Mobile Device of the Year, 2007  

It's very difficult to say what's the best mobile device in a given year, because different people have different needs and desires. The ideal device for me might be repulsive to you, and vice-versa. But most of the computer publications try to make a call anyway. If you read the end-of-year reviews online, you'll probably conclude that the best mobile product of the year was the iPhone. It was cited by the Washington Post, Wired, Business Week, and Tech Republic (which strangely listed it as a business technology product, alongside and LinkedIn).

Other mobile products getting mentions from major publications included the Nokia n95, iPod Touch, Razr 2, and Blackberry 8800. Amazon's Kindle was the only one that showed up on both best-of and worst-of lists. The best-ofs generally liked the wireless features and screen, while the worst-ofs disliked the closed business model and "eye-poking" industrial design.

I don't agree with any of those choices.

Since people have different needs, I think the best product of the year ought to be the one that best meets needs the needs of a particular group of users. It should be utterly compelling to its own audience. There are several questions to ask:

How efficient is it? Since people use mobile devices on the go, it should do just what the user needs, without any confusion or unneeded features. But there can't be any critical features missing, either.

How well does it trade off size vs. power? Because it's carried on your person, where size and weight are at a premium, it should balance tiny size with reasonable battery life.

How does it look? Because it's effectively a part of your wardrobe, it must look great (or whatever the target customer thinks of as great).

By that standard, I think the best mobile device of 2007 -- in fact, one of the best mobile products of all time -- was the third generation iPod Nano.

Don't get me wrong, iPhone fans. The iPhone is a very interesting and provocative device. There are some beautiful features in the user interface, and I love the turmoil it's causing in the industry. Several years from now we may look back on it and call it the most influential mobile device of its time. But that doesn't mean it's the best product.

To me, the iPhone is more an intriguing statement of direction than a completed product at this point. The lack of 3G is a huge compromise, and Apple obviously didn't think through the third party application thing. If you want a slow mobile browser that also plays music and videos and doubles as a somewhat awkward phone, then the iPhone is great. But for all of the cool highlights in the iPhone, I don't think it's enough to crush the phone industry in its current version. Future versions, maybe. We'll shortlist the iPhone III for product of the year in 2010.

The n95 is also a remarkable product in its own way, and I know it inspires a lot of technolust, especially in Europe. But in my opinion, it's just the latest Swiss Army Knife of the mobile world. Next year there will be another one from Nokia or Samsung or somebody else that has an even higher-resolution camera or maybe an electric toothpick or something, and people will be fawning all over that one. Like a lot of Japanese consumer electronics products, it's not a marvelous product as much as it is a marvelously ingenious bag of features.

By contrast, in third generation Nano is not just the latest model from Apple, it's an elegant culmination of the design work they've been doing for years.

The Nano doesn't look all that great in photographs. It's wider than its predecessor, which produced some criticism when it was announced (Engadget nicknamed it "fatty," which is asinine when you see it in person). In real life, the Nano's shape is compelling. It's much thinner than you'd expect from the pictures -- shockingly thin for something that has a color screen and plays videos. With its heavily rounded corners and brightly colored case, it feels a bit like a high tech chocolate wafer. You're almost tempted to take a bite out of it.

Physically, the Nano is almost all user interface -- the screen and thumbwheel take up the entire front of the device. Until we get flexible screens, the Nano is about as small as you can possibly make a device with its features. This is the endpoint, a form factor that's going to be with us for a while.

The biggest surprise to me about the Nano is the usability of video on it. When it was announced, I thought video was a throwaway feature -- who would ever want to watch video on a screen that small? But the reality is that when you're sitting down, you'll hold a Nano about 18 inches (45 cm) away from your face. At that distance, the screen is about the same apparent size as a 20-inch television (50 cm) at the other side of the living room. It's not like watching a flat panel monster screen, but it's very usable.

I'm not sure yet how much video will be used on the device, or what sorts of video, but that's a general question about mobile video rather than anything specific about the Nano. What I've observed so far is teenage girls using the Nano to watch music videos together, commenting on how cute the drummer is.

And that's just another sign that Apple made a great design for its target audience.

The new Nano doesn't have Bluetooth built into it, or Wi-Fi, or a camera, or a phone, or a hard drive. That probably accounts for why the technophiles online have been so dismissive of it (link). But to me, it's an almost perfect balance of functionality and art. Come back in ten or twenty years and I think you'll find it in design museums, when most of today's mobile devices will be long-forgotten and mildly embarrassing.

What do you think? Do you agree with my choice? If not, what do you think was the best mobile device of 2007?

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