Why I Don't Have a Smartphone

September 7, 2012 - I Actually Do, But...

Palm Tungsten | T3Very early on, I jumped into the PDA (personal data assistant) fray with both feet. US Robotics, the predecessor of Palm, Inc., got a lot right when it introduced the first PalmPilot and I signed up when the PalmPilot Professional became affordable. After making a few upgrades to the Pro I quickly bought the Palm V when it came out and a few years later I went for color with the Tungsten T3.

Palm CentroThat deep experience and investment in Palm OS applications made me a natural candidate for the Palm Treo when it hit the market. But it was not until 2008 and the arrival of the Palm Centro that I finally made the jump. I did it for three reasons. First, I was carrying both a phone and the PDA. The Centro is tiny, not much bigger than the flip-phone I was carrying at the time. It was a joy to carry just one comprehensive device and reduce my pocket volume by over half. Although many turn up their noses at the notion of a stylus these days, I had spent ten years using it and was comfortable.

The second reason was simpler. My T3 was dying. It was still working, but after one DIY battery replacement that extended the life of the unit for a year, I realized I would have to do that replacement at least once a year to keep the T3 going because the aftermarket batteries were not as good as the original. (By the way, the T3 still works. It was built well, clearly designed to last.)

The final reason was price. I think I paid close to $300 for the T3 and would have had to pay $200 for a direct replacement. The iPhone was $200 (but not from Verizon and I didn't want to go back to AT&T at that moment) and would not have run any of my Palm apps. The Centro was $50 from Verizon.

Talk about a no-brainer.

The Centro clearly is a smartphone. Despite its tiny screen, it can access the Internet (no WiFi, just broadband). So why do I say I don't have a smartphone?

I say that because I don't use the Centro that way. I use it primarily as a phone and secondarily as a phone book. I rarely text, although that is rising a bit now. I never access the Web because the data plan has always been hideously expensive but, more important, because I've never needed to. This gets to the crux of my usage.

I'm a mobile worker and have been for the past 15 or so years. I take my office with me. My office consists of a phone and a computer. In other words, I never go anyplace without my laptop. The omnipresence of my laptop has informed many of the decisions I've made about the way I work and the equipment I need to work that way. With a full-fledged PC always at hand, the need for access from my phone is far less important.

The result is that my cell phone bill is rather low. I share a plan with my wife; combined, we pay $85 net per month, without data.

Changing Times

In the past couple of years a lot has changed for me. My business has switched from primarily consulting involving travel to primarily Web development not requiring travel. Smartphones have advanced very rapidly, driven by Apple's brilliant re-invention of the smartphone and by Android's remarkable success. It's created somthing of an image issue for me - I'm the technology guy, yet when I meet with a client they pull out their iPhone or iPad and I pull out my aging Centro. My work is modern and stands on its own but I look retro. (I am retro, but that's not the point.)

A key reason I've made no change is that until recently I was still using POP email. This made sense; if my laptop is always at hand, I can conveniently get email on demand. I'm now using Microsoft Exchange Online (MEO), which puts my mail in the cloud and thus accessible from almost any device and multiple devices. This one little change has completely altered my thinking about how I will work when mobile. My choice of MEO was based on the fact that I wanted to continue to use the Outlook experience, either directly with Outlook or Web-based using Outlook Web App. Outlook is important to me.

Recently I realized that not only was my phone old but so was all my equipment. My laptop is doing fine and there is no reason I can't continue to use it, but my desktop, on which I have typically done heavy work like video editing, is really long in the tooth (ca. 2004). Both my laptop and my desktop need to be newer. The problem here is that I tend to buy heavy when I buy a laptop (which is why my T60 is still running like a champ) and that means I'll spend $2500 to replace it. Given that I'm hardly traveling at all these days, it seems like a lot. If I latched on to even a one-month remote gig, I'd spend that tomorrow, but otherwise it seems like a lot.

My desktop, on the other hand, is a DIY box I built myself. Despite the case being 10 years old, it is an ATX form-factor case and thus entirely suitable today for the huge variety of motherboards currently available. It is loaded with all sorts of still-useful components, so an upgrade is not only feasible, it is economical. I have an adequate video card, so I can upgrade the desktop for about $750, making it very powerful and capable in the process. I'll need a new video card eventually, but not on day one. The desktop will also be more powerful than the $2500 laptop I would buy.

Realizing this, it dawned on me that I could finally change the entire way in which I work when mobile. Instead of using my desktop for just video and some gaming, I could use it for everything. I'm usually in my office anyway; I don't need two computers for that. Rather than updating two systems, I would update only one, the most economical one.

That leaves the question of what to do when I'm mobile. The Centro won't cut it, that's for sure. I must, regrettably, cut my ties to Palm. But what do I need when I'm mobile? The answer is less than I thought - I need email, access to my contacts, access to my calendar, some access to the Web (just in case), and reasonable battery life. What I don't usually need is the ability to create business documents or do development work. I'd say I do that only about 5% of the time, and it seems to me that a little better time management and organization can reduce that.

In short, I need a contemporary smartphone. MEO solves my mail, contact, and calendar problem. I'll get Web access if and when I need it. Even though smartphones are small, I can demo the Web sites I've built using the phone (I've already done that a lot by borrowing a potential client's phone or tablet, embarassing as that is). If I go one step further and get a Windows 8 Phone, I'll also have access to documents and be able to touch them up if needed. The only thing I won't be able to do is development. I think that's okay.

Microsoft Surface ProBut suppose I do need to do more when mobile? What are my options? Three months ago, I didn't think I had any other than a serious laptop. Tablets like the iPad and the many Android devices deal with some of the issues, such as giving demos with a larger screen, but they don't address my toolset. I depend on Microsoft Office and Microsoft development tools. Those won't run on iOS or Android. There are no alternatives; it's not like there is a version of Dreamweaver for Android. Now, however, Microsoft itself has addressed my need with the Microsoft Surface, specifically the Surface Pro running Windows 8 Pro and thus capable of running any Windows application.

In other words, if I find that a smartphone isn't enough or even if I find I need to travel as I so often have in the past, I will soon have real options that are far less expensive than a no-compromises laptop. These options will let me continue to use all the Microsoft software that I depend upon and give me the field capability appropriate to the situation.

It looks like I do need that smartphone, though. My new cell phone bill will jump to $170.

Update, March, 2013 - I do have that smartphone now.

Tags: Android, Apple, iPhone, Smartphone, Surface, Windows Phone

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