Tuesday, June 19, 2007

My personal review of the Helio Ocean

A few days ago, I walked into the Helio store in Palo Alto, talked to a cool store guy and walked out with an Helio Ocean. I am clearly biased on the device, since Funambol powers it, but I hope I can still be balanced in my review ;-)

Done with the caveat, a first impression: the Ocean is an awesome device :-)

The thing that makes it unique, for starters, is the sliding dual keyboard. That is, you slide out the keypad from the bottom when you need to call someone; you slide out the keyboard from the side when you want to type (and the screen turns into landscape).

I am a fan of tactile feedback, maybe because I descend from monkeys. I believe having a keyboard to type is a must, if you want to do email or IM. I am willing to change my mind in two weeks (the iPhone birth date), but I had confirmation of my suspicions last week at the Apple WWDC. On the Apple site, check the video of the VP iPhone Software typing on the iPhone : he wants to type "john". He does "j", then "o", then "j" again (oops), then backspace, then "j" again (ooooooops), then backspace and finally "h" and "n". Agreed, he was on stage and everybody was comparing his performance to Steve Jobs... but if the VP iPhone can't type on it under pressure, I sure will have the same issue while driving (note: there are studies that say that the vast majority of mobile emails are typed while driving...).

The communication features of the Ocean are astonishing. You can do email with Yahoo, Gmail, AOL, Earthlink, Windows Live and your POP/IMAP. With Yahoo, it is even push (nice ;-) You can do IM with Yahoo, MSN and AIM (no Google Talk). You can sync your address book with Helio, Yahoo and AOL (via SyncML, that is). It is a messaging monster.

To be honest, all those options and brands are even overwhelming. Trying to pack every email, IM and sync brand on the phone is confusing and limiting. For example, it does not scale (imagine adding even more brands, like MySpace, Facebook, and so on). Also, you cannot filter anything (and I do not want spam on my phone or - worst - to be notified when there is spam waiting for me...). My recipe for this is: one Email client, one IM client, one Sync client. They all talk to a server (or gateway), branded by the operator, where you can easily define filters and set whatever sources you have. Packing everything in the phone won't cut it in the long run.

Other nice features are Google Maps, with GPS support, and a search tool that looks into different search engines. Even Yelp. That is: you are looking for an Italian restaurant, you do a search based on where you are (the phone knows it...), you get results, you check what people say about those places and call the restaurant to make a reservation with a click. That's the power of mobility, localization and a device that has an unlimited data plan...

When you have GPS, cool things happen. For example, you take a picture and it gets "geotagged" when you send it to Helio Up. That means you do not need to write on the back of your picture where you were when you took that picture. Pictures tagged with date and location are the future of photo albums.

There are shortcomings, though. For example, you cannot add another sync server... Although I have inside information that it would work ;-) And you cannot sync calendars (well, also that one I know it can be easily done...). Even if you have a pIMAP capable server, it does not push emails to the device (it is Yahoo only). Even more, you cannot download Java apps on the device, if they are not on deck. That's insane: it has a fully open browser but you can't add apps to it?? If you are an open source developer, good luck trying to find a way to post applications on the deck. They do not even give you a link or an email of someone you can talk to... When will they understand this is what makes such a phone really useful??? Even Steve Jobs realized it recently. Give the power to developers, they will shock you.

Bottom line, the Ocean has a sliding keyboard. Big plus. It also costs $195 (vs. $500+ of the iPhone). Huge plus... It has 3G (vs. 2.5G). Big difference, since you do not need wifi.

It feels light, it feels fast, it is packed with a million features, it is reasonably priced. It is an awesome device.

The iPhone killer? Probably not (brand matters), but if you are looking at an iPhone alternative to spend less money and have great features... it is probably it.