The 'failure' of the smartphone user experience

Recent surveys show serious problems with basic Web browsing on smartphones.

An article in Sunday's New York Times cites recent surveys challenging the notion that smartphones are ready for prime time:

Similarly, surveys by Yankee Group, a Boston research firm, show that only 13 percent of cellphone users in North America use their phones to surf the Web more than once a month, while 70 percent of computer users view Web sites every day.

"The user experience has been a disaster," says Tony Davis, managing partner of Brightspark, a Toronto venture capital firm that has invested in two mobile Web companies.

While many phones have some form of Web access, most are hard to use--just finding a place to type in a Web address can be a challenge. And once you find it, most Web content doesn't look very good on cellphone screens.

Improving this situation is going to require a more integrated yet multi-company approach, according to the article. "You got to have open systems, to allow the vast creativity of people to take place," says Tom Huseby, chairman of the board of Zumobi, which is creating a widget-style interface platform for smartphones. He says that open platforms like Zumobi, Android and other developments will help lead to this outpouring of creativity.

But the openness of Android is so vast, and requires coordination of so many companies for a given user experience, that it is hard to see how well-executed experiences are going to come quickly or consistently. The fastest way to produce a breakthrough user experience is with a closed system, as Apple does over and over again, from PCs to MP3s to smartphones. So while developments like Android hold a lot of promise overall, they are not a silver bullet. Solving the smartphone user experience "disaster" will take a holistic approach, even if using an open system like Android.