Symbian DevZone - Siemens SX1 Developer Opportunities
by Richard Bloor, June 30, 2003
The transition of the mobile phone from dumb to smart has also been
accompanied by some interesting rethinking of the tried and true phone design
paradigms. While the Nokia 7650 and Nokia 3650 bent the rules the Siemens
SX1 breaks them completely but at the same time opens some interesting
possibilities for application control.
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Siemens SX1 - New keyboard layout offers new control options
Series 60, with its contacts database and call logging features means that dialing
a number from the keypad should now be an infrequent activity. As a result it is
likely that the keyboard on a Series 60 phone will be used far more for text entry
than number dialing. The control of Series 60 is primarily through the joystick
and soft menu keys, which almost certainly influenced the design of the Nokia
7650 with its shy little hideaway keyboard. As we have already noted in an earlier
article (reference) the Nokia 3650 keyboard was designed around the Series 60
navigation buttons that resulted in the circular numeric keypad. Siemens with its
SX1 have gone even further and thrown away the rulebook to create a radical new
layout that sees the keyboard moved up to sit either side of the phoneís display.
According to Oliver "Oz" Zechlin, Global Marketing Manager for Application and
Services for smartphones the SX1 is positioned as an aspirational flagship
product within Siemens mobile phone portfolio. "It is the very first Siemens phone
to combine built-in camera, video player/recorder, 65k TFT color display, MP3
player and FM radio with an unique natural loudspeaker in one," Oliver said. "We
hope that the SX1 will be a fashionable object of desire. It's aura is powerful and
we believe that in design terms SX1 is outstanding and offers a highly innovative
side-key concept which increases the speed and convenience of use."
Creating a new design has its pitfalls, the obvious one being that of user
acceptance. New keyboard designs, particularly given the experience in the PC
world where several attempts have been made to offer better alternatives to the
QWERTY keyboard, have been largely unsuccessful in the past. Siemens are
aware of this as a possible issue. "We have conducted extensive tests on the user
interface," Oliver said. "The first thing our tests illustrated was that people are
curious about the design and they want to handle SX1 to try it out. Our test
results have shown that people easily get used to the new concept and there is a
high acceptance for the new keypad design. Of course not everyone likes the
design but overall we believe we have achieved that all important ease of use for
The side keys also open up some new possibilities for developers. The majority of
the keys are adjacent to the screen creating the possibility of using the number
keys in a direct way to control applications something which would have been
impossible with a standard keyboard. This rather obvious usage unsurprisingly
has not been lost on Siemens.
To ensure that side key controls are not as obscure as standard keyboard
shortcuts there is an obvious need to incorporate some form of label into the
screen display. Doing so however would obscure a significant portion of the
screen, reducing the space available for the application, not necessarily a
desirable thing to do on the 176 x 208 Series 60 screen (the SX1 screen is
actually 176 x 220 as Siemens have added a permanent status bar to the
standard Series 60 layout). Siemens addressed this issue by devising three
alternative models for labeling the keys.
The first is permanently displayed labels. This model has the labels always
displayed, with the application space being narrowed to the center of the screen.
As the active application space is reduced this approach will work best where the
key label information integrates with the application. This is the approach
Siemens has taken in providing controls for the SX1ís FM radio where the side
keys provide access to preset radio stations, in a similar fashion to the preset
buttons on a conventional radio.
FM RADIO APP
The second approach is to have a temporary layer that displays the key labels,
activated by the user. In this model the labels obscure the underlying screen
temporarily while they are displayed. This approach will allow the application to
continue to use the full screen but provide the user with the key labels when they
need them, either while they are learning the shortcuts or when reminding
themselves of ones they donít use that frequently. This option reduces the
number of available shortcut keys as one will need to be reserved to show the
labels. Siemens are recommending that the activation key is the 8 key.
The final option is to use a semi-transparent layer where the key labels
permanently overlay the screen but the application is still visible below. The key
label background would need to be visually identifiable and clearly associated
with the label so as to ensure that the application background and key label were
not confused by the user. This option may well be the hardest to implement
because of the graphic design needed to ensure that the application in
background and label in the foreground do not clash, otherwise neither key label
or the underlying application will be readable.
The design of the SX1 also means that where keys need to be labeled the
application will not be able to use all 10 number keys for shortcuts. This is due to
the fact that the 1, 2, 6 and 7 keys are adjacent to or above the status panel at
the top of the screen. However for games, which can use the whole screen (except
for Siemensí own status panel) only the 1 and 6 keys are adjacent to the status
Creation of the key labels will be a manual coding exercise as there are no
additional APIs to create button labels.
"At first sight, I thought that the arrangement of the sidekeys was just a unique
part of the product design." Said David Mannl, who works as a freelance
consultant on Series 60 interface design. "But when I started to work on concept
interfaces and applications for the SX1 I realized, that the use of the sidekeys as
hotkeys gives me new possibilities for creating applications that otherwise would
have been to difficult for the user to navigate through. The arrangement of the
sidekeys allows me to design applications with a much more effective user
experience, as there is a strong visual connection between screen content and
The design of the SX1 offers developers the flexibility to add additional control to
their applications that will be easily accessible to the user. It will be interesting to
see how widely this option is used. Games developers are likely to be the main
users as games often use the number keys to provide game control. Also games
probably wonít need to use the labels extensively (they donít at the moment)
meaning that all 10 keys could be used and little additional development effort
will be required, particularly if the game already includes a key mapping function.
The use of the side keys to control other types of application will in many ways be
a barometer of the SX1 popularity as effective use of the side keys will require a
slightly different approach to the applications interface design. They do however
offer the possibility of improving the user experience by making regularly used
functions more accessible.
One of the strengths of Series 60 is its ability to provide the consumer choice in
hardware while providing a common platform for developers. The SX1 will be able
to run Series 60 applications without any need to consider using the side keys
but developers now have an option that could be used to improve their
applications usability. It will be interesting to see how many rise to the challenge.
Siemens are planning to publish a white paper describing the use of the side keys
in more detail on their developer web site (www.siemens-mobile.com/developer)
by the end of July.
About the WDN Symbian Editor, Richard Bloor:Symbian DevZone Home
Richard Bloor is a freelance writer and editor with 18 years experience in the IT industry as a developer, analyst and latterly Project Manager with a particularly focus on software testing. Richard has been involved with the Symbian OS since 1995 and has been writing about it for the last 3 years.
Richard is also an associate with System Architecture consultancy Equinox of Wellington, New Zealand.
Richard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.