The Lefts and Rights of Phone Controls

It’s interesting to see that while the touch screen interface has become increasingly popular, many mobile phones still offer a separate control pad for manoeuvring the cursor. Usually this control pad is located in the centre of the device just under the phone screen, but the rise of the slide-out qwerty keyboard has meant the position of the control pad has shifted off the front of the device.

Away from the front surface, I’ve noticed there’s no consistency in whether it’s on the right or left side of the device. Some phones follow the traditional PC keyboard layout, with the directional buttons on the right-hand side. Examples include Samsung’s B3410 and Omnia Pro. Motorola’s new Droid offers the control pad as a separate set of buttons on the far right. But the Nokia N97 and Motorola Dext both have the control pad located on the left-hand side of the keypad.

The Motorola Dext, in particular, reminded me of control pads used for games consoles, and it got me thinking about why mobile phones have different control-pad designs. If you look back to early consoles, for example, Sega’s Megadrive or the Nintendo SNES, you’ll notice that all the controllers had movement buttons on the left and fire, enter and start on the right. This trend’s continued with every new generation. The PlayStation, Xbox and Wii and handheld devices like the PSPgo and Nintendo DSi all seem to stick to this convention.

There’s some overlap between mobile phones and handheld games consoles. Nokia’s N-Gage devices were an ill-fated attempt at combining the two, but I think there’s still an opportunity for some crossover. Certainly, a few more phones should take lessons from the basic design of game consoles. Given the size of the market for consoles, I’m sure many consumers are accustomed to the look and feel of console control layouts. And some phones would definitely benefit from a control pad on the left and “enter” and “back” buttons on the right.

The N-Gage designs may have found little favour when they first came out, but in my view there’s still plenty of potential for the right manufacturer. The continuing rumours about a PSP with cellular connectivity suggest the idea’s not completely dead.