Post Calendar

June 2024

Cellphones and PDAs – the disappointing state of today’s technology

Man. This post has been brewing upstairs for a while. Mainly the drive for me to sit down and write on this topic is my profound feeling of disappointment at the state of today’s PDA and cellphone technology, while a secondary reason is my slow but sure realisation that people newly exposed to what’s on offer from the cellphone providers consider the options to be dazzlingly cutting-edge and useful beyond their wildest dreams when they don’t have more than a rudimentary idea of what we had years ago and how minor the real, practical advances have been since then. To me it seems that for every step forward that is taken, at least half a step backwards occurs. We just can’t seem to get something fantastic built without an equal but opposite penalty, features we once delighted in but now have to give up or accept half-baked replacements for in order to take delivery of each breakthrough.

image Australia has had cellphones for years. I got my first one in 1994. Within a couple of years they were saying that 1 in 4 people in the country had a cellphone. Access was very cheap and you couldn’t go anywhere without someone with a new cellphone cycling through the usual 20 Nokia built-in ringtones and showing off to their friends. From the single-beep ringers there was a neat no-penalty progression to polyphonic sounds and quite a while later we had MP3s. And clocks and calendars and journals and multiple-language interfaces.. In 1998 I bought what I still consider to be the greatest phone ever – dated by today’s standards but without peer in the day – the Nokia 6110. I could text on that phone faster than my Palm Centro (with built-in keyboard) today, faster than my XV6800 (with built-in keyboard), faster than anything else I’ve ever owned. The battery lasted for at least a week or more, with the screen ON – more than any other phone I’ve had before or since. It was loud and had brilliant sound quality for me and those listening to me. There was none of this clamshell rubbish that everyone is addicted to back then. I carried the 6110 on a belt-clip in a leather case. I could answer the phone and be talking within a second from the time my hand reached it. I dropped it on concrete more times than I care to remember. It lasted years, and it literally gave its life to save me injury – I turned at the bottom of my stairs and was going to walk upstairs but accidentally bumped the cellphone on the sharp corner of my bannister – busting the screen but saving me a bruise on my hip. I was VERY sad to lose it. I still have its rotting carcass in the Rubbermaid container I call my dead cellphone graveyard.

image Palm Pilots made their appearance in the late 90’s and they were (justifiably so) a runaway success. The Palm V was so incredibly popular that every store carried dozens if not hundreds of accessories for them. Their operating system was then, and still is to this very day, the fastest and most ingenious system available for PDAs. Palm software is many times smaller than comparable packages for Windows Mobile or Apple iPhone, so much so that apps greater than 200k are considered to be “bloated”. Palm’s OS consists of the concept of “alarms” – which ties into a sort of timing thread which continually ticks away in the background using minimal resources. This timing thread allows Palm apps to simulate background operation even when they are not strictly “running”. An alarm clock program where an alarm is set at 7am creates a system alarm “event” at that time, asking the OS to “trigger it”. You could look at it as the alarm clock app asking to be woken up at 7am so that it can then wake YOU up. Other programs use this event hook in other ways – everything from a daily sync of RSS feeds to, I dunno, whatever your program needs your PDA to do, either on a schedule or else as a one-off action. Early Palms came with 8Mb of RAM. That’s right – not gig, MEG. Later Palms had 16Mb. That’s probably not enough to hold more than a couple of Apple apps, let alone Windows Mobile, but you can store dozens and dozens of multifunction apps on a Palm with 8Mb.

image In late 2000 (I’m not sure of the exact date because it was a long time ago, but I know for a fact that I had this thing for several months when I was in Omaha in 2001 during 9/11) I got a Sony Clie NR70. The English version was brand new on the streets of Hong Kong when my workmate Brett picked me up one on a business trip and brought it back to Oz. New iPhone/iPod Touch users will probably be shocked to learn that it has a 320×480 display – exactly the same resolution as today’s iPhone. And it has a non-capacitive touch-screen too, like all Palms. 16Mb of RAM, enough to run maybe a hundred or more applications, plus support for Sony’s popular MemoryStick external storage. MemorySticks were nowhere near as large storage-wise or cheap price-wise as the later-released CompactFlash cards, but a 128Mb external expansion bolted onto an OS as efficient as Palm’s basically translates to an obscene amount of storage space. Thousands of users worldwide were upset to hear that in 2005 Sony were discontinuing the Clie range, since in plenty of peoples’ opinions they were the best Palm-based PDAs on the market. They also pioneered the clamshell design – something needed for this sort of device since you never needed to quickly flip it open to answer the phone and would often be carrying it in a briefcase or backpack requiring its screen to have some sort of protection.

You may have noticed that I used present-tense a lot in the previous paragraph. This is because I STILL OWN and use my Sony Clie NR70. Despite the device being over 8 years old the battery still holds a full charge, the device STILL lasts at least four hours with the screen and backlight on (all Palm Pilots also support no-backlight operation which means you can read the screens in daylight, in full colour, with a huge increase in operational duration), the screen still responds to touch perfectly fine, the keyboard works 100%, I still have my original stylus, it still works with my 128Mb memory stick (purchased a few months after I got the device), and I could count the number of times this thing has spontaneously crashed on the fingers of one hand – plus it’s crashed ZERO times in the last six years at least. Ready to gasp? Even minus the memory stick, the device can still hold more standard-sized apps than an Apple iPhone, you can operate it both with fingertip, stylus or built-in keyboard (fingertip operation is the only option on the iPhone), and it’s made of lightweight metal so when you clamshell it closed you can drop it and not shatter the screen to smithereens (unless you drop it from a height of greater than one storey onto concrete, I’d imagine). Now, I’ve owned four cellphones since arriving in the US – a Motorola V-200, an LG Chocolate, a Verizon XV6800 and I currently have a Verizon Palm Centro (I regressed to a Palm-based OS because it’s still the only way for a serious mobile technology enthusiast to cover all bases app-wise). But until earlier this year, my Sony Clie was my ebook reader of choice and still to this very day it is my daily alarm clock. The Clie has woken me up over the years in several countries and several time zones and is still the only thing I would ever use if I was on a business trip. PalmFiction (don’t worry about the Russian on the linked site, the software is incredibly efficient and configurable, probably more so because a Russkie developed it) is the world’s greatest ebook reader. And yes, it IS better than Stanza – trust me, my wife has an iPod Touch so I’m not just mouthing off here). WorldMate remains my favourite multifunction app and is what I’ve used as an alarm clock all these years. And you know, I only switched from the Clie to the Centro for ebook reading because they both are Palm devices and run the same program – the Clie STILL has a larger and nicer-looking screen!

image Now, iPhone and iPod Touch users, strap yourselves in for some facts which may surprise you. Remember that the Clie is coming up on being a decade old, OK? It has the same resolution as your device. Later models have wifi and bluetooth. It has a built-in keyboard – yours doesn’t. You can use a Clie with gloves or a simple plastic stylus (or anything for that matter, a matchstick, a paperclip, whatever) – you can’t do this on an iPhone. You can skin your entire OS with a free app, everything from the buttons to the dragbars – without “illegally” jailbreaking your iPhone you cannot do this. You can inject “hacks” into the operating system which operate like TSRs in DOS – allowing extended functionality such as blanket changes to the fonts for ALL programs, the ability to do something like swipe the screen with your stylus in a particular way to run any program or perform any action from within any app – your iPhone can’t do that. You can overclock or underclock your Palm to save battery life or speed up app execution, either globally or on a per-app basis. As I mentioned before, you can turn off the backlight completely at which point you can then read an ebook for probably about 12 hours straight. You can use any app you like to completely replace the built-in calendar, clock, task, to-do, journal or whatever apps – and they will WORK in the BACKGROUND! The Clie NX70V was able to record video back in 2002. Until Apple’s recent OS 3 upgrade, you couldn’t even do THAT on your iPhone. Until the recent upgrade, you couldn’t even copy and paste simple text between applications. Does it shock you to know that the iPhone, without being “illegally” jailbroken, only allows background reminders to be triggered from the built-in Calendar or Mail app? That you need to be continually running a reminder program in the foreground in order for it to alert you of reminders because the minute you run any other app or go back to the Springboard you won’t get notifications anymore? Did you understand what “single-threaded” functionality means at any point in time during your research, before you purchased your device? Did you know about all the other historical facts I just brought to your attention before you committed? If you are in the US, did you know that AT&T have the iPhone exclusively and by buying one you’ve just signed up with one of the country’s crappier providers in terms of coverage? OMG you guys. Palm has email programs, browsers, miscellaneous apps up the wazoo – they had thousands of apps in the public’s hands years before the idea of the iPhone was even dreamt of.

image What’s better about the iPhone? It’s slimmer, I’ll give it that. It has accelerated graphic display which allows its user interface to look prettier than other devices, when in motion (other PDAs look just as good static, or when playing movies, and I myself would rather just have an app close instantly rather than waste system resources and a quarter second of time zooming open or shut, or sliding left or right). Apps are coded for fingers so you don’t need a stylus (it also means that unless you’re of Asian or Indian descent and thus have small hands, you can’t really write more than a couple of words on the screen without scrolling and generally getting pissed off). And the iPhone one-ups the older Clies by having NVRAM. Yes, my old Clie still needs to be continually charged – if you ever let the battery run out completely, everything disappears and needs to be reloaded. But that’s ok because the MemoryStick is non-volatile and I have all 16Mb of my Clie’s content backed up onto it. Plus it’s only happened once in 8 years *8-) But back to what’s better about the iPhone.. umm.. not much more that I can think of right now. It’s user interface is simplistic – so simple a 2-year-old could use it. I know this because my 2-year-old uses my wife’s iPod Touch with that coloring book application which I think is awesome. In fact he now sits on my lap and tries to use his fingertip on my wife’s LCD desktop screen. That’s the honey that’s attracted everyone to the device, really. It’s so simple to use. By cutting down what the OS does and what you as a user are allowed to do (even though you never really knew how restricted you were until you read this article) it simplifies and standardizes the experience. How do you close an app? Just hit that button at the bottom of the screen (actually, you can do that on the Palms so we’re still equal on this point). You also have a centralized “app store” which means you always know where you can go to get applications, rather than running wildly about on the net hunting down programs written by myriads of authors across the globe – and who the heck knows what unknown things they might do to your beloved PDA. Apple makes you comfortable by “certifying” every app available for an iPhone. They remove angst and worry. You can let the Cupertino overlords rule everything you run and govern everything you do. At this point, please feel free to briefly pause reading the article so you can go out and buy Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta”. Then read it.

image Back? Hopefully you got the point I was trying to make. Let’s continue. The purpose of this article isn’t to bash iPhone. It has its merits – there aren’t too many things out there with such a global appeal. Apple’s marketing folk have well and truly figured out what makes the average Joe’s mind tick. They care about regular consumers, not power techies. Regular consumers primarily want something that looks good. Performance takes second place in priorities. I had a heated argument with my wife years ago about buying a single CCD camcorder that was smaller, or one with 3 CCDs that was slightly larger and would have taken far better video. She won. And in some ways she was right – the larger a portable device, the less motivation you have to take it around with you (which is why the Amazon Kindle sucks so badly). The iPhone looks slicker than most other devices, although IMO the HTC Touch Diamond II is at least as good looking. The interface is simple to pick up, and Apple did pioneer the concept of “pinching” graphics to zoom in and out of webpages, photos etc. Your grandparents would learn to use it in a couple of seconds – that’s a massively good thing (if, unlike me, you feel that your grandparents deserve anything more than the most basic cellphone out there due to the likelihood that they’re far more likely to drop the iPhone). There are just too many “buts” – I now circle back to the point I made way back at the beginning of this article when I repeat that there have been feature penalties associated with almost all the innovations in the iPhone. Jailbreaking the system will show you the true lack of power that the device has – when you start asking it to both eat and drink at the same time, the device starts to slowly choke to death. The OS becomes slow and instable as hell. Quick topic switch to my Palm Centro. I thought it was fantastic at first, but within the first couple of weeks I saw that the new NVFS has introduced some instabilities – I’m still trying to work out what happened and in fact still IS happening but the OS crashes every so often – from a few days to a couple of weeks. The caching system is abysmal – the system has some sort of cache and when it fills up the OS just dies, so now I have to run programs which free up cache periodically (takes at least ten seconds to do this). The damn thing doesn’t have a paperclip-operated warm reset switch, so if the OS freezes you have to take the BATTERY out. Now I can’t even use my full-body plastic case for it! Rebooting takes FOREVER on it – it’s a tiny PDA device so why do I need to wait over thirty seconds for it to reboot? Why does the reboot process have to “notify” every single application that a reboot has taken place? I don’t know exactly where Palm broke their magnificent OS – somewhere between the upgrade to NVFS or maybe the process of becoming a cellphone OS instead of just a standalone PDA concept? Bitterly disappointed. But my Centro is smaller than an iPhone, has a 320×320 display, runs apps faster, and has a built-in keyboard. And you can replace the battery. I forgot that one from my list above – you can’t replace iPhone batteries yourself so you need to send devices in for service when the battery dies.

image Switch to my XV6800: it was horrible. Windows Mobile is sluggish and requires far more system resources to operate each app. The XV6800 just doesn’t have enough resources so I very quickly started noticing the other dealbreaker aspect of the OS – it forcibly closes background applications at random without notifying the user whenever you start a new app that doesn’t have enough resources available to it. Are you kidding me? Text entry was also slow – I don’t know if it was just my unique device but even something as straightforward as entering phone digits while dialling had sometimes a several second delay between recognition of each keypress. Boot time was astronomical – over a full minute! The entire thing was bulky too, and ActiveSync worked maybe 75% of the time when I plugged in my device – other times I had to completely end the ActiveSync task and restart it before it would re-recognize that the device was plugged in. You would not believe how depressed I became when I fled back to a Palm-based OS after my bad experience with Windows Mobile, hoping to snuggle back up in its technological warmth, only to find out that it was not only crapified in the Centro, but Palm quit making the OS recently in favour of their new WebOS platform.

Jury’s still out on Palm’s new WebOS. I haven’t heard that it’s as spectacular as people first thought – still a little too small, not enough resources for a comfortable user experience. Google’s Android could be a player but at the time of writing it’s only available on the hideously clunky G1 from T-Mobile. HTC’s Windows Mobile devices have lacked punch, and even with videos I’ve seen of people demonstrating UI operation on the new WM devices, you can still see them touch or click twice or more before the OS recognizes the press or screen swipe. Look at most demo videos closely and you’ll see people showing you this real-world glitchery: tap, oops, tap.. tap again.. now it works. tap. works. slide finger.. didn’t work.. slide finger again, now it works. Know what I mean? That happens on the iPhone too. Happens to me all the time when trying to slide the progress meter in the video player. Sometimes the program just does not respond the first time to your finger press or tap. Either the OS is daydreaming or your finger isn’t producing enough capacitive electricity to register. Whatever. I don’t care – I just want it to WORK!!

image I’m still waiting for the next big penalty-free breakthrough. It isn’t here yet. I will not sacrifice open-world development and a decent multiple-app environment (not to mention giving up Verizon with the US’s best cell coverage) to kneel before Apple’s governing of what I can and cannot have access to on my phone. I won’t sacrifice speed and system resources to run a clunkburger OS like Windows Mobile. Google Android isn’t really “out there” yet, the only US-based implementation is horrible. Palm’s WebOS is on a cellphone only available on Sprint at the moment. MAYBE the Palm Pre is what we’re all looking for, maybe not. My gut tells me it isn’t. I’ve actually given up hoping. We use the wife’s iPod Touch to entertain the toddler with movies and colouring, usually so we can get a couple of moments of peace at a restaurant. We both use our cellphones for work and email – both of them work to an acceptable level. But as a tech junkie I freaking hate what everyone is stuck with these days. iPhone users just don’t get it. Your iPhones could have been ten times better than they actually are. Apple cut corners with them – they’re corners I see but 95% of everyone else either don’t see or don’t care about. My Clie remains my alarm clock, I’ll still be using my Centro for work, MAYBE there’s a Blackberry around the corner that’ll do what I need (unlikely but we’ll see what the Tour is like – it’s release date on Verizon is today), but nothing covers all bases so far in any way that completely delights or excites me. And I keep asking: why? I also keep asking why so many of the so-called techies I know are getting iPhones. My theory is that they’re all moving into mental retirement. They just want something that works. They don’t care about what’s under the hood anymore. They’re all getting old mentally. They’re checking out. Pretty soon they’ll be middle aged and shortly after that they’ll be spending more time on their knees in their flowerbeds at 5am tending their daises instead of busting bytes on their computers. It’s just freaking tragic, but to each their own.

Seacrest out.

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