The Droid smartphone is a departure from competing models, but it's not an altogether successful effort. Here's why.
The big idea behind the Droid (1) was to combine the features of a touch-screen product with the benefits of a physical keyboard-based product to offer consumers the best of both worlds. The basic look is minimalist, with few visible buttons or switches, which shows that people are now accustomed to the idea that most interaction takes place on the screen, as opposed to through physical controls. The exterior design is angular, with more definitive edges than the iPhone (2) or the new Nexus One. There are practical advantages to this: Square products allow you to get more stuff inside, such as bigger batteries and more electronics.
The feel of the Droid is anti-elitist. If the the iPhone is designer hip, the Sidekick inner-city hip, and the Blackberry corporate hip, the Droid is everyman hip. That's where many of the strongest American brands, from Ford to Google, have positioned themselves.
The Droid strikes me as a hefty American product designed by Midwesterners for American users. Its weight means it's fine if you're wearing jeans, but it's too heavy to tuck in a fat-cat's suit jacket. It has an industrial-grade feel, with the aesthetics of a consumer product. In Europe or Asia, the Droid would probably be regarded as the Hummer of touch-screen phones. The Droid plays to Motorola's roots as a manufacturer of heavy-duty radios for police and the military.
The Droid's touchscreen (3) is large, but unfortunately the touch input feels laggy and unresponsive. When you unlock the screen, for example, your finger slides across the phone long before the "locked" icon turns itself off. It's a far cry from the smooth refinement we've come to expect from touch-screen products by Apple or HTC. Users may get accustomed to lagginess in maps and browsers on smartphones, but in game apps lag is a killer.
We do not think the lagginess is a computing problem. The Droid is built around the same Texas Instruments OMAP 3430 processor used in the Palm Pre. It's an advanced processor, more powerful than the one in the newest iPhones. In other areas, you can feel the Droid's raw power. Launching apps, for example, happens very fast.
The lagginess is instead an example of how much work is required to make hardware that works smoothly with the Android operating system. Specifically, this is an input interpretation issue. After receiving a touch signal on the screen, the device in effect waits to understand what the user wants to do next. On the Droid, a touch almost always means "select." Then there's a delay to verify that you indeed intended to "select," as opposed to, say, "scroll," which is the default touch assumption on the iPhone.
Motorola wanted to combine the best of both touchscreen and physical keyboards. The Droid feels great physically, but a close look at a few areas also reveals the Droid's status as first-generation product.
To reveal the Droid's keyboard (4), you slide the touchscreen up. The slide feels a little too stiff, with a firm click when the screen moves fully up or down. Still, stiff and robust is much better than light and flimsy. It's satisfying and solid, just what you'd expect from Motorola.
At first glance the keyboard is great. Personally, I prefer a physical keyboard. The iPhone's touchscreen keyboard means I keep my written engagements to one or two sentences, because it's just too much work to type more -- the iPhone was clearly designed to be a consumer-oriented browsing device. The Droid is meant to be more of a full-featured device, so it gets a full keyboard.
Unfortunately, the Droid's keyboard is flat, with no physical texture. This keeps the product thin, but you can't touch-type with a flat keyboard, which largely defeats the purpose of having one at all. From a development perspective, this kind of trade-off is very challenging. These kind of decision gets made very early in the product-development process, and once set it becomes very hard to change without slipping beyond the product's target release date.
Otherwise, the keyboard's navigation pad (5) is interesting, and with practice it's nice to navigate without moving your hand to the touchscreen. But Android doesn't have a cursor in its onscreen menu mode, so Motorola had to hack BlackBerry-like functionality in with the navigation pad. While this is a solid hardware decision, Android lacks the user-interface cues which make the touchpad (or the Nexus One's scroll-ball) intuitive. Motorola is working hard to improve usability, but there are constraints when the hardware manufacturer does not make the software stack. Since Android is open-source, Motorola could have, theoretically, added a mouse cursor to Android. But that major change would almost certainly have delayed the product's release.
As we've seen, it's a big challenge to make Android interact smoothly with hardware. There are a tremendous number of small details that need refinement, most of which only become apparent after a manufacturer gets the hardware to work. One example: the Droid's home screen menus rotate from portrait to landscape when slider is open. On one level, that makes sense. Yet it's also disorienting to navigate a menu of icons because the arrangement changes from 4x5 in portrait mode to 5x3 in landscape (6). The means your favorite apps are not always in the same position on the home screen, which hinders the familiarization and habituation you need to make using this device second-nature.
Tuning the hardware to work with the software is the key to delivering the kind of clean experience that is so much a part of a device like the iPhone (which is intentionally pared back to limit complexity) or the BlackBerry (which is tuned to simplify the task of reading and responding to enterprise e-mail), or the Nexus One (which offers an excellent touch-screen interface, without a physical keyboard). The areas where Motorola decided to focus -- things like the physical hardware and the overall feel of the device itself -- show Motorola's strong roots as a device maker. Motorola packed the Droid with lots of features, which is great, except that it makes the task of tuning the details much more challenging and time-consuming.
Differentiation is one of the challenges Motorola confronts as a result of its decision to embrace the Android operating system, so the company made a concerted effort to make the Droid highly adaptable for use in a wide variety of use-case scenarios. In actual fact, these are really just built-in applications for the phone, but they allow Motorola to tout them as special, value-added features that are unique to the Droid. For example, when you put the Droid in the optional external dock, it engages a special Internet-enabled clock radio mode, with a dedicated screen interface for use by the bedside.
The Droid's Car Mode feature is a more interesting idea. Car Mode is a simplified interface (7) with enlarged icons that's designed to help motorists keep their eyes on the road while driving their cars. In general, we love touch-screen devices because they are so engrossing -- they engage all of the user's visual and physical focus. But that same quality creates real problems when the user is supposed to be doing something else, like driving. It's simply impossible to touch dial or navigate menus without looking at the screen, but that's not good when you're operating a vehicle. Car Mode provides an interface that is simpler to use, and it also makes easier to get your fingers in the right place quickly and efficiently.
Car Mode is definitely easier to use, but it also points to a larger problem that we'll hear plenty more about in the years ahead -- the dangers of using touch interfaces in dynamic, multitasked environments.
The back of the Droid has a lot of branding (8): Motorola, Verizon, and Google. Inside the battery case, the words "Motorola Engineering" are embossed in the plastic.
The camera (9) has 5 megapixels with autofocus. Looking just at the camera hardware, the components Motorola picked are nice. The autofocus module and imager are quite good, but the image tuning (which happens in software) isn't quite there yet. Despite the good hardware, the pictures taken on the Droid look as if they were taken with an old cameraphone, with a lot of grainy noise and poor coloration. Meanwhile, the Droid has a flash (10), but it doesn't do very much. It's basically a "party flash" -- a fun effect, but you can't generate enough power with an LED to make much of a difference in a real low-light environment. Chalk all this up as another instance of the Droid offering an impressive list of features, but clearly revealing itself as a first-generation product.
The more I used the Droid, the more I sensed that Motorola didn't have much time to prototype and test the device before going to market. Motorola probably didn't have enough time to refine all the complex interaction problems that arise when creating a device as sophisticated as this.
Little things added up. For example, to wake the Droid from sleep, you have to either hit the button on the top (11), or open the keyboard. Neither action is particularly obvious. So why is it designed that way? The buttons on the front of the Droid (12) are actually part of the touch screen, and the screen shuts off when idle to save power. That means those buttons are inoperative until the phone is re-awakened. There's a technical logic to this, but it's hardly as intuitive as, say, hitting one button smack in the front of the screen, as on the iPhone. Striking the right balance between power optimization and user experience is a struggle that requires time and iteration to get right.
There's also a glitch in the design of the battery cover: It slides off rather easily, and you tend to open it naturally with your fingers as you seek leverage to open the screen.
These issues are indicative of a first-generation product. Now that the product has shipped successfully, Motorola has time to refine and iterate. There's a lot to like about the Droid's design, but I suspect there will be much, much more to like about the Droid 2.0.
Gregor Berkowitz is president of MOTO Development Group, a product strategy and development firm with offices in San Francisco and Hong Kong. With more than 18 years in the business, Gregor combines deep knowledge about new technology and consumer experience with a focus on successfully delivering new products to market.