Telephobia

It’s not often that I rave about a particular piece of hardware.

It’s rarer, even, that I rave about one that I don’t own myself.

Behold then this very blog posting where I will rave about a telephone — a mobile phone, to be more specific.

Quite in contrast to the industry that pays my rent, I don’t really care much for phones of any kind. It’s a gadget that just doesn’t rattle my cage much.

In fact, I almost hate phones. They’re a necessary evil — a mere tool that aids in the verbal transfer of information from one person to another. Nothing more. You pick up the phone, press a sequence of digits, hope the person at the other end answers, say what you need to say, and hang up. End of conversation, end of line.

If something can be resolved without having to make a phone call, I prefer to choose the path of speaking to the person face-to-face (urgency level “1”) or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, via email (urgency level “whenever you get around to it”).

Like a gun, I carry a phone with me only “in case of emergency”. As I drive to work/home later, I will have all of three mobile phones with me for the aforementioned reason and because of the fact that two of them are freebies, so to speak. The days of being underneath the radar, off the grid or offline are over. Add to this the fact that there is hardly a phone booth to be found anywhere anymore in the event that you do need to stop and make that emergency call.

Ironically, the job required quite the opposite, so much so that I developed the reputation of being a rather aggressive “telephonist” whose voice you simply did not want to hear on the other end of the line when I did call people / stations to find out what the hell is going on in the network or when I did wake them at the most godless hours of the morning to go out and fix something. That one phone on my desk became a powerful test instrument as well an instrument of torture. I hated it.

I also loved it for the same reasons.

Everyone’s available to anyone, anytime, anywhere.

And it was the instant availability after the most tragic and complex sequence of events that can befall a family which spurned me to get one of these wretched devices myself (yes, my dear psychoanalysts, here’s some fodder for you). Then there was a whole range of simultaneous other tumultuous events… well, I just had, nay, needed to have a cellphone. No two ways about it.

And thus, a Nokia 3110 was obtained in the year 1997.

Nokia 3110

I could be reached 24/7/365 (assuming the thing was within hearing range) and I could punch in a sequence of digits should the need arise to speak to someone else. This new feature of being able to see who called you via caller-ID (CLIP) on a dot-matrix LCD before you decided to answer was pretty novel, though. That’s as far as my need and interest in cellphones extended: It was a phone, and I had to carry it with me.

And, over the years, as contracts got extended and other ones were written up, a Nokia 6110 and a tough-as-nails Nokia 5110 came to be in my service. Simple, handy devices where you would punch in a sequence of digits and hope that the person at the other end answers — or where you were expected to answer, 24h of the day, except now on the receiving end of that damn instrument of torture on someone’s desk. Still, they were just phones to me — although there were at least a dozen instances where I was glad that the Nokia 6110 had those awesome games of “Snake” or “Memory” on it to help pass the time. I’m sure it has a calculator, too and, oh yes… an alarm clock.

Those with more than a passing interest in those devices might know or remember that the Nokia 6110 was notorious for its intermittently-failing display. I did not have one of those. At least, it took several years before it developed those symptoms, and were it not for the irritation that the screen gradually faded unless you press down on a special spot on the phone or whack it very hard I’d probably still carry that same Nokia 6110 today and not have bought a Motorola C450 in its place as recently as 2004.

Now that phone was something else: It was small, it had a colour display, predictive text worked very well, and it had no external antenna. You could even view pictures received via MMS! Still, it was just a phone in a small, convenient little package whereon you would carefully peck in a sequence of digits via an increasingly small keypad and hope that the correct person at the other end answers. And when it rang, assignable polyphonic ringtones could signify who it was that was bugging you, no more need to look at the display for that info.

The Motorola didn’t last too long, though. It didn’t take kindly to being shattered against a wall in a fit of rage, and so it was back to the Nokia 6110. Despite its buggy display it didn’t crash or did weird things when you pressed the wrong button combination with your fat fingers. It just worked. As a phone and an alarm clock.

Peer pressure and the irritating display finally convinced me get myself a Sony Ericsson K810i in 2007: it has a nice ‘n vibrant display, solid buttons, a host of other riff-raff functions, your own MP3s as ringtones so you can spurt wonderful obscenities… I’ve even been listening to my converted tapes on this thing! It’s also got FM radio, and, most importantly, a 3.2MP camera. Yes! No more lumbering a second device along, and it’s even got 2GB of space for photos, music, and other data — which can now be transferred to and fro via a USB cable or Bluetooth. And crappy games can now be played in colour. That’s progress for ya!

Oh, and did I mention internet access? Yes, you could even surf the ‘net with this thing, and read your emails and who knows what else that I ain’t testing out ‘cos data services are too expensive. But most importantly, I can punch in a sequence of digits and someone on the other side can talk to me. It’s still a phone. I think. Or is it a camera I can talk into? Or a nano-computer with a CCD attached… or an MP3 player with a microphone? It’s not just a dumb phone anymore, it’s getting smart. And the calculator and alarm clock work well, too.

I make no apologies for skipping entire generations of equipment.

I’ve never owned an iPod — let alone an iPhone, so it came as a pleasant surprise that I was made part of the select few given the task of testing a new service for a cellular provider whose name I shall not mention.

Along with unrestricted and uncapped access I was sent a Nokia 6730 classic phone.

Practically the same size as the battery of my old Nokia 6110 and half the thickness and weight of my old, suddenly brute-looking old K810i, this chic and slick little goodie is still a phone, innit? I dial a number, and someone answers, right? I can be contacted via this fashion accessory, you know, like someone can still get hold of me, right?

Nokia then and now

Oh yes, and then some! Speech recognition, dude! Say the name of the person in your phone book, it’ll punch in the sequence of digits for you. Video telephony, multiple phone numbers including SIP, email, quad-band, 3.2MP camera, basically the same features as my current phone with a helping of steroids — albeit in a packaging that doesn’t look like you’re permanently happy to see everyone when you carry it in your front pocket.

But what does it for me is the GPS functionality.

I have a GPS, I’ve had one for years. It’s a big box with a big display that has a lady with a prim and proper English accent telling me where to get off (the highway, that is). Voice directions aside, this “phone” has it all, as well as a host of other features whose details I won’t bore you with. And here’s the point where it gets really interesting: It’s not a phone anymore, it’s a multi-function-does-it-all gadget. It’s a mini-computer, complete with all the pitfalls of one. Standby time doesn’t mean squat if you need to reboot it daily, thanks to buggy software (memory leaks, surely) as well as risks of viruses and data corruption and identity theft. No longer do you store a bunch of names and numbers on the SIM card in your phone, you store it on the phone or a removable microSD chip. You need to keep your software up to date. You need internet access to do so. You transfer your music (in a range of formats) back and forth via USB or Bluetooth or TCP/IP over HSDPA/G3, you download games (way beyond “Snake”, mind you), you read your subscribed RSS feeds, and you synchronise your calendar/phone book with MS-Outlook. Depending on the additional services on your Symbian S60 device you correlate your MySpace, MSN, AOL, or Facebook contacts. You watch YouTube videos on it, you can sign up for and download movies with it… for goodness sake, you even tweet straight via this thing — all without having to enter any passwords after you’ve saved them the first time round. Power up, enter PIN for SIM, boot, off you go — you’re on, you’re connected, you’re all hooked up wirelessly, hoping you don’t misplace or lose your portable camera-phone-computer-calculator-watch-alarm clock-egg timer-GPS-VCR-game console-calendar-diary-music player-Twitterberry-radio-beacon-flash drive multi-functional pillow warmer device to someone who can impersonate you and take your place simply because he has your phone.

The security risks are just plain terrifying.

Fingerprint readers would be sensible add-ons.

But, alas, this is not the phone I’m raving about. The Nokia 6730 may be nice but it is not the all-encompassing do-it-all multi-purpose/function kitchen sink that’ll bowl me over completely and make me change religion just as yet. It’s still just a phone with some other gimmickry thrown in for good measure.

No m’am, not just as yet. It’s the Sony Ericsson W995 which almost has me going gaga. The missus bought herself that one a few days ago because she wanted something that can handle MMSs and, typical woman, she liked the red colour! Features and technical specs were an afterthought.

Of course, being a good wife and a true technophobe she waited for me to do the honours of unboxing and assembling it and then showing her how it works.

To quote the One: “Whoah!”

Sony Ericsson W995

This thing is a piece of art… it’s beautiful. It has just about all the features of the Nokia 6730, and then some: a brilliant and huge display (no touch-screen), wonderfully responsive controls, an 8MP camera (!!!!), an 8GB M2 card (!!!!), Wi-Fi, DLNA, and who knows what else the user guide shall reveal. Being a part of the “Walkman” range, it has stereo speakers and a little stand so you can put the thing down like a mini boom box and listen to a myriad of supported audio formats (depending on your mood, if you like), podcasts, or FM stereo. There are a bunch of AV-related gimmicks and utilities included, and games you play by not pressing buttons but tilting the phone? Freaky stuff… Wii/iPhone here we come! Is it still a phone? For chrissakes, you can use its camera flash LED as a torch (“flashlight”, for the sake of our American readers). A phone that functions as a torch — this is actually useful! I’d advice against using it as an anvil, though.

All that’s missing is a decent QWERTY keyboard, a spirit level, a barcode reader (downloadable separately) and a DVB-T receiver, then we’re in business.

For years I’ve been hesitant to buy into the slavery of smartphone ownership/worship. I just needed a phone for “in case”. If there’s a need to check my email or do some internet surfing then, well, that’s what a real computer is for. Besides, email can wait. If I want to listen to music, I turn on my Hi-Fi or TV or, while commuting, the car stereo which has far superior sound and besides — driving with earphones is irresponsibly dangerous anyway. If I want to play games, there’s always the PC or PlayStation, for movies there’s a home theatre or the PC, for finding my way to somewhere else there’s a real GPS device with a big screen and a spoken guide. If I need to remember dates and appointments, I have a brain. Using a phone-like device with its limited features is an uncomfortable compromise. I just need a phone.

“Sitting at a park playground, watching ten-year-olds texting each other back and forth. So sad …  – Commodork

So true. Younger generations are so attached to their phones that they’ve became the de-facto medium for inter-human information exchange, according to a recent study. Are we nothing without our phones anymore? Are they more than a mere fashion accessory and so much a part of your anatomy or clothing already that you can actually feel naked without it?

We’ve all had that dream where we stand in front of a group of people or attend some social event, only to realise later that you’re not wearing any pants. Soon, that dream will be replaced by the nightmare of being somewhere… anywhere, only to realise that you’ve forgotten your phone in your pants at home.

“Mobiles give us safety, security and instant access to information. They are the number one tool of communication for us, sometimes even surpassing face-to-face communication. They are our connections to our lives,” Jenny Chang, Synovate’s managing director in Taiwan, said in a statement. “Some two-thirds of respondents go to bed with their phones nearby and can’t switch them off, even though they want to, because they’re afraid they’ll miss something.”

Yep, it’s an alarm clock, too. And evidently, to some, a Tamagotchi.

Perhaps I’ve missed something. Perhaps I’ve been living under some rock of technological denial. Or perhaps I’ve simply tried to keep my feet firmly on the ground.

Look, I am prepared to spend good money on that one single gadget that can do everything which a multitude of other tools — both electronic, mechanical, or dumb — are also capable of. So far, few devices have promised to fulfil those needs. There’s not been a single phone that’s worth surgically attaching to your arm the way you would a wrist watch. I’ve yet to find that one phone that can become a fully-fledged PA or cerebral extension, one that you could love and nurture and upgrade and jailbreak and customise and personalise and cradle (pun intended) and mourn if the battery runs flat.

That moment is getting closer every year. You’ll know when I’ve gone completely gaga.

As a matter of fact, yes, I do carry a sharp Swiss Army Knife with me. Why do you ask?

Photo/image credits: hmvh.net, Sony, Nokia

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