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Monday, March 27, 2006

Backblog 1: In which Ryan rants about cellphones

Over the past six months or so, I've started several blog posts, but lacked the time and/or inclination to finish them right then, so I just saved them as drafts to finish later. This week is later. This post was originally begun on Sept. 25, 2005.

I've had a snazzy, fancy, websurfing, picture-taking cellphone for a while now. You know what? I make calls on it. That's pretty much all. And since my wristwatch broke, I've been using it as a really expensive, complicated pocketwatch. Whee.

I've play Tetris on it some. It had never before occurred to me that anyone could screw up a version of Tetris, yet frustratingly, my 2005 cellphone can't do Tetris as well as my 1987 Game Boy.

Early on, I took some pictures with it. I guess they're probably ok. I'll likely never know, though, since I'd need either the $10/month photo sending service package or the $40 special USB cable kit to get them off.

I've got some cool ideas for utilities and apps I'd like to have on my phone, too, but good luck getting them there. Cellphones are not particularly hacker-friendly (that's "hacker" in the original, non-pejorative use of the word) in the way that computers are, since you can only get software on most of them my uploading and distributing it through the phone company's service.

And that really hits at the heart of what I want: I want a cellphone that's truly on my side. One that works exclusively for me instead of feeling like a double-agent for the phone company riding around in my pants.

If my cellphone hardware supports Bluetooth, then I don't want my service provider to disable it for their own purposes. If my cellphone has a USB connector, I don't want my service provider to opt for an over-priced proprietary connector to protect their bandwidth distribution. If my cellphone can play MP3s, I should be able to load up my own audio files as ringtones, instead of being forced to overpay for the official ringtones because of artificial barriers. If I know how to code apps for my phone, it should be easy for me to load and run them.

I want a hackable cellphone. A phone that has an OS that allows me to modify its behavior (within the bounds of the law, of course) to meet my own needs, either through code or scripting. For example, if I have events scheduled in my phone's calendar, I want to be able have it automatically disable the ringer when they start. Maybe there are phones that do that, but mine sure doesn't.

Failing my ivory tower phone phantasies, I'll settle for a phone that is just that: a phone. Nothing more, nothing less. My wife still uses a Motorola StarTac, and except that the battery is beginning to die, it's still the greatest small cellphone ever. It doesn't have any special bells or whistles (heck, it barely has a phonebook by modern standards), but for clarity, reception, and ease of use, it is absolutely unparalleled.

Lately there is some hope that really good, simple, effective, inexpensive phones are making a comeback, at least in Europe. Now if we can just get them here.

And yes, I am aware of the contradiction that I'm wishing for a phone that will allow me to do more, while pining for one that does less (but does it really well). I'm also aware of the irony that for years geeks in the US have been bemoaning the lameness of our cellphones compared to those in Japan and Europe, and that we're finally starting to get access to more of the popular world-phones here just in time for the ultra-simple, barebones phone to become in vogue.

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