The classic mobile phone platform and the Nintendo handhelds are coming closer together, however. Just as full Web browsers and downloadable apps started transforming the cellular eco-system, Nintendo drops on us the DSi, which has full WiFi Web browsing, a downloadable app store, and even two built-in cameras and expandable storage via an SD slot. In some respects this is a smart phone with no phone but a lot of smarts.
The major overhaul of the DS handheld enlarges both of the original LCD screens, which is good for games but even better for Web browsing. The real surprise in the DSi is the usability of the Opera browser. Opera has been making a specialty of refitting the full Web into device-specific experiences. It has a very good rendering engine that it uses in the Opera Mini mobile browser for phones as well as the Nintendo Wii's game console browser and now the DSi. After struggling with the Kindle 2's always-there-but-always-ugly browser in my last column, it was joyous to have a two-screen portable Web experience that worked, even if only in a WiFi hot spot. The site rendering was good, although some ads and images served up in strange ways. A lot of the multimedia and AJAX site interactivity is broken. I see that others using this browser have been able to Twitter from it, but I can't get the functionality to work directly from the Twitter page.
With all that remains busted or limited on the DSi browser, why would I like it as mobile Internet access point? First, the two-screen expanse can be toggled from a column view (which scrolls the page across both screens) or an "overview" mode that puts s thumbnail of the page in the top screen and a magnified view in the bottom touch screen for navigating freestyle around the page. The browser is actually pretty quick, and it works exceptionally well on WAP and .mobi sites. In fact, I am already piling up mobile Web destinations in the bookmarks. The cross-program operations are much like the iPhone, in that a single power button press on the DSi kicks you out of the current program and into a general icon-driven home screen for dropping into another app. In other words, this becomes a credible browsing tool for game players.
And then there is the DSi Shop. At first blush this digital downloads shop seems like just another way to distribute games directly to consumers, which it is. But there is potential here for it to be more. Given the connectivity already present in the DSi, why wouldn't Nintendo approach Yahoo to design an IM client or Twitter and Facebook to offer mobile versions of their social networking tools? Well, the short answer to that is that Nintendo is infamously proprietary and notoriously uninterested in standard ad-supported content models. There is nothing remotely open about the app store on the DSi. I expect that any developer will have to work very closely with Nintendo to get anything in here. And yet the Wii is now offering a video channel that does include some third-party video material. Some publishers are starting to create Wii-friendly versions of their site for access via the game console's browser. There may really be room for marketers in that well-trafficked Nintendo eco-system after all.
But as we have seen in the past, there is a lot to be learned from this very smart company from outside the high garden walls Nintendo erects around its content and users. The DSi has a simplified browsing interface that may be good enough for most mobile users. In a very tech-driven cellular mobile universe, more is always more. The DSi browser has just a few basic navigation, bookmarking and input functions, but somehow the ease of use and speed make this the first non-phone portable browser I am likely to use. The functionality fits the circumstance. If I can check headlines and send a text message within a context of gaming, then these functions may be enough.
The possible integration of third-party communications tools like IM and SMS bridges, will be interesting to watch. The DS that came before the DSi enjoys extremely high penetration among youngsters and a growing adult and female demo. Unlike the many "personal communications devices" before it, the DSi doesn't need to sell itself on new functionality alone. The loyal base is already there, although Nintendo does have the uphill task of convincing a lot of happy DS owners that they crave the DSi upgrade.
And finally, don't ignore that app store. Even before Nintendo ever decides to let third-party non-game developers or brands into the space, you can bet there will be some fascinating ideas coming from it. The first game in the store, for instance, WarioWare Snapped, uses the embedded camera to integrate the imaging of a user's physical gesturing into the game play. I don't think any iPhone game has gotten that far yet.
This may not be a smart phone, but the DSi has the potential to be a smart enough toy to teach us all some new tricks. Any Apple chauvinists who think that the only real innovators in mobile media come from Cupertino isn't looking far enough westward.