Say you’re a business that sells flowers over the phone. And say that, while picking a phone number for your business, you’ve got the choice between 1-800-356-9377 and 1-800-444-4444. Which do you pick? You’d pick the first one, because, while 7 seemingly random digits are hard to remember, the fact that they spell “FLOWERS” isn’t. Unfortunately, on some of the more prominent Windows Mobile devices, it’s pretty hard to dial 1-800-FLOWERS. This entry will attempt to explain why.
What are these letters for anyway?
As all of you are undoubtedly aware, most of the keys that you use to dial a phone have letters on them. Ever wonder why? If you’re a product of today’s world, where teenagers can T9 at 20 words a minute, you’ve probably just assumed those letters are there so you can text your friends. Have you ever wondered, though, why the 7 and 9 buttons have four letters each while the others have three? The answer is that the original intent of these letters wasn’t writing text. On old style phones (for you youngsters, these were boxes that plugged into a wall and couldn’t be carried around with you) there’s no Q nor Z. So 7 and 9 have three letters, like the rest of the keys.
When phones were first introduced, the phone company assumed that people wouldn’t be able to remember seven digits. So they stuck letters on the phone and published phone numbers as a combination of letters and numbers. You didn’t remember “282-5122.” Instead you remembered “AV2-5122.” I’m not making this up. That was my dad’s business number when I was growing up. (He’s retired now. Don’t bother calling.) I assume people eventually figured out how to remember seven digits, though, because this practice eventually fell out of use.
(Edit: It turns out that I'm not old enough to understand how this really started. I came in late in the convoluted history, and it had already taken some weird turns before my time. Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telephone_exchange_names if you really want to understand how this came about.)
Enter the flower
Even though people eventually stopped publishing phone numbers with two letters, marketers quickly caught on to the potential benefits of those letters. Numbers like "1-800-FLOWERS" arrived immediately thereafter. I don’t know exactly when these sorts of personalized phone numbers started showing up, but they’ve been around for at least 30 years. This is probably why none of them have either a Q or a Z in their name. You had to be able to type them on of those old style phones that don’t have those letters.
I wouldn’t say that these sorts of numbers have ever been common. No business directory I’ve ever seen has had even 5% of their numbers this way. But they’ve always been around and still are today, even though now URLs are more important than phone numbers. I imagine they’ll be around forever.
So, if this personalized phone number concept has been around for decades and probably will be around for decades to come, how could Windows Mobile make it not work?
Exit the flower, enter the QWERTY Smartphone
First, let me say that “the 1-800-FLOWERS problem” is limited to a certain class of Windows Mobile Smartphones. All PocketPC Phones and all 12 key Smartphones can dial 1-800-FLOWERS just fine. It’s QWERTY Smartphones like the Moto Q, the Samsung BlackJack, and the T-Mobile Dash that have difficulty. We’re absolutely aware of the issue. We’ve been discussing it since the day Moto showed us their first sketches of the Q, and we’ve been working on various solutions. But we don’t have anything for you yet.
The trouble is, there are two features vying for use of the buttons, and 1-800-FLOWERS is the less important of them. Now, long time readers are probably rolling their eyes and saying, “Here’s Mike complaining about development resources and feature priorities again,” but that’s not my excuse this time. This isn’t a matter of us not having time to do both features. This is a problem of the two features actively conflicting with each other.
The feature that’s beating out 1-800-FLOWERS is the ability to easily dial all other phone numbers. You see, QWERTY Smartphones don’t have dedicated number keys. All the buttons on their keyboards are letters, and you need to hold the ALT key to get numbers. Imagine how much it would suck, though, if you needed to hold the ALT key just to dial a phone number. These are phones after all. It’s got to be easy to dial numbers on them.
My solution for this (yes, this is something you can actually blame me for) was to have a table that described which letters were also numbers. The Dash, for instance, has a 1 on the W key, a 2 on the E key, a 3 on the R key, etc. So the Dash has a place in its registry that says that W is also 1, E is also 2, etc. This table is in the registry because different OEMs put their numbers in different places on the keyboard. None of this needs to concern you, however, because we made our OS be the guy who understands the table and translates it for apps.
When an app that expects a number gets a letter instead, it asks the OS if there are any other keys associated with that letter. The OS looks in the table and responds appropriately. For instance, when a Dash user is trying to dial “5551212” the dialer actually sees “dddwewe.” When it sees the “d,” it says, “That doesn’t make any sense. OS, could this ‘d’ be anything else?” The OS responds, “Sure, the user might think he’s dialing a 5.” To which the dialer says, “Aha! That I can use.”
So, what’s the problem?
(All my examples are on the Dash because I have one in front of me. But the general concept is true on all Smartphones that don’t have dedicated number keys.) The problem happens when I try to dial the “F” in 1-800-FLOWERS. On the Dash, the F is the key that has a 6 on it. So, when you’re in the dialer and you hit the F, the table will translate it to 6. However, to do 1-800-FLOWERS correctly, the F had better send a 3. We could conceivably send both for F. The dialer could say, “I got an F and that doesn’t make sense. Could this be a number instead?” and the OS could say, “Yes, it might be a 6, or it might be a 3.” But how would the dialer figure out which you meant to type? Are you typing 1-800-FLOWERS or are you typing 1-800-678-9012?
In the end, the problem is that the ability to dial numbers without holding the ALT key gets in the way of dialing 1-800-FLOWERS. It’s our belief that people dial normal numbers with their phones more often than they dial personalized numbers like 1-800-FLOWERS. I’m sure I’ll get at least two comments that say, “You’re a bunch of idiots. All my friends and I ever dial are personalized numbers. Windows Mobile is doomed!” But I suspect that most of you will agree that, if you have to choose one or the other, normal numbers are more important than personalized ones.
What can a user do?
If you find that there are only a few personalized numbers that you need to call frequently, you can add them to your contacts and let SmartDial find them for you. This is my personal solution, because I almost never need to call these sorts of numbers.
In the end, though, the real problem is that there isn’t room to stick a “DEF” on the tiny little key that already has an R and a 3 on it. If you had a way to see that DEF goes with 3, you’d be able to dial the personalized number. The lowest tech, simplest solution to that is also the ugliest. You could get a little sticker that says, “2-ABC, 3-DEF, 4-GHI” etc and stick in on the back of your phone. A bit higher tech would be to use your phone’s camera to take a picture of a phone that has the letters on the keys and bring that picture up when you’re faced with dialing a personalized number. (I know you’re laughing at me now. I can hear it.)
The coolest user solution would be to have the picture show up on the screen while you’re dialing. Some clever users on the various Q, Dash, and Blackjack sites have discovered exactly how to do that. They’ve realized that the picture in the dialer that shows the Mobile Operator’s name is changeable in the registry. So they have replaced that image with one that shows which letters go with which keys (2-ABC, 3-DEF, etc). My Mobile Operator partners wouldn’t appreciate my telling you how to remove their branding, so I’m not going to. But that solution exists if you’re willing to go digging for it.
Is it ever going to get better?
As always, I can’t announce features. But I will say that the Q is one of the hottest selling Windows Mobile devices ever. And the general category of QWERTY Smartphones is doing very well. While we don’t consider the ability to dial personalized phone numbers the most important feature on a phone, we do recognize that it’s an important feature. So, while I can’t announce features or dates or even promise that anything will be done, I can say that we want to provide a real solution that’s better than the user ones above.