Nobody Makes Good Cell Phones

The cell phone market bugs me. It seems to have been taken over by marketers utterly out of touch with the reality of what people are looking for in a phone, their singular focus instead on a cheap game of one-upmanship with the competition. In recent talks with others and their pleasure or displeasure with their phones, I’ve found that I’m not the only one who’s annoyed here. So what’s got my goat?

Modern cell phones try to be good at everything and are good at nothing.

First and foremost, a phone should be good at being a phone. My personal principles on what makes a good phone are that it should be easy to make & receive calls, the battery
should last a long time, it should be easy to look at the screen and see who is calling, and the phone should be hard to break. Furthermore, the ideal phone should be lightweight and easy to carry, feel good in the hand, and limit the amount of radiation to which your head is exposed. Modern cell phones have compromised exellence on almost every one of these basic principles in order to offer extras which are of almost no benefit to most cell phone users.

Useless Feature 1: Color Screens
So you might be thinking that I’m a Luddite here; how could I possibly be opposed to color? Isn’t it cute? Well, color screens are cute, but I think that not all cell phone buyers find them worth the tradeoffs incurred. Most color cell phone screens are wholly unreadable without backlighting even under the most generous of conditions. Active backlighting is a huge drain on the batteries and generally requires that you press
some button, making it a little bit harder to just casually glance at your phone to check the time or an incoming call. Color screens are more delicate and complex, and are therefore are more susceptible to breakage and cost more to manufacture. The color screen adds no utility to the phone (i.e., it does not improve the ease of making or receiving calls, etc) while driving up the price, down the battery life, removing the ability to glance at your phone, and reducing your phone’s life expectancy. Color screens add a small amount of cuteness in exchange for making your phone less useful as a phone. Whether or not you agree with me here (you may be particularly enamored of your color screen), perhaps you could agree that those who don’t want a color screen on a new phone should not be forced to buy one? But when I go to the cell phone store, I can’t find non-color screens.

Useless Feature 2: Cameras
Some people might actualy want to have the ability to take 160×120 grainy little photos and pay $10 a month to send them to their friends. But many of us don’t. Adding a camera adds cost to the phone and adding in support for the camera’s functions tends to add complexity to both the software and hardware interfaces of the phone, especially when
it comes to the ability to transmit pictures over the network. Devices with cameras, including cell phones, are increasingly not allowed in certain locations; having a cell phone without a camera lets you take your phone more places. And it’s getting hard to find cell phones without cameras. (Ridiculous invention du jour: a white LED on the back of the phone that turns on a second before the picture is taken allows the cameraphones to be dubbed “comes with flash” despite the fact that the LED does almost nothing to illuminate the scene.)

Useless Feature 3: Web Access
Nearly every cell phone on the US market today has some set of web accessibility features built in. This means that you can read websites in 120×180 pixel glory, slower than over dialup. It feels kind of like trying to carve out your own eyeballs with a spork. This is really one kind of thing if we’re talking about a real PDA with a keyboard and stylus, like a Treo (in which case web features make sense), and a different thing altogether if we’re talking about a small phone. The worst part about this is that if I get certain kinds of text messages on my Sprint phone from people, I have to do the 30+ second “connecting to network” dance and navigate through their painful web UI to read and delete the message. It usually takes me about two minutes and costs $2 of “network transit” time. The biggest gripe I have with web accessibility built into a phone is that it factors promiently into decisions about the screen size. You can’t have a truly tiny phone that delivers a comfortable surfing
experience. Consequently (and perversely), phones have actually been getting larger in the past four years, despite the increased capacity to make them smaller. I don’t want the UI or the buttons for browsing the web to factor into my phone and I certainly don’t want a bulky phone because some marketer thought everyone should have the ability to surf the net from their phone (and pay through the nose for it). I want a phone that is an excellent
phone.

Useless Feature 4: DRM Ringtones
For the price of three full songs at iTunes (with accordant lifetime playback rights and
permission to sport the songs to an iPod), Sprint will give me an amazingly poorly rendered five seconds of the main chorus to a single pop song. And…here’s the mind-blowing clincher…only for 90 days. That’s right: $3 will buy you 90 days of access to a MIDI snippet of a pop song. In case that wasn’t enough, you can’t actually listen to a preview of it on your phone before buying it. In order to try and drive sales of these ringtones, newer phones have actually made it harder to enter your own ringtones. The phone I had four years ago (the incomparable Ericsson T28) made it easy to do this; I composed my own little melodies on it. The T28 is no longer for sale and newer phones have almost wholly removed this feature.

Useless Feature 5: Bluetooth
Bluetooth captivates people with its futuristic visuals – wirelessly interfacing with your computer and having a slick looking wireless earpiece that looks right out of a sci-fi movie. But wait; why do you need to interface your phone to your computer? And doesn’t that need an extra $50+ of hardware and software setup time? How is that more convenient than a simple USB cable? And aren’t the earpieces expensive and in need of separate, frequent recharging? Why not just use a wired earpiece? Not to mention the fact that this
merely incrementally-useful addition to cell phones makes it easy for someone else to read through your phonebook, calendar, and more, all without your permission. (This is called snarfing.) Bluetooth adds cost and complexity, increases the user’s RF radiation
exposure, decreases battery life, incurs extra hardware expenses externally to support it, and exposes the user to a profound invasion of their privacy; all for very little actual improvement in the cell’s utility as a phone.

So what would be the ideal phone? One that focuses on being an excellent phone at the expense of auxiliary features. It would be a clamshell design (to protect the screen/buttons); would work on GSM 900/1800/1900; could send and receive phone calls
easily; could send and receive SMS easily; have a small, grayscale screen (with subtle backlighting when needed in dark conditions); have no camera, bluetooth, or web access; easy-to-program ringtones; a battery that could last a week of normal usage without needing recharging; and fit comfortably in my front shirt pocket. The closest I’ve ever had
to this was my T28; the thing was tiny and could last close to a week without a fill-up. Does your phone offer 10.5 hours of talk time and a week of idle? It could, if manufacturers
were looking to make you the best phone.

Technologically, it’s gotten easier than ever for manufacturers to make great phones.
But caught up in the competitive fervor to make the phone with the most features and one that outdoes the competition for whizbangs and doodads, companies have lost sight of the things people actually want out of a phone and have forgotten how to make a phone great.
The company that figures this out first, goes back to the drawing board, and whips out a phone that is actually excellent at being a phone will probably capture a good slice of the market. I know I’d buy one.

Author: dweekly

I like to start things. :)