A Windows phone that is NOT Windows Mobile, with WiFi, this autumn - and Skype?

by Guy Kewney | posted on 23 May 2005

They march to a different drum at Neonode. They will have a Skype-capable - certainly, a VoIP-based GSM/WiFi phone - on the market by the end of this year, using Windows CE. But it is absolutely nothing like a Windows Mobile device.

Guy Kewney

Despite having Microsoft as its core, including the Windows .NET Compact Framework, this phone has a cult following - because of its "one-handed operation" with the thumb on a touch screen.

In a UI that reminds this reviewer of the Picsel gesture system, - the Neno zForce "sweeps" allow the user to control the phone while riding a bicycle.

For example, to bring up the main menu, put your thumb on the bottom left corner of the screen, and scrape it to half way up. To cancel, or to hang up a call, do a "Big Minus" - a scrape from right hand side to left hand side, in the middle. Do the same scrape at the top of the screen, and you're going from the main menu into a sub-menu, or back. Scrape up from the middle to  the top, and you're scrolling one way; reverse the scrape, and you'll scroll the other way.

"We wanted to have a very large screen – as big as the phone if possible," said Program Manager Joakim Karlen. "We had to have touch, we didn't want a stylus because that won’t work on a bicycle!"

The decision to pick Windows CE was made because of the wealth of software generated by Windows-expert programmers. The decision to avoid Windows Mobile was made because WM forces compliance for the screen.

"We didn't want to have a stylus as in Pocket PC and we didn't want buttons as in the Windows Mobile phone. Smartphone requires buttons," said Karlen."

The company, a small startup which was founded 2001 when the EC liberalised GSM compliance requirements, making it possible for a small company to get type approval. Neonode is small: 25 people in a small office over the library in central Stockholm.

"We can do what we like with the phone," said marketing manager Jonas Lofgren, "because we aren't selling to the operators; we don't need their approval. We can go for features like VoIP without worrying about whether some operator will disapprove."

The company sells this iconoclastic device to music fans - they spend a lot more effort than normal on sound quality - for around 420 Euros, a price which includes a one gigabyte SD storage card. That SD card also includes the phone operating software.

The WiFi phone answers the question: "When are you going 3G?" said Lofgren. "We aren't. We don't think questions such as 'can you do seamless handoff from 2G to 3G?" are important - they aren't showstoppers. We think our users will want to be able to have access to the Internet data over WiFi, but we don't think they'll get upset if they have to reconnect when they move out of range of a hotspot."

Testing the Neonode N1M launched this Spring, shows that it takes remarkably little time to learn how to use the "sweeps" to control it. Finding the SMS controls took a few moments: you had to get the menu, then go for the tools menu and there, you pick T9 text entry. Unusually, you can actually change T9 language in mid-line...

In MP3 player mode, it has several new features: for example, if you're following a talking book, you need a bookmark - so it remembers not just what you were listening to, but where you were in the chapter.

It also has a one megapixel camera; and it can do music and photography together.

Battery life; still an issue. The makers claim three hours of speaking time, 100 hours of standby time... but figures for music play are not impressive. "That's not the main power drain, though" said Lofgren; "the screen is the biggest power user, then the backlight and the radio." But it should play for more than five hours... as long as you don't want to make many calls.

Sadly, it doesn't have Bluetooth. That means no hands-free operation; it also means no Bluetooth stereo headsets for cycle-riding users. A problem? "No, not yet; the quality of Bluetooth stereo headsets is much better than it was, but it's still not so good that we have to have it." And if you must have a handsfree device, the ordinary audio cable earpiece works.

So will it have Skype when it comes out?

Talks are under way with various voice over IP players, and the company won't be drawn on which, if any, will be available. But as a CE platform, the list includes quite a range of possibles, and there is a Skype client available for several Pocket PC PDAs, which are also CE machines at heart, so in theory, it's not a big deal.

The new phone will appear "before December" and that's all they'll say. It promises to be a popular exhibit at this weeks Von Europe show in this city.

See for more details.

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