People-Centric or StalkerWare? : New generation of cell phones favors conversations over call logs

Noah Kravitz
 from  Oakland, CA
| April 21, 2009

For weeks I harassed my Nokia PR rep about getting me an XpressMusic 5800 loaner to review.  The poor woman kept telling me that she didn't have any loaners yet, and that I was on the list to get one as soon as she did.  And I kept bugging her.  Why?  Well, the 5800 is Nokia's first touch-optimized S60 smartphone, but that wasn't the reason.  And no, it wasn't just because I'm as forgetful as a doddering old professor (I really didn't mean to pester her so much).  The reason was because of the device's Contacts Bar Home screen I'd caught a fleeting glimpse of back in February at MWC in Barcelona.

Like HTC's new Touch Diamond 2 and Touch Pro 2, the Palm Pre, and Nokia's own Intrigue, the 5800 features what some in the industry are starting to call "people-centric" conversation management.  I know, it seems odd to refer to a people-centric phone as something new and innovative, but it is.  Kind of.  It's new(ish), anyway.

People-centric as I'm using it here refers to phones that display at-a-glance call and messaging logs arranged by who you've been talking to rather than how you've been talking to them.  So instead of only displaying discrete logs for Call History, SMS/MMS history, Email history, etc, these new phones also offer complete records of your communications on a person-by-person basis.  So instead of searching my call logs for each instance of talking with "Sarah," for example, I can just look at "Sarah" and see when we called each other along with all of our texts, MMS messages, and Emails.

The Nokias allow you to view this info for a small handful of contacts at a time, while the new HTCs let you track conversations with anyone in your address book, while also designating "favorite people" on a Home screen.  Palm's Pre utilizes something company calls Synergy, which promises to let you carry a conversation across different modes of communication without dropping a beat.  In other words, I can start talking to Sarah via IM, and then seamlessly move to SMS/MMS or Email should one or the other of us decide to switch devices (so if Sarah moves from IM on her desktop computer to SMS on her mobile phone, my Pre will keep the conversation humming for me, and all in one place).

Palm may well be taking the concept one step further via Pre's advertised integration with Web-based messaging services like Facebook and twitter - while FB and twitter clients are available on smartphones and come pre-installed T-Mobile's new Sidekick LX 2009, Pre may soon allow me to view Sarah's tweets and Facebook status updates right alongside of her Emails and SMSs.  Knowing HTC, I'd imagine similar functionality could well be show up in the new version of TouchFlo 3D later this year.  And Nokia's flagship N97, due to ship this Summer, has already been dubbed "The FaceBook Phone" by some in the know at the Finnish company.   

Beyond that, Yahoo! Mobile Apps (Web-based and installable) and forthcoming software from 3Deep promise to bring similar people-aware software to existing smartphones.  There's even a snarky nickname for this emerging breed of people-centric stuff: StalkerWare.

Thing is, just because software and hardware companies are making all of this stuff doesn't meant that consumers will actually want or use it.  Which brings me back to the Nokia 5800 I just got to review: The Contacts Bar is kind of cool, but the rest of the phone is, frankly, kind of a mess.  So it's hard for me to tell if the Contacts Bar actually isn't all that handy, or if it is useful but overshadowed by an otherwise messy user interface.

So you tell me: Contacts Bars, People-Centric call/messaging logs, and conversations that follow you via Email/IM/SMS and social media services as you're on the go ... Do you want it all in one place, or are you fine with jumping from call logs to SMS threads to your IM and twitter apps?  Is StalkerWare the next big thing in mobile tech, or just the newest blip du jour on your phone's screen?