Katherine Boehret

App Aims to Up Social Status of Some Basic Cellphones

Believe it or not, there are people who want nothing to do with smart phones like BlackBerrys and iPhones — they just want a basic cellphone for making and receiving calls. Maybe it’s because they think smart phones are too big or too expensive. But as email becomes harder to miss and social-networking sites grow more popular, these people might start to feel a twinge of smart-phone envy, and wish that they, too, had a way to stay plugged in.

Notifier
Notifier’s home screen condenses quick snapshots of data from various sources into: “New,” “My Update” and “My Stream.”

For the past week, I’ve been testing an application called Notifier by iSkoot Inc. (iSkoot.com), which is designed to give basic cellphones a smart-phone-like shot in the arm. Notifier aggregates updates from various sources and social communities — including email, Facebook, Twitter, news feeds and instant messaging — into one application made for no-frills phones.

I tried Notifier on a Samsung Propel that costs $50 with a two-year contract and rebate. I appreciated the app’s way of keeping so much content in one spot, which saved me from checking various places for information. And Notifier is designed so you should need to sign into an account only once. But I found serious drawbacks in the experience.

Unlike on a BlackBerry or an iPhone, on which you can place programs you use frequently on the very first screen, Notifier is buried on the phone in a section called “My Stuff,” under a section called “Games and Apps,” which takes 10 clicks to reach. That’s a tremendous pain when you just want to quickly check Facebook. There aren’t any shortcuts or hard keys on phones that will open Notifier more quickly.

Second, Notifier’s user interface can be awkward. Posting updates to my social networks through Notifier was a clumsy process that was riddled with extra steps. My phone even had a slide-out QWERTY keyboard, but I preferred to use Notifier for its namesake purpose: It “notified” me of news like friends’ status updates, new messages (tweets) on Twitter and RSS news feeds.

Notifier costs $3 monthly and is exclusively available on roughly 30 AT&T (T) phones, 21 of which don’t have QWERTY keyboards. AT&T advises people who use it to do so with a data plan; these start at $15 monthly for unlimited data without text messaging. You must buy Notifier in AT&T’s online store, MEdia Mall.

Smart phones are flush with apps that aggregate content from several social networks into one spot, including Xumii for the BlackBerry or iPhone and a feature called Pulse in Yahoo’s (YHOO) oneConnect for the iPhone. There’s even a fun — though not too functional — iPhone app called Ziibii that floats social-network tidbits down an on-screen river.

Whether they’re on smart phones or basic cellphones, apps that display a lot of data in one condensed place need to do so clearly. Notifier does this by displaying a ribbon of icons at the top of the phone’s screen that it calls the carousel, and you can move the phone’s directional arrows left or right to switch from one program to the next. Whatever icon is highlighted in the carousel is the program that appears on the rest of the screen.

A tiny house icon represents the home screen, where three categories of boxes show quick snapshots of data: “New,” “My Update” and “My Stream.” The top box, labeled New, shows names of programs with numbers to show how many new items, or updates, were submitted to that program. For example, “Inbox: 3″ means that three new emails were received; “Feeds: 54″ represents 54 newly received snippets of news from an easy-to-use RSS reader built into Notifier.

Below this data are the My Update and My Stream sections, with left and right arrows to let you scan through various subcategories within each section. My Update shows your status on the various social networking sites.

I found My Stream to be a little confusing. It lets you arrow left or right to see what’s going on in your social network — if you received a new email, for instance, or someone sent you an instant message. But because you’re arrowing left or right, not up and down in a list, it’s hard to find the beginning of this stream. And Facebook notifications are a little too vague; one might say, “Barbie Roberts updated her Facebook profile,” without telling you what she did to update it.

Another Facebook glitch that I ran into was that I had to sign in more than once. This could be a hassle if you’re on the road and nowhere near a computer. In one instance, I was signed in and typed out a status update, but had to sign into Facebook yet again to post my new status. ISkoot says this and other Facebook navigation issues will be fixed within a week.

I flicked through My Stream while standing in line to board a plane and minimized the Notifier screen to get back to the phone’s functionality. Notifier can alert you of new messages even when it’s minimized. This works because the app stays connected to the network, so when you get a new message on Facebook, an email or an instant message, an indicator pops up asking if you’d like to open up the Notifier screen.

The trouble with this indicator is that it doesn’t specify what kind of message you received. I care a lot more about email and instant messages than I do about Facebook messages and would rather not be notified about Facebook. And messages received in the Facebook inbox won’t display in Notifier’s “New” inbox; instead users must take an extra step out to the browser. The company says it’s working on fixing this.

I liked the Notifier news feeds, which were easy to set up. A technology category offered content from 11 sources, and the entertainment category’s seven sources ranged from Rolling Stone to the Onion to Perez Hilton. These feeds are mixed into My Stream, like email or any other news from your network.

Instant messaging, however, required too many steps. It took a while for buddy lists to load. When I selected a person’s name to start an IM conversation, a white screen appeared that looked like a place where I could type my message, but I had to select a “Write” option to skip to another screen and start composing. Likewise, emails couldn’t be typed on the screen of the message itself; rather, you have to open a separate screen for text entry. You might get used to this after a while, but it felt clumsy to me.

Notifier’s extra $18 monthly cost (not including a voice plan) might be worthwhile if you just need a way to stay plugged in and notified of the latest goings-on with friends and email. And compared with the cost of a smart phone, it might be an economical alternative. But its awkward interface and poor placement on the cellphone leave a lot of room for improvement.

Edited By Walter S. Mossberg


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