The Cell Phone: Pleasure and Pain

I hadn’t had the opportunity to use a cell phone for a few years as they were priced out of the range of the average working stiff. But with Bell Mobility moving into the local market prices have dropped and deals abound. My partner and I decided to take the plunge.

Wow, cell phones these days, I tell ya. They’re insane. Most have
colour LCD screens and are small enough to lose in your pocket. They
all have Internet capabilities. Some of them claim to be able to do
photo and video messaging but… well, more on that later.

Right off the bat I can tell you this: half of the features that
Bell advertises for its cell phones don’t work in the North, mostly
because of our aging network. That’s a mixed blessing and curse
because, as I discovered on a recent trip Outside, some of the advanced
features are really just a big mess of frustration.

What does actually work locally – voice and text messaging – works well.

Voice call quality is kinda lame. Calls sound tinny and are prone to
interruption. But, heck, the convenience of having a phone in your
pocket just can’t be beat.

Text messaging works flawlessly. I’ve sent text messages both
directly from the phones themselves and by email from my computer.
Receipt occurs almost instantaneously. I haven’t lost a message yet.

This is actually where I get the most benefit from my cell phone. My
desktop calendar software is configured to send me text message
reminders about meetings and tasks. It even sends me shopping lists for
trips to the grocery store.

As for the rest of what cell phones claim to do… well, it’s a whole
lot of marketing that mostly delivers a mean dose of headache. I feel
truly suckered by some of it.

I was intrigued by the web browsing aspect of the modern cell phone.
I’ve read a lot about it and I know there’s a real boom in content
development for this medium.

But it doesn’t work in the North. So I was stoked to be able to take
this technology for a spin on a recent trip to Winnipeg and Vancouver.

Waiting in a ferry line-up one night, my son asleep in the car seat
beside me, I finally had the chance to browse the web on my cell phone.

The experience was less than enthralling. It was like using Mosaic,
circa 1993. Or, for the non-geeks out there, it was like hopping into a
Model T for a long road trip.

One obvious problem is, of course, that puny screen on a cell phone. There’s not a lot of real estate there.

Then there’s the navigational interface. Using those scrawny buttons
to move around a web page just isn’t fun. Not to mention pages load
about as quickly as bread rises.

The main drawback, though, was the content, and this is also where
the Mosaic metaphor ends. Whereas in the early 90’s the web was pretty
much a free for all and you never really knew to what wild web page a
link might take you, on a cell phone content is as sterile and planned
as Disneyland.

Your point of access to the web is controlled by your provider, in
my case Bell. It’s a very carefully manicured environment of approved
content (from primarily Bell subsidiaries) and stuff you can buy. Sure,
you can enter the address of your favourite web site, but typing in
anything with a cell phone’s numeric keypad is the rough equivalent of
self-inflicted water torture.

As well, web content has to be specially designed for the cell phone
environment. So it’s likely that wherever you normally go online ain’t
gonna cut it on a cell phone’s puny screen.

But, heck, if you’re sick of the lame ring tones your phone shipped
with, there are options galore in your cell phone’s web browser. So the
next time you hear a MIDI version of Ben Fold’s “Annie Waits” you’ll
know I’m in the vicinity. (Yes, I plan to drive all my friends crazy
with this, the darn thing cost me $1.50 and I want my money’s worth.)

My partner does a lot of travelling so we spent a bit more on a cell phone she can carry with her when she’s away.

According to the advertising on Bell’s web site, her phone can shoot
pictures and video and send both as email messages. To a gadget freak
like myself, that is cooler than words. I looked forward to pictures
from afar when she’s out of town.

Frankly, this was the huge disappointment of my cell phone
experience. It really doesn’t work at all. I’m of the opinion that
mobile photo and video messaging is little more than cell phone snake
oil.

The phone captures pictures and video well enough, but dozens of
attempts to send a video or photo message just generated errors. (And
this was after painstakingly typing in email addresses with that
horrible little keypad.) I tried from a number of locations around
Winnipeg and Vancouver but the result was always the same.

Considering the only way to get these pictures and videos off the
phone is by email (you can’t plug it into a computer), that’s a major
drag.

So, while the northern cell network is somewhat handicapped by world
standards, I’d say we’re not really missing much. The cell phone web
experience is less than inspiring and mobile multimedia messaging
obviously still has lots of bugs to work out.

As far as the basics go, I’m totally stoked on the cell phone. My
son likes it too. I just wish he’d quit slobbering all over it. Baby
spit really picks up lint when he loses the phone under the couch.

Andrew Robulack is an IT Business Strategist and Architect based in Whitehorse.

Originally published in the Yukon News on January 28, 2005.
Copyright Andrew Robulack 2005

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