froze Psion out
    of the consumer market.

    The bloodline was maintained, at least in part, by a succession of Communicator
    smart phones produced by Nokia. The EPOC operating system used by Psion was
    absorbed into Symbian, the OS of choice for Nokia.

    Once my series 5 had died, and during the years prior to the launch of the E90,
    my mobile computing aspirations were met by a combination of HP Jornadas, Palm PDA’s, laptop computers and mobile phones. Tempting though the earlier Communicators were theynever seemed to offer a solution to the contradiction inherent in wanting powerful but properly portable computing at the same time as using a mobile phone that did not resemble a house brick.

    When the E90 was announced in February 2007 it seemed as though my hopes may
    have been realised. Having finally got hold of one the following December I have
    had several months living with the product. Has the contradiction been reconciled?

    As a mobile phone the E90 is certainly bigger than average. In use I cannot deny
    that its size has drawn the odd derisory comment from colleagues already aware
    that mine was bigger than theirs. However, I have not felt self-conscious during
    day to day use in public. It is not too big to carry in a jacket or trouser
    pocket although some may feel a little uncomfortable about the amount of
    deformation to the line of an expensive suit caused by the weight. The E90 is
    heavier to hold to the ear but this is something you quickly get used to.

    The E90 has all the standard phone functions with no compromises. The
    conventional phone keypad on the front cover is well complemented by the
    intuitive Series 60, 3rd edition menu system. The front screen is bright and easy
    to view in strong daylight.

    All of the E90’s functions are accessible from the outside. However, open the
    clamshell and you start to delve properly into the computing side of the E90.
    The internal screen is big and sharp. The S60 core functions have adapted well
    to life in higher resolution. Perhaps the one major gripe relates to the default
    font size settings. The web browser, for example, packs a lot in with the
    objective of being able to see as much of a web page as possible. However, this
    does tend to render some of the fonts almost microscopic in their default

    On the other side of the clamshell is a full qwerty keyboard (separate numeric
    keys). As a thumb pad the keyboard is excellent. Try to touch type, however, and
    it is a different story. To use the E90 in laptop mode is just too slow and
    uncomfortable. I have overcome this through acquiring a Nokia SU-8W bluetooth
    keyboard as a supplement. Writing a longer document on a train with this
    combination is more convenient than using a laptop. It takes up less space,
    fires up instantly, the bluetooth keyboard is highly usable and, of course, the
    E90 is at hand should someone call.

    The pre-installed suite of applications is comprehensive and compatible with a
    number of industry standards. I did upgrade Quickoffice in order to get the
    additional functionality of the ‘Premier’ edition. Perhaps it was a little cheap
    of Nokia not to negotiate for inclusion of this full blown version in the first
    place. Overall, however, this is perhaps a churlish point; productivity is good
    and synchronisation between Outlook and other MS Office applications is easy and
    seamless with good format retention.

    Web browsing has been a revelation for a mobile phone. At home and in the office
    this is achieved at impressive speeds through wifi. Out and about I have little
    complaint about the speed of the 3G connections achieved.

    With no real need for push email my needs in this area have been more than
    adequately met by installing the portable googlemail application. The only real
    deficiency with this is that it requires connection through a service provider.
    This means I cannot access email with this application when in a wifi hotspot.
    The camera is not a high priority for me. Nonetheless I have been impressed by
    the picture quality and the range of options. I have been plagued by the often
    reported glitch that occasionally results in a stubborn refusal by the E90 to
    take a picture when the shutter button is pressed.

    I use the E90 as an MP3 player. Getting tracks on to the phone through PC
    recognition as a ‘USB mass storage device’ is straightforward. The music
    transfer application in the Nokia PC suite is, however, clunky. Sound
    reproduction through the supplied earphones is acceptable but not outstanding.
    In relation to other multimedia applications the radio gives good reception and
    I occasionally use the recorder for dictating short memos to myself. However, I
    cannot imagine watching video of anything other than short clip length on the

    I do wonder why it was thought sensible to take up a segment of ROM with the
    inclusion of a bar code reader. If intended for recording telephone numbers I
    suspect it is far quicker just to type direct into Contacts.

    GPS is a disappointment. The speed of acquisition is so slow and unreliable as
    to make it little more than a gimmick. On more than one occasion I have arrived
    in a city determined to navigate on foot to my meeting with the E90 GPS only to
    find I can arrive through conventional navigation (asking for directions, using
    a map) by the time sufficient satellites are acquired.

    Memory capacity is generous, both in terms of internal storage and the supplied
    micro SD card. After 6 months of storing selected tracks, retaining some of my
    better photos and archiving a library of reference pdf’s I have only used about
    half of the 512mb card and not touched the phone’s internal memory. Leaving
    multiple applications open while multi-tasking seems to have no effect on speed.
    So, the verdict? The contradiction has definitely been resolved. I have a highly
    usable mobile phone that becomes a powerful portable computing companion when

    How does it match up to my beloved Series 5? Well, the answer is there is no
    real comparison. Misty eyed nostalgia for what was, at the time, a brilliant
    concept does not mask the fact that the Nokia E90 is so much more. The Series 5
    was not in, any serious sense, a communications device. The ‘PDA’ badge seemed a
    little demeaning for something that had pretensions at being a proper computer.
    On reflection the idea of it being a digital assistant perhaps summed it up
    best. Maybe it can also be said that the term ‘Communicator’ properly describes
    the melding together of mobile phone and computer achieved in the E90.

  17. bidmead says:

    Stephen, I seem to have paralleled your smartphone/PDA career almost identically, from the Microwriter, which I wrote about in the early eighties, up as far as the SonyEricsson P910i. Which is where I stopped. It seems to be last of the devices that does stylus recognition without lumbering you with a wired-on keyboard.

    BTW, you and Douglas (my immediate predecessor as Doctor Who script editor, and, as you say, miserably missed) may have been the first two people in the UK to buy the 128 Mac. But I claim to be the first to have used one, having been sent one direct from the US (it needed a power adaptor) for review. I’ve still got what’s left of it up in the attic somewhere.

    I notice that the Wikipedia entry on the Microwriter claims that Douglas was an early endorser. I don’t recall his ever showing me one, or Sir Mark Weinberg ever mentioning Douglas in this connection. Can you throw any light on this?


  18. petersturdy says:

    enjoyed the podgrams, QI etc etc
    looking forward to enjoying USA, state by state, from my arrmchair.
    Off topic 1 – has anyone else found the i-Store in London a bit like a church? maybe just me. I love my i-pod, but yet to be converted wholesale.
    Off topic 2 – did Shaksper use an i-Quill to write the Scottish play or did he (probably) use his thumbs?

    I get the genius of beautiful design in the i-phone, but without the infrastructure it is like a Da Vinci designed double helix staircase that doesn’t go anywhere. Beautiful but ultimately pointless.

  19. hornbill says:

    Dear Stephen
    I know you get people asking for stuff all the time but just perhaps you will take time to read this one.
    It is about the Maasai in Kenya
    Near Nairobi they are losing land and facing the end of their lifestyle
    I have been asked by the community to make a docu to help them – I already have scientists, Maasai, the WHOLE story – but no money (Maasai are very poor people)
    Would you be the voice of the story for us?
    Meet the people.
    There is desperation in their eyes


    I make science and development documentaries for an NGO in Kenya

  20. Mark139 says:

    Have to comment about the Nokia communicators (a little of my brain is in them). The orignonal Symbian based communicator was the 9210 follwed by the upgraded 9210i and 9290 in the U.S


  21. Babushka says:

    That is a very good first blog and very long. Im not into mobile phones and seeing as you started way back before anyone else had a phone, you’re obviously very very into them and so know you’re stuff.

    I don’t really care about mobile phones but i did try to read your post. Some of it went in but not all but i respect you for showing us how intelligent you really are.

    If i loved something as much as you love your phones, then i’m sure i’d be able to speak about it in great detail too.

    Unfortunately, what i really want to like, hasn’t been invented yet.

  22. jandjallen says:

    What a fabulous, well-informed and entirely accurate blog. It is nice to see someone lauding Palm products after such a long time. I have an obsolete TX which I have to use sometimes because there is simply nothing better at the moment. In addition to things I have to use it for, I just love using my Palm!

    It is also very refreshing to have someone justify beauty and elegance in terms of both hardware and software, in eloquent terms that can be appreciated by everyone.

    I currently have an HTC TyTn II which promised a lot, but delivered a little. This is entirely down to Windows Mobile 6. Anyone who thinks that this is an acceptable operating system for a phone must be retarded.

    I am waiting for the iphone mk3. I like the 3g version, but lack of cut and paste, proper bluetooth support, truly crappy camera, no MMS and lack of voice dial are ‘deal breakers’ for me.

    Hopefully we’ll get a new improved device out soon, and hopefully we’ll hear some entertaining and well-informed views on it here!

  23. Michael574 says:

    Could anyone please tell me what piece of art Stephen has on his iPhone?

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