Folks, today might be the day when you start to notice how ancient our smartphones have become, even if they only came out in last few months. Blame Else (formerly Emblaze Mobile) for its confusingly-named First Else, a phone "built from scratch" over the last two years and now powered by Access Linux Platform (ALP) 3.0 -- a mobile OS thought to have quietly died out since our last sighting in February. Until today's London launch event, the last we heard of this Israeli company was from October's Access Day in Japan where it previewed the Else Intuition OS, which we like to think of as inspired by Minority Report. While it's still too early to tell whether the First Else -- launching in Q2 next year -- will dodge the path of doom, we were already overwhelmed by the excellence of the device's user experience, both from its presentation and from our exclusive hands-on opportunity. Do read on to find out how Else is doing it right.
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Emblaze ELSE unveiled in London, we go hands-on
Built from scratch
As the name suggests, the First Else's main objective is to be different. This may sound like a marketing hype but Else seems serious -- it wanted to create not just another phone, but rather a brand new mobile user experience (especially the ergonomics, aesthetics and the content delivery system) to upstage the iPhone and the latest Android devices, both of which Else considers to be the market leaders. Eldad Eilam, CTO of Else, explained that this required starting from scratch and using custom technology where possible (such as its proprietary graphics engine), while at the same time the technical details are well-packaged so that they don't intimidate the users (but not just by wrapping an aging OS with some fancy skin; yes, we're staring at you, Windows Phone).
Else started with ALP's Linux foundations, and after two years and 33 partner agreements, it unveiled the Else Intuition OS. When asked about other Linux-based platforms like Android and webOS, Eilam expressed little concern. "Android's a game-changer... [but] people need to consider that Android doesn't bring good user experience. Most [manufacturers] have failed. The Droid is improving, has a great infrastructure but they treat Android as just a component." Interestingly, Else didn't comment on webOS -- probably to avoid stirring up Access's bitter memories of Palm, but it could've been just a miss.
"The death of main menu"
While there's some good old Linux doing the donkey work underneath, the First Else's futuristic and intuitive user interface mesmerized us during the presentation and our hands-on, all thanks to "sPlay" -- a right-thumb-controlled, sci-fi-like fan menu interface. Else actually did a live demo on its prototype First Else with no visible glitches, and when we had our hands on the device we got the same great responsiveness. Else CEO Amir Kupervas made a good point about how "smart" phones should actually be adapting to us instead of us having to adapt to cluttered menu systems, which led the to birth of sPlay and the fisheye display which provide minimal but necessary information, while keeping a consistent layout and visual aesthetics across different applications. At the same time, these features are positioned within reach of the right thumb, and sPlay takes it further by letting you easily browse different content by just a simple swipe of the right thumb. Kupervas went as far as saying this single-hand operation is "the death of main menu," mocking most other smartphone platforms. You'll probably appreciate more of what Else is trying to achieve after watching its presentation (followed by its campaign video which is also available at the 'Source' link):
Impressive hardware, interesting service integration
While Else's focus is on the user experience, it hasn't compromised on the hardware front: inside it's got a powerful TI OMAP 3430 processor (as found on the Motorola Droid and Palm Pre), a brilliant 854x480 3.5-inch capacitive LCD touchscreen, a 5-megapixel camera which promises to capture 480p video at 30fps, and a 1450mAh battery which claims to outlast the iPhone 3GS by at least one hour. Oh, we dig the OLED indicators at the top as well, leaving us some useful space on the screen. Details on storage capacity are still vague, but right now Else is only saying anything up to 32GB. There's no word on where the First Else will make its commercial launch -- all we know is that it'll only operate on HSDPA and EDGE (sorry, Verizon fans).
Speaking of carriers, Else is also working on a self-branded media store which will require no credit card details, thus enhancing the "out-of-the-box experience". How will it do that, you say? Well, it'll work very closely with carriers in full partnership, and let them charge you at the end of the month. This isn't totally revolutionary -- with the iPhone it's just a one-off setup on iTunes -- but it's still a nice touch by Else, and we're sure someone out there will appreciate this extra effort to create a seamless user experience. Similarly, Else will be setting up an app store and they'll release an SDK at launch. We've been told that some big names are already working on the first lot of apps -- World of Warcraft was mentioned -- and there'll be an app approval process to ensure that they'll have the same flow as the handset itself. Good for the users, but probably not so good for the developers.
There's a lot of potential here and well done to Else for the work so far, but there are still many uncertainties: pricing, availability, carriers, apps, final device specs and, most importantly, usability in the long run. That's a lot of of unanswered questions -- almost enough for us to call this vaporware -- but we're optimistic, as we've actually held and played with a working device in person. We're hoping to hear a lot more about what Else has in store -- until then, we can only drool over this final quickie demonstration. Just remember to wipe up afterwards.