Web Informant #413, 10 June 2005: Plain-wrap cell phones




Ok, it almost sounds like the beginning of one of those "lightbulb" jokes: how many technology editors does it take to type in an international phone number on your cell phone? Really, if you had seen the three of us the other morning last month in Taipei you might have wondered if you stumbled onto the dumb class for cell users. There we all were, cooling our heels in a hotel lobby waiting for our first appointments of the day. The three of us had two cells with two different USA providers and none of us could make a single call. It wasn't for lack of trying, or knowledge. Most of the time we were trying to figure out how to find the "+" key used for international dialing.


When I toiled in the fields of IT back in the day, we used to pray that the primitive DOS-based computers would someday become as easy to use as telephones. We have sadly gotten our wish, although not the way we expected. With different providers, data coverage plans and the various secret codes to access international calls, using a phone these days is a real mess.


Try to call any of the carriers these days and ask about their data plans, and I guarantee you that you will not get the same story from two people in the same company. And even the generation of teens and twenty-somethings that grew up with a cell never far from their persons has trouble. My step-daughter was complaining about how limited her current plan was in terms of the number of monthly text messages she had.


To make matters worse, phones are about to get even more complex, which is good news for the phone vendors but bad news for us. If I had to trace the rise of the cell unusability curve, the first step was the addition of a Web browser in the mid-1990s. I still remember the looks and comments that I got when I first used these early phones. Back then I thought the notion was a good one, and I even uploaded my own address book to the Internet so I could surf my contacts from my phone. It took some programming and some work but was moderately useful. Then of course we got BlackBerry phones and other PDA/Phone combinations like Treo so you could carry all your contacts with you, and synch them with your desktop contact software. More on that in a moment.


The next stage was adding still cameras into the phones: this has been happening in Asia over the past several years and more recently in America, and soon you won't be able to buy a phone without some sort of camera attachment. This brought about the era where now everyone is in the public eye, and nothing is too mundane to be photographed and instantly transmitted halfway around the world.


Some cell phones now also come with built-in speakerphones. I never understood why this was a good thing. And to make matters worse, we now have cell phones that can be used as remote speakerphones, perfect for espionage purposes.


We are now seeing the addition of video cameras to phones, and incorporating digital audio players as well. Soon we'll have everything that you could find in a low end PC. Too bad most people aren't yet very interested in paying for this content: a recent survey by Jupiter Research says that while 44% of the respondents would like to see the videos, less than 20% would pay for it. Clearly, we still have some work to do here.


So what do I use for my current cell phone? I am almost embarrassed to admit that it is an old Motorola. Ironically, it isn't anything fancy and doesn't have a Web browser or a camera or anything besides the phone in it. I like it just fine, and have found that the fancier cellies aren't my thing. Several of my staff and even non-IT friends now use BlackBerries and mostly love them, but I am sticking with my wood-burning phone for now.


To provide some perspective, I re-read this column that I wrote five years about the phone-plus features that I used back then:



So the first question that I asked myself, which of those applications has withstood the test of time, several cell phones later and numerous job changes? I still use eFax (although not the wireless feature, just from a regular PC platform) and MyDocsOnline (again, but not the wireless features) they are both handy when traveling and you need to get something to me via a fax or when I have to save an important document. But the rest of those services didn't hold up, and weren't compelling enough to continue using them.


So have I become a phone luddite, or just complacent?


I think part of the problem with the non-phone features is that they are still too complicated and not very dependable. I listen to my friends tell me about the time they lost all their contacts because of lousy synch software, or because their phone downloaded its own firmware upgrade and became unusable. I had lunch with two friends last week one with a BlackBerry, one with a PocketPC PDA phone, and both gentlemen regaled each other with stories about how often they had problems with earlier versions of their fancy phones.


But at least for me the issue is that I just want my phone to work and make and receive calls. I am surrounded with the latest and greatest technology at the office. Ironically, my carrier's coverage in our office is very spotty sometimes calls go through, sometimes they don't, and usually if I move to one spot near the back of the office I can get a signal.


Carriers need to segment their markets and embrace people like me: I don't want a fancy phone. Maybe if someone designed a simple phone with a huge talk-time battery life they would attract the others who are just looking for feature-free ease of use. Maybe this could be the beginning of a long line of plain-wrap technology, like the boxes of pasta and cereal you can find in some grocery stores. Next item on my shopping list: a laptop that has eight hour battery life with a slowed down processor to last on a day's outing.


David Strom


Tom's Guides Publishing

31225 LaBaya Dr #107

Westlake Village, CA 91362

+1 (818) 991-0282 x204



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