Motorola Q: Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

motorola_q_2.jpgThe Motorola Q is the most anticipated phone since the Razr, and while the hardware has lived up to the hype, it appears the total package is somewhat of a let-down. I’m personally a bit bummed by this as I was rather lusting over the Q when I saw it in pictures and then very recently in person. It’s a beautiful product, but one that is saddled with a clunky interface. I haven’t thought this well enough through yet to know if it’s a universal law, but it seems like experience design is like a chain, it’s only as good as its weakest link. The weaknesses only highlight how close the strengths have come to achieving greatness. Unfortunately it appears the Q has missed nirvana.

Sun Microsystems slogan for years has been “The Network is the Computer”, and in that vein my new mantra is “The System is the Product”. For a product to feel harmonious the user, the system that surrounds it must be harmonious. No product is outside of a system, though not all products are systems. A table is not a system, but it lives within a system of retail, advertising, brand, web, and customer service that must harmoniously come together for the customer in order for that table to be successfully sold.

Making systems harmonious is difficult, which gets manifested most obviously in difficult-to-use products that are schizophrenic in their behaviors. (And as evidenced by the jabs being aimed at Motorola, it’s the company that makes the physical product that seems to take the heat even for problems that are obviously not in its domain, in Q’s case for OS-based issues.)

As Steve Portigal observes:


Award-winning, or attractive industrial design is achievable. Usable, joyous, lovely software is achievable. Why is the combination so damn hard? When will companies figure out how to do better? As advanced as we think we are in these fields, it seems big companies are still launching stuff that wrecks your life while making you look hip. We can blame it on organizational silos, or increasingly complex design problems as screen sizes gets smaller and usage gets more advanced, but I think there’s a cultural problem (of course) in organizations, as they still don’t get it. They aren’t figuring out how to work together and they aren’t setting high enough standards for what’s good enough to launch.Sure, this is Motorola in this article, but the story seems so familiar, this could be anyone. I don’t propose simple solutions here, but I do feel so very tired of the problem.


And in this day and age it seems strange the sophisticated products could still be created by people who seem to never actually use them. At least, what other conclusion is one expected to reach after reading David Pogue’s comments comparing frequent tasks on the Q to the Treo? To whit:

Example 1: After you take a picture with the camera, what options would you want to be immediately available? Maybe Save, Send and Delete? Not on this phone. These options are all hiding in menus; activating Send, for example, requires four more button presses. (On the Treo: one.)

Example 2: What if you want to edit an entry in your address book? Hey — it could happen. You can’t just highlight a name, open the menu, and choose Edit; there’s no Edit command. Instead, Microsoft wants you to open that address book “card” first and then open the menu. Total steps: four. (Treo: two.)

Example 3 (this one is really annoying): Q comes with about 25 preinstalled programs: Tasks, Voice Notes, Internet Explorer, Solitaire and so on. You get to them by pressing a button labeled Start, a riff on the familiar Windows Start menu. If only it really were a menu! Instead, you see jumbo icons. Only six of them fit on the screen at once (three across, two rows). If you want a program on the last row, you have to scroll seven times, pausing each time to make sure you haven’t overshot, by pressing the down-arrow key (or turning the notched thumbwheel). Why no list-view option? Better yet, why can’t you type the first letter of the program you want, as on the Treo? On the Q, that whole alphabet keyboard just sits there, wasted.

Example 4: To reschedule an appointment, you exit Week or Month view (where only gray blocks appear); scroll to the appointment’s name in a list; press Enter; press Edit; scroll to the Starting Time box; switch the keyboard into number-typing mode; type a new number; click Done. (On the Treo, you just drag the appointment to a new time slot.)

Examples 5, 6, 7: The Q phone doesn’t auto-capitalize names you enter in the address book, auto-format phone numbers with parentheses and dashes, or put apostrophes into words like “cant,” “dont” and “Im.” Why has Moto/Microsoft deliberately ignored the accumulated wisdom of rivals?

He goes on to list other misses, like no copy/paste (!) and no ability to edit Office documents, you can only view them. And while the Q is priced for the masses (sort of) at $199, it’ll typically cost you $110/month for the broadband wireless network to run it on, which is pretty much the only reason to buy it in the first place.

It just goes to show that even when someone’s provided a good recipe (as Palm and Blackberry have), baking a good cake is still elusive, especially when one company is making the sponge and another is making the frosting (though the Treos pull this off much more harmoniously). I’ll ask again, once more with feeling, if Palm got it right ten years ago, why are we still suffering?