High Programmer > Alan De Smet > Rants > Sony: 2. Usability: 0.

Sony: 2. Usability: 0.

You'd think I'd learn. After going into detail about why Sony hates me, you would think I would know better than to purchase another Sony product.

My old Palm Vx has seen better days. The outer shell is loose, the Palm needs to sit just right in the cradle to sync, the keyboard doesn't work at all. It's time to replace it. While I replace it I can see if I can get a few features I've been wanting for a long time. The big feature I'd like? A hi-res screen that extends into the Graffiti area.

The competition was really down to the Sony Clie Th55 and the Palm T3. Both fit my requirements. The superior battery life on the Clie was key factor. I also appreciated the TH55's black slate design; it looks evil, the way electronics should. Add in a few unnecessary perks (built-in lo-res camera, wi-fi), and the Clie TH55 won.

When it finally arrived I dove right in; only to discover how little care was put into the out-of-the-box experience.

The packing was nice enough, much lighter than I would have expected but serviceable. It was nice to not need to dig through piles of wrapping to get at the bits. However, digging through the contents and checking out the manuals I ran into the first problem: the "Internet Connection Guide." This documented getting the built-in wi-fi working. All well and good, but why wasn't it included in the TH55 specific manual? Furthermore, why was it a giant foldout piece of paper? Unfolded it is around two foot long on each edge. Giant road-map sized manuals are useful for showing detailed schematics when building houses or cheap Swedish furniture, but not for electronics configuration. Sitting there with my little-teeny Clie and this huge piece of paper I was struck by the disparity. I pity those people who thought they'd pop over to the local coffee shop to give it a whirl, only to discover that the tables aren't big enough to hold the documentation.

Well, it was just some documentation that I only planned on using once, so I moved on and installed the software.

The installation CD ships with 29 different pieces of software, some for my PC, some for my Clie. Each piece of software has its own installer that is launched from a top-level installer. These 29 different installers are scattered across 9 different screens in the top-level installer.. Several of the individual installers were actually hidden behind a non-obvious More button. The button is so non-obvious (it replaces a "Next" button with a different meaning on every other screen) that the designer feel the need to slap a "Select 'More' to see more options" label to point it out. Some of the programs require that other programs be installed, but the top-level installer doesn't do anything to help ensure that they get installed.

The individual installers look and behave differently. The individual installers install their software in different locations on the disk and different locations in my Programs menu. Some of the installers let me pick where to install, some don't. There is no consistency at all. The individual installers only open a small window, which is fine, except that the top-level installer took the entire screen and hid my task-bar. When I accidentally clicked off of the current installer it disappeared behind the top-level installer. It took a moment to realize what had happened. You can use Alt+Tab to find the lost window, but it's non-obvious. Some of the individual installers ask to reboot your computer when done; nothing like interrupting the installation process several times to reboot.

All in all it's painfully clear that each individual group developed their own installer, refusing to communicate with each other. Then, approximately ten minutes before shipping, someone threw together a crude front end to the other installers. A competent company would have integrated all of these packages into a single installer. A single list of available programs would have been presented, I would select which ones I wanted, it would then manage the entire installation process. Apparently this is too hard for Sony. Instead I have to launch installer after installer.

Turning away from the installer, I examined the device itself. I'd handled it before, but it was still striking how cluttered it is. The TH55 has 15 inputs, ignoring the screen itself. The Clie is covered in buttons. I don't anticipate ever using many of the buttons. I can access the same functionality using the screen in a less confusing manner.

I'm right handed, I use my left hand to hold the Clie while working with it. I expect this is a typical case. Unfortunately, when I hold the Clie, my thumb naturally rests on a slide-switch. The power button is a slide-switch. Unfortunately, that's not the switch your thumb lands of. Instead your thumb lands on the camera lens switch. The power switch is awkwardly placed several inches below where your thumb naturally rests. I'm going to be turning the Clie on and off far more often than I open and close the camera lens. Why is it harder to toggle the power than the camera?

Turning it on, I discovered the special applications Sony added. The primary one is the "Clie Organizer". Sony attempted to integrate all of the major Palm applications (Datebook, Address book, To Do List, Memopad) into a single application. To this application they added the ability to scribble on top of things and add pictures. The problem is that I never asked for any of that. Every screenshot of the Clie shows a picture of two kids stuck into a calender. How often do I want to put a picture into a calender? Approximately never. My calender is there to remind me of things to do. If I want a photo album I'll use the dedicated photo album software.

One of the reasons I wanted to upgrade my Palm was the "digital silkscreen." Older Palms had an area below the screen for writing input. The area was just pre-printed, it wasn't part of the display. On many newer devices the screen has been extended into this area. By default it still shows the writing area, but the writing area can be hidden and the area used to display data. This means you can do things like display more entries in your calender, or display more text in a large document. This is a great feature. Unfortunately Sony, clearly not appreciating this, defaulted to using this newly revealed area to show a mini-photo album. I don't need a mini-photo album when I'm looking at my calender. I need to see more of my calender. The mini-photo-album can also be hidden, but it seems a strange default.

As for the calender itself, they managed to take the clean, simple, elegant design Palm shipped and replaced it with something that's shiny but harder to use. Appointments aren't just entries on lines (you know, like in real physical datebooks). Instead appointments are little post-it notes. Instead of listing multiple simultaneous events on separate lines, the post-it notes get smaller and smaller. For a variety of reasons I have regularly several appointments all at the same time. Palm's Datebook shows them all, each on its own line. Sony's Clie Organizer just shows me several empty (because the text doesn't fit) post-it notes.

To add insult to injury, Sony think that you'll be so enamored of the Clie Organizer that you'll want to dedicate part of your screen to navigating the program. The entire right edge is dedicated to showing other tabs leading to other parts of the Clie Organizer. Sony, here's a clue: PDA screens are very small. Chewing up space on tabs is a bad idea, the screen is already crammed with data. The Palm system already provides several excellent (and less obtrusive) navigation systems, why mess with them?

All in all the Clie Organizer is a clumsy piece of software. It was designed to look futuristic and unique. Usability was clearly not considered. Clie Organizer has lots of shiny custom interfaces, very little packing of useful information. It's possible to provide an superior, integrated application to replace the stock Palm software, but Sony hasn't done it.

On the subject of navigation, I wanted to get to the Palm Application Launcher. It's a simple launcher, it does it's job and nothing else. So I click the "Home" icon. This icon that has taken Palm users to the Application Launcher since 1996. This time it doesn't. It now takes you to the Clie Organizer. I'm not interested in my calender or other data, I want to see the other programs that are installed! To get to the launcher you'll need to select "Applica..." from the tabbed list in the Organizer. To add insult to injury, if the graffiti area is visible you'll need to scroll the tabbed list down to see the option at all.

Of course, this is just a tab. You don't actually get the Palm Application Launcher, you get a mini-launcher inside of the Clie Organizer software. The fonts are teeny-tiny to make them fit because the screen has been packed extra tight (remember the tabs that are always there?). If you don't like this weird embedded launcher, well, one of the programs is "Applications." That seems promising. I clicked on it and...

What's this? It's some sort of weird scrolling interface. It's clumsy to use. The clickable area for each icon is smaller, so you'll have to be more careful. The category list is so small that it has requires a scroll bar. The scroll bars are custom and also small targets. You can use the scroll wheel, in fact that looks like the intended use. However, if you've got lots of applications installed you'll be scrolling for some time. The software is certainly shiny, but it lacks the simple elegance I was looking for.

Only by digging around in menus did I find "Go to Standard View." Finally, the simple, elegant interface that originally sold me on the Palm line of products. No glitz and glamor, just usability.

I originally purchased a Palm because I needed something to solve problems. Palm has always worked hard to make their devices real, working devices in a way that Microsoft continually failed with the WinCE/PocketPC line. When I purchased my Palm Vx (my third Palm), I knew I was getting a low resolution, black and white display, slow processor, and limited memory. A similarly priced PocketPC would have easily trumped the Vx in the technical specifications. But Palm shipped a device that was ready to get to business right away. People who wanted a cool toy purchased a PocketPC, people who wanted to work purchased a Palm. I'll admit, I did upgrade in part because I wanted a little toy with my business, but for some reason Sony tried to minimize the business and turn it into a toy. Heck, on the back it proudly announces that it's a "Personal Entertainment Organizer." Did my entertainment need organizing? It's taken a little work, but finally my Clie is working like a business tool that happens to be also act like a toy instead of a toy that pretends to be a business tool.

Not only did Sony ship a toy, they shipped a toy with a bad out-of-the-box experience. It might as well have said "Some assembly required" on the box. Does Sony not use their products, or is it just that they hold their customers with such contempt that pesky details like usability are never considered?

I've beaten the Clie into shape and I'm pleased with it. Of course, I'm basically using applications that Palm developed, not Sony. Physically it's a nice device, and it certainly looks cool. It's a shame Sony shipped such crap with it.

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