iPhone 4S thoughts, part 1

A preamble: Given the current uncompetitive US cellular climate and relatively atrocious level of service provided by all of the major players, a major goal of mine remains minimizing the total dollars given to my cell provider. If this is a shared goal, the optimal time for cell phone replacement, on contract, at subsidized rates, is the first moment possible.

To clarify: Apple sells unlocked iPhones for $650. AT&T sells locked iPhones for $200. That means AT&T purchases iPhones at some rate slightly lower than $650 and subsidizes some amount less than $450 to each customer to entice them into a 2-year contract with a total value somewhere north of $2,000.

This means for every iPhone sold, AT&T pays Apple up front, and earns it back over time. When the subsidy has been recovered, usually between 18 and 24 months, AT&T begins offering its customers new phones at fully subsidized rates in exchange for signing a new contract.

Because the user’s monthly bill does not decline once their subsidy is paid off, AT&T’s profit increases immediately for every customer who continues to use their old phone after it is paid off.

Thus, to avoid paying AT&T any extra money, AT&T customers should upgrade immediately upon being able to receive a full subsidy again.

Hence, 16 months after standing in line for an iPhone 4 at launch day, I have an iPhone 4S.

Palm Pre 2 thoughts, part 2

Last of it’s kind, the Palm Pre 2 arrived in December at my office, unlocked, direct from HP.

I have been asked a dozen times why, happy with my iPhone 4, I purchased a Pre 2. The answer can be found here. It was not a joke, I firmly believed releasing unlocked hardware would help Palm. The fact that it took a near-collapse and subsequent assimilation by HP to push the new corporation (HPalm?) into releasing unlocked GSM hardware does not deter me. By all accounts the Pre 2 and webOS 2 were far superior to the originals, and I was eager. The results speak both to the Palm team’s successes and to the difficulty of their chosen task.

The Pre 2 is what I consider to be the best form factor possible. While I have gotten very comfortable typing on a touch screen over the last several years, the speed allowed by a hardware keyboard can never be equaled.  I do not mean the typing speed, though that may be true. I mean the speed of access. The iPhone has a single means of access: the screen. Although the display can function as a variety of inputs (keyboard, number pad, chooser list, etc.) the phone and OS must first be told which one of those to present.  With a single swipe left from the home screen every application, person, message, and web site is searchable. The key to that sentence is the beginning, “with a single swipe left from the home screen”. Without that gesture from that particular location, there is no search.

On the Pre 2, and any other device with hardware keyboard, search can simply be a function of beginning to type. Context for the display, from an unaccessed state, does not matter. On my iPhone 4 I often attempt to swipe left while in an app only to realize I have to first return to the home screen with a button press and then swipe left. Only after that is complete will I be able to start my search query.

Likewise, storing the hardware keyboard in portrait orientation, below the screen, is a fantastic fit. It means the phone can be all screen whenever possible. It also means that when the keyboard is extended the phone feels incredibly natural to hold. Landscape keyboards unbalance phones, making them unwieldy and heavy, impossible to hold in a single hand, let alone type on with one.

The Pre 2’s small screen size does not bother me after an hour or two. In fact it is the iPhone that feels large and strangely flat upon returning to it. This is a long way of saying the Pre 2 feels great in the hand and pocket, and is easy on the eyes.

However, the Pre 2 desperately needs a rotation lock. The hardware rotation lock on the iPad (prior to iOS 4.1 or post iOS 4.2) is a brilliant feature.  Turning the Pre 2 can be a surprisingly frustrating experience, because the sensor’s calibration and response speed lag slightly, meaning that one turns the phone to landscape (when reading a web site, for example), waits, returns it back to portrait and then to landscape again very quickly, and then watches as the phone performs all 3 transformations in a disjointed manner.  The odd “shake” of the phone to make the sensor adjust the screen that old (pre iOS 4.0) iPhone users knew is back with webOS.

There it is then: the Pre 2 is hardware I constantly want to touch. It looks good, it feels good, and using it is, mostly, absolutely wonderful. Every time I go back to it I’m happy, and every time I leave it I miss the small shape and the clicking keys.  WebOS is a delight to use, works as advertised and has a sense of motion and organization lacking from it’s competitors, Android and iOS.  It is a wonderful platform, and something I will watch further.

Why then do I constantly return to my iPhone 4?  There are two reasons, and they revolve around the same concept, something only my time with these two phones has made me understand.

Trust.

When I have to work on my phone, which is a more and more common occurance globally, I can’t hesitate. When I’m driving to a vendor’s office or a FedEx location I googled three minutes ago, when I’m trying to call someone from a restaurant, or when I’m looking for an email with pricing I got a month ago, I have to *know* that my phone will do what I want.

The Pre 2 and webOS are pretty, they multitask well, their notification system is achingly simple and wonderfully functional. And when I launch Google Maps it sometimes works.  Sometimes it sits pulsing at the launch screen for several minutes, until I use the wonderful card interface to go back to my email.  When I try to call someone from my bluetooth headset and realize that I have to find their information on the phone, because bluetooth voice dial, while listed as a feature for webOS 2.1, does not yet work on my Pre 2’s webOS 2.0.1, I miss my iPhone.

When I am going out for the afternoon and look at the battery meter on the Pre 2, it often reads 40%.  At 2 pm that is a worrisome thing, something that makes me think about my charger’s location and my ability to power the phone from my car’s USB socket.

The Pre 2 and HP’s new OS are wonderful things. But they do not inspire trust. Not yet. Battery life and responsiveness are two things I used not to consider critical with smartphones. They all had poor battery life and they all were a little slow to respond.  In that market the Pre 2 looks great, because the thought that went into webOS is clearly worlds above what went into most phone operating systems. That is not the current market.

I enjoy using the Pre 2, and wish I could do so more often.  I hope that webOS 2.1 brings better performance, fewer bugs, and bluetooth voice dialing, which is a deal breaker for my 45 minute commute.  Perhaps the Pre 3 will feature a more robust battery, and a more responsive mapping application. I hope so. I would love to be able to recommend webOS, to show my friends my phone and to have them be able to buy one, from HP unlocked, from T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon. I would like more people to see this carefully designed OS. I think that would be good for everyone.

Maybe this summer.

Until then I’ll admire my Pre 2 and use it, with my hand-cut SIM card adaptor, on days I don’t need to do a lot of work.

Feels like the future

In the gravel parking lot of a factory across a river in Nanchang a man paces. He walks along the concrete barrier that edges the space, one foot in front of the other. Beneath the bike canopy to his left a half dozen scooters are scattered, some electric some gas. The sun smothers the courtyard, pressing down the plumes of pollution so that they stick to his skin in the humidity. With one hand held to his ear in the familiar pose, the humidity and dirt do not bother him. He is not distracted by the trucks that rumble along the rough gravel road outside the factory’s gate, and the smell of the nearby bathrooms, their waterless troughs open to the sky, does not slow his conversation.

At a bus stop beneath an overpass in San Rafael a man waits. In his white hood and black jeans he leans against the structure’s thin plastic wall, one hand in his pocket the other cupping a distant voice to his ear. The bus is late and the morning fog limits visibility. He does not seem to mind, smiling into the shrouded distance, his eyes picturing some other place.

These two men do not know each other, and will never meet. Their conversations do not intersect, and yet would not surprise. They are both calling someone to be free of where they are, to pass the time waiting.

In the parking lot in China the man is waiting for a sample run to dry, for screens to finish printing, for a washer that he has filled by hand with hot water to cycle down.

In Marin the man waiting for the bus is on his way to work, to a job too far away, in a city he can’t afford to live in. The phone call to a friend already on the road distracts them both.

The future is coming, we tell each other, searching movie star filmographies on our phones in a bar. One day we’ll be able to send each other live videos of our cats as they try to sit in ever-smaller boxes. One day we’ll be able to read Chinese with our phone.

Listing off milestones of future connectivity, possible abilities, we forget the parts that are here, the parts that have already changed the world. They are no longer startling. Sitting in a conference room a song begins. The half dozen people seated at the table or on the floor do not move, they are not surprised at this strange music. One man, typing something, reaches a hand into his bag, his other hand continuing the words, and fishes out a phone.

“Hello,” he says. “I’ll be downstairs in a minute.”

We are no longer surprised to hear from people we can not see.

In China, in the heat of Nanchang, the man does not pace all day. He sits and talks to the factory owner, and then the man who mixes color for the prints. He works with the ayi who washes the clothes and has volunteered her machine for his testing. He hangs the samples on bushes to dry. Sent here alone, far from home and without a plan to return to it, he is not afraid, nor will he be forgotten. His phone keeps him connected to colleagues in Shanghai, to colleagues in Los Angeles.

We spend every day with abilities unimaginable two hundred years before. The future is coming, surely, with cows tracked by satellites rather than dogs and refrigerators that order Coors Light long before the last one is opened. Yet the future is here, too, with the voices of our friends from other continents, the answers to our questions from other time zones. Stepping off the plane in Salt Lake or in Texas we are no longer alone. Were we ever? Did we really drive miles to pay phones?

On his drive home years later, through the fog of Marin, he sees a man leaning against the bus stop, alone in the evening light. A lonely place to wait, the driver thinks, and then he sees the laugh, the hand holding phone to ear, and smiles.

The phone tucked in the center console rings.

“Hello,” says the man driving home in Marin.

“Hello,” says his mother, on a beach in Jamaica.

Where are we going?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the future.  I do this a lot, because much of the fiction I enjoy is Sci-Fi, or, to give it more specific labels, near-fi and space opera. These aren’t new fascinations, though I’ve now betrayed this entire blog, which will be discounted as yet more rantings of a whilte male sci-fi-loving web-based writer. 

Science fiction has, for much of my life, pointed the way towards a future.  Not *the* future, but some possible vision. As someone who is fascinated by people, by their variety and by the conditions which they thrive in, visions of a future are intruguing.  Answers to the question of “how could people live” are almost as interesting as answers to “how do people live?” As my writing on inhab.it attests, I’ve been fascinated by and gravitated towards cities for most of my life, because they provide a look at more people, in more different situations, than small towns and villages.

I begin with this because I want to explain the origin of this curiousity, in a fashion that won’t get subsumed by the specifics of the following.  

I’ve been thinking about the future a lot lately.  In some way, this piece clarified my thinking, in a way supported by the latest Gibson book.  Having stated that he is no longer as interested in far future, Gibson has moved towards illuminating the undiscovered in the present day.  These recent books are very entertaining, but, as Adam Greenfield says best, “read as yarns told about people we (quite literally) already know.”  In some sense, the awe is gone.  

Stein postulates that he might simply be getting old, and that the nerd culture may have passed him by, that there may still be college kids developing things that beat whatever is popular today.  While he is speaking specifically of consumer hardware, the idea holds to the grander scale of a future, and of the newly-arrived fragility of any specific view of it that Greenfield mourns.  Cyberpunk once seemed convincing, but now seems mundane, says Greenfield.  And nothing so viscerally true seems to have emerged.  

As for Stein and the idea of aging out of the future?  He is most certainly right about aging, new things will inevitably be built by those younger and closer to the edge. Facebook is an immediate proof, built by youth and adopted by everyone.  But he is also not wrong about hardware, in that there is no obvious target for a vision of those new things.  Part of this is the specific choice of hardware.  Where will hardware be in a decade?  The evolution used to seem so hard to predict, at any distance. When the idea of everyone having a computer seemed fantastic, there was room to imagine what such a device might look like.  When there was no global network there was room for writers or engineers to imagine a fully interactive version.  

The future, in those specific terms, has been built, and, like always, it was built on the backs of what came before it, on the phone lines and the telegraph wires, much like the non-oil based transit industry is being built on the model of the combustion engine, on the public road system and the personal automobile.  It is not alluring in the way cyberspace was , or sketches of maglev trains strung out across the skies of cities are.  In fact the future-become-present seems boring, and even possible to ignore.

But I think that is unwise.  In this way I think Gibson is right.  The current world is more fascinating, because the variety of the possible is so large, and the ability to learn about it so much greater.  No longer do I have to dream about what it would be like to jump off of buildings in France.  I can see it done, and done well, better than I would be able to were I there.  

That’s not the future, but it’s fun.

Where then is that view of a future we so enjoyed?  I think the future, like everything, is in people.  The fascination with tools has lasted mankind a long time, from the first knife, probably, and there is no reason to believe it has stopped.  Phones, computers, cars, and the internet may no longer be advancing at the pace they once were, or towards the destinations they once seemed to be, but that simply means new things can be built on top of them as they become stable, evenly distributed.  Will we personally adopt what comes next, will we still be at the leading edge?  Probably not, because we will grow old, we will settle for using what we know rather than building something new, and eventually rather than learning something new.

But the future will still be out there.  Or rather, a future will be.  The only question is who will imagine it, write it down, and share it with the children most of us will be raising.

The iPhone 4 conundrum

I currently have an iPhone 3G.  After two years of daily use it is definitely worse for the wear, with cracks in the plastic casing and dust stuck under the screen.  The battery is also failing, resulting in a standard 2 hours of usage.  For those curious, the cracks occur between the holes in the plastic (for volume rocker, sleep/wake button, sim tray, screws, 30-pin connector, and speakers) and the metal edge to the front of the phone.  These cracks grow over time, and multiply.

Of course I’ve dropped it.  I list these things as facts rather than as points of failure.  In the past ten years I’ve had a number of phones. Not one survived two years without showing the wear.  This is one of the reasons I take mugshots (via dailymugshot.com), to see if the wear is as visible on my body.  It must be.  The point for the phone though is that two years is a long time to commit to a single object.  It is a lot of hours of use, a lot of strange locations, a lot of potential drops and spills.  There is no other object in my life that spends so much time with me and is so delicate.  And survives.  So a two-year commitment to any single phone seems an odd decision.  But that is the current US cellular climate, and despite my vocal protests and Google’s attempt at direct sales, it will not be changing this week.

I am ready for a new phone.  I enjoy the iPhone, and am not currently enamored of any other maker’s offering, though I watch them all. I had hope for Palm, and believe Android/HTC will tempt me repeatedly, but at the current moment, they do not.  My main desires, for a faster processor, better battery life and nicer display, are all at least partially adressed by iPhone 4.

What hesitation then?  Well you see it comes to this: I live in San Francisco. I spent an hour or so at the Haight Street Fair yesterday (which may or may not be spelled with an additional ‘e’).  My iPhone 3G spent that time bleeding battery into a “No Service” search.  A futile one, because in addition to the thousands of people who would bring down AT&T’s modest network regardless of the location, there is another problem:  AT&T has no coverage on Haight Street.  This is a well-kept secret, as Haight and Ashbury are relatively high-profile streets in San Francisco, and a mainstay of the tourist circuit.

How then can AT&T simply abandon the neighborhood?  Your guess is as good as mine.  But the dead zone, as these things are called, extends some 100 yards up and down Haight on either side of Ashbury, and is reliable enough that, when riding a bus down Haight, I can count down to the moment my phone will lose coverage.  This is not the only such spot, but it is an excellent example of why AT&T customers in San Francisco are so unhappy.

“But we have the fastest 3G network,” claim the ads.  But your network doesn’t work, I say. Yes, in other cities AT&T remains relatively useful.  In San Francisco, however, it is a wish and a prayer.  In my first three hours back from New York last week I made three calls to three different people from three different locations.  They all failed.  Perhaps this is my hardware, save that the same phone had worked fine in New York scant hours before.  Perhaps it is the network.

There is one other thing.  In China, to take as an example a location whose carriers and cellular industry I am at least comfortably knowledgable about, this service would not be so maddening.  In China, at the end of the month, I recieved a bill for the number of minutes used and the amount of data transferred.  If AT&T functioned in this manner (or any US carrier, for that matter) such a dead zone would not be as frustrating, because I wouldn’t be paying for service in it.

The US wireless market remains that rare combination of uncompetitive, expensive, and mediocre.  And yet here I live, in San Francisco.  What to do, what to do?

Luckily I have another 24 hours until iPhone 4 pre-orders to make up my mind.