Google and Nokia Homescreens

With two Google Android devices and several Nokia (Symbian and Maemo) devices in tow recently, I’ve had some time to play and think about this idea of having a lot or versatile homescreens, and what really makes sense to users – not just to spec sheets.

Homescreens are essentially launching pads for getting things done with your mobile device. From the homescreen, you can see some number of applications, and then there’s usually some status indicator that lets you know of more “right now” kind of information.

For many of us, we are used to mobile devices that have a simple status area (usually a bar or a widget) and then the rest of the screen is pretty much a series of inactive icons. Personally speaking, I’m bored with this philosophy.

On Google’s Android devices (and all of the companies who do their various interface enhancements), there’s this idea of several homescreens (3, 5, or 7 of them) and then you can add icons and widgets on these screens. Usually speaking, you can arrange them any way that you want to, but mostly speaking, its a pretty static experience. For example, if you have a Twitter widget in screen 2, but your device is on screen 5, then you don’t know what’s updated until you get there.

On the other side of that you have more of a single-screen interface – which is what current Nokia/Symbian devices amount to. Specifically on the N97 and N97 Mini models, you have this ability to add widgets – self-contained applications or pointers to applications – on a singlular homescreen. You only get space for five (5) of them (one space is always reserved for the clock/profile/date widget). And these can either be static, or dynamic (email, calendar, Skype, etc. types of information to display).

As I’ve played a good bit more with the Android devices, I’m convinced that its really not the way forward to do several homescreens, but to have a single homescreen, with widgets that dynamically update, and move into a visual place on the screen where it can be noticed. If you will, you get a long screen of widgets, but anytime information updates, it would be able to slide up the screen into a specific slot designated for the most updated content.

Now, this isn’t happening at this point. What we see from just about every device maker is the implementation of several homescreens, and widgets, and notification areas. These are somewhat connected in that the widgets are designed usually to be passive-notification elements, and the notification area (a speech bubble, screen that slides from the top or bottom, or even a specific widget) pretty much takes the user’s attention. The problem is that its always disruptive. The information isn’t presented with an option to be noticed, but it has to be dealt with.

A solution (or near-solution) to this – at least reconciling this on my end – is what I’m seeing with Nokia Bots. The latest update takes a few of the widget slots, and creates dynamically updated information to display to the user. For example, you put the Contacts Bar on there and you get two types of contacts that will display: a group of contacts that you most frequently contact when you are at home and a seperate group of contacts when you aren’t home (the bar notices the place where you stay the most and alternates the contacts display based on this). In this fashion, you are getting the benefit of screens by always seeing relevant information, but the strength of widgets in that its only taking a piece of the homescreen space that is available.

Of course, I only have one homescreen, so that space needs to be managed properly and efficiently. When you have multiple pages, there’s this tendency to just have a smattering of applications and information, with still too much direction on the user to be attentive to those screens. I’ve said in a few places, “if you phone is so smart, then why isn’t it adapting to you, instead of you adapting to it?”

As I look to learn a bit more about the current versions of Android, I’m having to jump against this feeling that I need to fill up the available screens with widgets and shortcuts. While its designed to make it easier for me to get to those items, its also creating this mindset where I need or have to know what screen what app is on so that I can quickly communicate or get something done. This mental exercise isn’t the case on my Nokia – it shows me what I want, even being limited in how much it can display.

I’m not sure that I like the idea of Symbian’s next two releases (Symbian^3 and Symbian^4) as they are going the route of adding homescreens. I’d rather see them explore contexual widgets on a long panel, more similar to Windows Phone 7. The homescreen should be more the portal and dashboard, instead of the constantly expanding table of portals. Hopefully, some mobile platform will take the lead in this different paradigm, and offer users something a bit more contextual, before offering a feature checked off.