• Technology

Why I still don't have a smart phone

I don't regularly carry a cell phone, but I've been reading about all the great new smart phone models coming out for the last couple years with great interest. As a recovering palm pilot addict, its not that I don't really dig playing with gadgets, its mainly the cost thats keeping me away. I don't mean the cost of the device because $200 for a mini computer that fits in your pocket is damn cheap IMO, I mean the phone service charges that come along with these little gizmos. I was thinking to get a PDA (or a smartphone without a plan) and just using Google Voice or Skype, but never followed through on that plan. This would have had the distinct disadvantage of not actually being a phone when you might wish it was one (since it wouldn't work if you weren't near wifi), but seeing as I usually don't carry one now anyway I don't see that as a big issue.

We have a cell we use for emergencys only and one day I realized that it was costing us $39 a month for what amounted to perhaps one or two shorts calls a week. We immediately changed over to a pay as you go plan and for the last 3 years that phone has cost us about $100 a year instead of $450. While not technically a "smart" phone saving $1,000 might qualify? Even though I have had several Macs and think they are about the best quality machines I've ever owned, I've crusaded against the iPhone for too many reasons to bother repeating them here. But the new Android phones are much closer to my gadget nirvana, and yet they're still not quite open enough for me.

While its true you can get a smartphone from Verizon on a pay as you go plan now, you have to be ready to plunk down the $500 or so to buy the device outright first which sort of tempers the deal a bit. Then theres the fear that you'll easily go over the cap and end up with a thousand dollar bill because you left your phone on when you fell asleep listening to internet radio. If you get a monthly Plan, having the data "option" is now mandatory on these smartphones, ostensibly because smart phone users consume more data and thus, having a reasonable data plan makes a happier customer. This is mostly just BS - the real reason is that 1) they're tired of fighting with you when you use data and they charge you $1000 for it since you went 1GB over their ridiculously low cap and 2) if you're forced to take a data plan then you'll use it and realize you like it and so, consume more data and eventually end up paying for a higher data cap. Data quotas could easily stop service at whatever arbitrary limit the carrier wanted to set if it was a concern (after all, Verizon happily reports exactly how much data you've used every time you turn on one of their USB wireless cards), but its really about making money. The problem is there are people like me who would like to have a cell phone which works everywhere and which functions as a PDA when I'm near the wifi I already pay for. I have internet access at home, at work, and at most of the places where I might actually use the thing. Since there are LAWS against using it in the car while driving I don't really need 4G access at all. They know that if they allow me to use the device I bought the way I want the next step is what I already suggested in the first paragraph - they might get cut out entirely when I switch to VOIP service over whatever wifi I happen to be using. Then they're doing nothing more than leasing me an expensive cell phone. Thats not how they make money.

Another thing I just can't justify is paying for text (text is totally FREE if sent in email form even if it has huge files piggy-backed as attachments). SMS is just the biggest rip-off ever invented - and will remain so until there is a revolt and folks refuse to pay for it. This may come sooner than you think as more people get smart phones and realize they can use IM or email for free (just like they do on their other computers) over wifi where they used to pay for SMS.

While not such a problem on smartphones, theres still a lot of crapware on phones - it used to be much worse, but some are still coming loaded with branded portal software which "guide" and funnel you to some subset of the internet or restrict what you can access, creating a sort of gated community on the web which is usually ironically named "My Whatever" when really its about the farthest thing from YOUR anything. These access portals were designed so that users could spend even more money buying "ringtones" (short mp3s) or other personalizations (small JPG and other images) at ridiculous prices given that if you could just connect the phone to your computer and easily copy your own files over to the phone like any other USB connected drive it would all be free. My all time favorite ripoff like that was the old Motorola Razrs which I could plug into my linux machine and copy stuff over directly to the audio or photos folders, but which required special Motorola Phone Tools (pay) software to even be recognized in Windows.

New smart phones are converging toward my ideal device, and have gotten very close with some of the latest Android releases - but I really like the freedom to use things I buy however I want and these phones are still largely locked down (mostly bowing to carrier demands). On some you can only install new software through official app stores, on most you don't have access to the underlying OS so you can't get your favorite apps to work even though the phone is running open source linux and theres no F&%4ing reason why you shouldn't be able to. There's a whole industry in "unlocking" them which of course will void your warranty and leave you without official channels of support. Thats fine with me, but at the current prices I'm not really willing to shell out 500 bucks for something I'll have to hack just to be able to use the way I want, to say nothing of the outrageous fees I'd incur for actually using the thing as a phone.

My last thought is the interface. I still haven't seen a phone yet which has an interface anywhere near as good as a real keyboard. I get messages all day from people who happily advertise in their messages "Sent from my Blackberry" or you-pick-some-other-variety and the messages are short, stunted, often cryptic, riddled with misspellings or mistaken punctuations or written in apparent coded SMS style shorthand expressly because the interface sucks. They don't want to wait till they have time to write good sentences to reply, but they don't seem to care that what they sent may be misleading or make no sense at all and just waste my time. The palm pilot's graffiti with stylus was the last decent interface I used on one of these little devices because it was actually writing - just like I'd write anything with a pencil - and given the horrendously slow processor speed and terrible OS palms had at the time, the OCR on it worked amazingly well. I'm not suggesting that would be a successful strategy for the thumb-flipping generation, but with 4G networks couldnt we just write a note on the screen and send the image? Why do I need to enter e.a.c.h..l.e.t.t.e.r at a time? Yeah, the predictive word algorithms work pretty well, but still - what about when I want to include a sketch inline? A hand drawn smiley? Underline something for emphasis? Or if I want to send a quick pic marked up with a stylus with some arrows on that part that broke which is usually a lot more useful than some cribbed half sentence squashed into a twitter sized chunk of useless thumb mashings.

You really can't call me a Luddite just because I don't have a smartphone. I live and breathe this stuff all day. I mash keys and write code, I run websites and mailing lists, I spend more time messing with computers than nearly anyone I know (and nearly none of that time is spent playing games or watching movies); yet no matter where I go I can't help but notice what seems like an army of people all staring into these little devices or tapping away on them madly, oblivious to people around them, swerving into oncoming traffic as they try to dial or check their facebook (luckily tonight's idiot was behind me and not oncoming) until it seems like I'm the last person alive paying any attention to anything else.