The Killer Smartphone App

The rumor mill is burning the midnight oil regarding the eternally impending release of Apple’s Smartphone offering – the iPhone (or iChat AV Mobile, depending on which site you consider canon for scuttle such as this). This possibly revolutionary device is thought to be the ultimate merger of media, data and telephony – offering full iPod music playback, synchronization with iCal, Address Book, Mail and .mac. Either it’ll support Cingular, or T-Mobile, or all of the mobile carriers and support 3G data networks… again, depending on the rumor source you trust.

But in response to all of the chatter about the media and synchronization capabilities, there is a true killer app that, if implemented, would make the iPhone the hands-down best smartphone in existence.

What I’m looking for (and most of the smartphone community in general) is a smartphone, with the emphasis on phone. As in – I primarily want to be able to make and receive calls.

11 months ago, I picked up an o2 Mini S on eBay. In the US, it’s called the Cingular 8125, T-Mobile MDA or i-Mate k-jam. This device was touted by the telephone rags to be the best fusion of PDA and phone: a small enough factor that it’s comfortable to carry, a full day’s worth of charge, slide-out QWERTY keyboard and touchscreen. For the first few months, I was generally happy with the device. I could synch it to my office PC and home Mac, it the bluetooth worked fine, and the text messaging capabilities were pretty darned solid. The music and video playback was smooth and the camera, for a multifunction device was better than average.

However, what I started to quickly notice is that the phone services, well, they weren’t just sub-par, they sucked.

The problem isn’t just endemic to this one device, but to Windows Mobile devices in general. The problem is that the telephony functions are constantly fighting for CPU cycles with the general PDA functions. The result can manifest itself in many ways – not being able to get resources to make the phone ring, or not having the resources available to accept me pressing the “answer” button to receive an incoming call. This week alone, I’ve missed three calls simply because the phone didn’t respond when I pressed answer, and it isn’t just me. This problem also impacts most of the touchscreen Windows Mobile 5 devices.

The biggest problem for me, however, is the voice stability. As my work is primarily in speech technologies, I can easily tell how well a telephone device encodes an audio stream. Now, the HTC mobile devices (the manufacturer for most of the non-Samsung/Motorola Windows Mobile devices) have already crippled the phones by implementing a very poor microphone – a pinhole style that, even under the best conditions (as tested with a simple audio recording application) creates poor quality recordings. This is further complicated because of a core Windows Mobile issue.

It seems that Windows Mobile has made the audio encoder (codec) just another software process that has to fight with the other applications for CPU cycles. When the CPU is occupied with other tasks, the encoding is crippled to the point that simple speech recognition can be dramatically impacted. Again, this was simple enough to test by calling into one of my systems without any other apps running, then with email, then with email and a video. Overclocking the CPU helps, but not consistently and not enough.

Though this problem impacts my WM5 device, it impacts every smartphone out there. Count the number of Blackberry users who also carry standard cell phones because the phone experience on these devices aren’t very good. Treo users seem to be in the best boat, but it’s still less than great.

It seems that if you want a successful smartphone, it needs to be just that – a smart phone. Apple has the marketing and mindshare, but can they actually create the compelling device?

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