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Friday, July 21, 2006

Dreaming of phones 

Hum. I wonder if I can get all of this phone-stuff out of my system all at once in one conclusive post.

Probably not. But I dare to try!

Gord (who is faster than me) points out in a comment on my previous post that I could just get Nokia's wireless keyboard. Well yeah, if I wasn't really cheap!

But he's got a point, and I think it illuminates where I see phones going.

The magic of a modern mobile phone is that it has to do so much just to be a credible phone these days, that it verges on being able to take over what I'll coin "the pocket."

No really, I'm using it as a term of art. The "pocketspace" if you prefer, but I'm talking about both a literal and metaphorical pocket at the same time.

The Typical Nerd/Geek/Power-user/Hacker/Hipster Pocket

There's four small electronic devices that a nerd like me might want to carry around:

MP3 player
(and maybe a portable game machine, but I'll discuss that separately)

Every seriously wired nut will have a different priority set (I hardly care about the MP3 part, but I care VERY MUCH about the quality of the camera), but for a fifth device you're pretty much into rather less common devices like portable GPS receivers, heart rate monitors, or similar electronic oddities.

There's also a lot of minor functions that are done reasonably well by several of these devices: lots of phones, PDAs, and MP3 players can also act as audio recording devices. They might not replace a Minidisc recorder attached to a decent microphone, but they could take over from a typical digital audio recorder. Lots of phones, PDAs, and MP3 players include some sort of electronic stopwatch function. And thanks to the widespread use of embedded clocks, carrying a wristwatch is now entirely a fashion statement.

Of these four converging devices, the PDA has most obviously been consumed by the others. I haven't seen any digital cameras take a serious shot at becoming an electronic day-timer, but virtually every major phone now makes some pretense at calendaring, and even the iPod can pull your calendar and carry it with you. The big players in the market know this, and both Palm and Microsoft have pushed heavily into the Phone/PDA OS field. Indeed, Nokia runs the Symbian (Series 60) OS on all its niftier phones, and I can assure you that Nokia started out as a phone maker, its PDA features seem competitive. I can say that since in the last three months I've used Palm Treos, a Windows Smartphone, a Blackberry, and now this Series-60-powered 6682.

Seriously, I've been spending way too much time with phones and PDAs lately.

I don't see a way forward for non-phone PDAs. The LifeDrive is Palm's answer: put a small hard drive in a WiFi-and-Bluetooth-equipped thing, adding up to some sort of wacky do-everything unit. I don't think it represents the future. I think a Danger Hiptop (or Blackberry, or any device like that) is a more likely future concept for storage: save it on the server. Fortunately for Palm, their Treos are much loved as both PDAs and phones.

The camera is probably the device that is the least-cannibalized of these four. Sure, every phone you can buy these days comes with a camera, not to mention a lot of PDAs, but most of those cameras are really bad, and only a few very new phones are even getting close to being good cameras. Ironically, Dan's interesting article on digicam resolution trends claims that anything much over 2 megapixels is a waste of data, as long as the lens is up to the challenge.

And while I'm at it, I just insist that any recent small camera should be an acceptable video camera. I can live with somewhat sketchy live sound, but the video should be better than bad.

The MP3 player I consider a nearly-solved problem. But then I would: it's the gadget I care about the least. The archetypal MP3 player is the iPod Nano, and it's just a superb user interface in front of some solid sound-pushing electronics and 1-4 GB (and probably 8 GB soon) of memory, wrapped in great industrial design.

Phones already should be good at pushing sound out through headphones, and sweating the user interface is just a design exercise. As for the memory capacity, recent phones often come with memory card slots, and the price of memory keeps falling. Give it 12 months, and my 6682 will have a super-cheap 1 or 2 GB MicroSD card inside, plenty for all the music I can handle. People who want 60 GB iPods will continue to buy those, just as people buy digital SLRs. But we're talking about a go-everywhere gadget.

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out why I don't think camera-makers will start building cellular phones into their cameras.

If a phone could do all four of those functions with some competence (and I think the phone I have in my house right now can do a good three of those things fairly well) then the only question for me would be "why not just take notes on this thing and leave my laptop at home?"

Well, yes. Thus the Bluetooth keyboard. Seriously: I'm mostly a write stuff and read stuff guy, so pushing stuff around an Excel spreadsheet is not a vital need for me (but many p. hones and phone/PDAs can do that...). A phone and a folding keyboard could get me pretty far in the outside world.

As I see it, there are three stumbling blocks between me and my dream device, a mostly-phone with a camera, PDA, and MP3 player rolled into it:

1) moving data to and from the device has to get better
2) the camera part has to get better
3) the data plans around here have to get better

The first point is possibly one that mostly affects me: as a filthy Mac user, none of Nokia's very clever PC sync software works with my personal laptop. and iSync doesn't seem to like moving photos and MP3 files. So I usually pull the phone's memory card and plug it into a card reader I have. I'm also experimenting with syncing up to some of the PCs I have access to. Maybe the Nokia Lifeblog software is really good; I wouldn't know yet.

The second part I've covered, so on to the third part: in the Vancouver area, mobile phone data plans are pretty expensive and fairly bad. The worst comedy is provided by the several "unlimited" plans available, many of which have hard limits on the amount of data you can move, and all of which are really expensive: an unlimited data plan will at least double your phone bill, and some carriers charge $100/month for the maxed-out service.

The cheap data plans range from ridiculous "$5 for enough data capacity to send two pictures" to Fido's remarkably cheap $20/month unlimited data plan, whose only catch is that you have to use it with a Danger Hiptop 2. Reasonably nice device with a lousy phone, minimal MP3 capabilities, and a $200 price tag. But it's a super duper little communications device.

So here I am, unwilling to use my phones as intended: no email or web surfing from my toy, no sending blog updates from my phone (which I would definitely do if it had a keyboard and a data plan), and no MMS-ing my photos to people.

I have to assume that there are business reasons why the local mobile operators have priced me out of the market, but I don't have to like it. Mobile data access is something I am tracking the cost of, and when it gets into a more impulsive price range (or I need one to make money) I will jump. Maybe I'll pony up and buy that keyboard, too.

My ipod has over 20 gigs of music, so a Nano-sized capacity would be a hardship for me.

... course, I don't have a cell phone (or PDA!) yet, so you may consider my input on this topic somewhat skewed. My gadget rankings would be MP3, camera, PDA, and phone...
Yes, it sounds like you have the same problems with respect to an MP3 player that I have with respect to a camera: we're committed power-users of these devices, and we want the integrated versions of them to be really good.

If the essence of a camera is the quality of its lens, then the essence of a music player is its storage capacity.

The good news is that I think the amount of non-volatile memory available in small devices is likely to grow very rapidly in the next three years, and far faster than the storage requirements for your music collection.

Of course, I could be wrong. if lossless encoding or better-than-CD-quality audio (SACD or DVD-A, though at this point I suspect that audio versions of either HD-DVD or Blu-Ray are likely to take over as the next-gen audiophile format of choice) becomes popular, then maybe the need for storage will exceed the capacity of my magic integrated device of the future.

I have always made the assumption that for most users, an music player should store enough music to allow for no repeat songs between recharges, since for a lot of devices (the Nano, notably) sync and recharge are normally one operation.

There is certainly some advantage to carrying tens of gigabytes of music (higher quality and more selection) but as I say, it's the realm of the DSLR user: if you're that serious or have such extreme needs, you can make the compromise of getting a dedicated (and maybe bulky) device.

But even you might find that if I presented you with an iPhone with 4-odd GB of storage, you could live without your iPod most days.

I wonder if I got one thing wrong in my assessment: if free (or cheap) WiFi becomes ubiquitous in the urban area where our example nerd spends most of their time, a WiFi-equipped non-phone (ie, the Lifedrive or something like it) might be usable as a primary communicator: just email, IM, Skype, or SIP your "phone calls" and never touch the cell network.
Good post Ryan. I've had my N70 for the past month now and have all sorts of mobile thoughts running through my head. You've managed to capture a good few of them. The "one device" space is coming. I'm surprised how little I've used my regular camera since I've had my phone with me. And the data plans are just a huge killer for doing really interesting things with the phones. The early adopters of the new devices won't be the people with $100 corporate plans. It will be the hackers. And they might not have money to spend on it. Anyhow, watch for a post after all this superweek stuff is done....
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