Mobile Phones Are Computers

One thing I noticed when I got my new LG U990 Viewty [1] mobile phone is the way the core telephony functionality has suffered while features for web browsing etc have been added. It seems that the core phone functionality (making and receiving calls and maintaining a list of names and phone numbers) has generally decreased since about 2004 when I got my first camera-phone. The Nokia GSM phones that I used prior to getting a 3G phone seemed to have a combination of signal reception, voice quality, and basic telephony features that beat all the 3G phones I’ve used. The only way the 3G phones were better for core telephony features is in managing the list of recently called numbers. In my past two LG phones I’ve been able to easily call an alternate number of the person I last called – this feature was dropped in the Viewty.

Some of my relatives have camera-phones that have an extremely poor ability to get a signal, they can’t get a GSM signal in places where my Viewty can get 3G! Obviously making a usable phone was not a design priority for those devices!

Then there’s the issue of battery life. Early mobile phones had NiCd batteries that lasted a week, later mobile phones had Li batteries that lasted a week as a standard feature. Nokia sold phones with replacement batteries, so if you wanted to make lots of phone calls while on the move you could have a second battery charged and ready for use. Now the latest BlackBerry [5] apparently has batteries that only last for one day – I haven’t investigated the options for storing a second battery but a casual glance indicates that changing a battery will be a lot more difficult than on an old Nokia phone.

I’ve been wondering, why don’t they just sell some mobile phones that don’t support making phone calls? Smart phones that aren’t very good at telephony is really only going half way, do it properly and just rip out the phone functionality! Or they could use the word “phone” to apply to devices that already exist to do mobile stuff. You could have an Amazon Kindle phone [2] that allows you to read documents, and a Nokia N800 tablet phone [3] for general Internet access including web browsing and email – really the only “smart-phone” feature that is missing from the Nokia is a camera. For that matter my EeePC 701 [4] is probably about twice as heavy as my first mobile phone, maybe it could be called a phone too. If you have two phones, one for making phone calls and the other for doing smart-phone stuff then it won’t matter so much if the smart-phone (which can’t make phone calls) has it’s battery run out.

One likely objection to the idea of selling phones that can’t be used for making phone calls is that it might confuse the users. However the current situation is that there are significant differences in the signal reception ability of mobile phones, the people who sell them don’t know what the difference is, and the rare reviews that analyse signal strength (as done by Choice [6]) are become outdated rapidly and never cover all phones on the market. So I think it would be a great improvement if the phone sales people could say “don’t buy phone A if you want to make phone calls because it can’t do that” because currently anyone who just wants to make phone calls has a matter of luck to determine whether they get a phone that works well.

The really sad thing however, is that some people apparently have usage patterns that are similar to my satire above. I have heard of people having two phones, one for smart-phone functionality and another for making calls.

What we need is to have manufacturers put more effort into making hardware that can receive week signals, from now on I will consult the Choice review of this before making any mobile phone purchase or recommendation. If only a few million other people would do the same then the manufacturers would improve their products.

The next thing we need is to have better software to run the phones. The deficiencies in the software on my Viewty could easily be fixed if everyone had source code access. Benjamin Mako Hill writes about some of the problems with closed-source on mobile phones [7]. He mentions security (in terms of our trust in the phone manufacturers), and the general ideal of having control over your own device. One specific problem he doesn’t mention are the ways that mobile phones are deliberately crippled by the manufacturers, 3G phones have precious main menu space occupied by the services that are most profitable to the telephone company without regard to what the users desire. Another problem for people who desire free software is file format support. Camera-phones that save video to AVI format instead of OGG reduce our ability to use free software in other places – as a general rule every time you transcode a video you either lose some quality or increase the file size so the format that the phone uses will be carried through many other computers and devices. Smart-phones generally have the ability to view a range of data types, the ability to view MS file formats is common (which excludes free competitors). My Viewty has an entire menu section dedicated to Google services (Gmail, blogger, youtube, etc). That’s nice for Google who presumably paid well for that, but not so good for me as I don’t use any of the Google features on my phone. Now a menu that had a caching IMAP client, an RSS feed reader, a WordPress API client, a Jabber client, and a caching Wikipedia client would be really useful.

My current phone is just under a year old, so I won’t be buying a new phone until January 2011 (unless I break or lose my Viewty). Hopefully then there will be some better options. Before anyone suggests that I buy another phone to help with the coding, my current free software coding projects are all behind schedule…

12 comments to Mobile Phones Are Computers

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    This post was mentioned on Twitter by toorghezi: Russell Coker: Mobile Phones Are Computers

  • Uh, I realize Australia is permentantly six months lagged in technology marketing, but Nokia has a successor to the N800 that actually does have phone hardware, the N900. It should be available in Europe and the US shortly. Australia, who knows?

  • Paul Johnson

    I wish the telephone-using luddites left in the world would collectively realize that 1960 called, Max wants his shoephone back. Consider joining us in the third millennium by killing your phone.

  • Anonymous

    I refuse to carry two devices. I have an N900 on order specifically because I want one device that provides a phone and various other functionality. I own an N800 (bought through the developer device program), which I consider a fun toy but not something I’ll carry around.

    You said: “a Nokia N800 tablet phone [3] for general Internet access including web browsing and email – really the only “smart-phone” feature that is missing from the Nokia is a camera”; the N800 doesn’t have a *phone*, either. The N900 does, and it has a camera too.

    I do agree with your statement that not all phones work equally well as phones. However, I’d consider that a bug rather than a feature, and I consider it ridiculous to buy a phone that doesn’t work as a phone.

  • Matt

    Maybe you should invest in a phone that isn’t made from LG? Try a company that specialises in making phones as their core business… not just a general electronics company like GoldStar (aka LG).

  • I’d suggest that diluting the meaning of the word “phone” is not the optimal solution here. What is a phone? It is a device that makes and receives voice calls, at minimum. I doubt this consensus definition will change for several years. We don’t need to rewrite the dictionary to encourage phone sales personnel and phone reviews to educate consumers about how well mobile devices work as phones.

  • etbe

    Matt: My first LG 3G phone was a useful device. Having a small camera with me at all times was very handy. The second one was a better version of the same thing, having the same UI was convenient.

    The Viewty is my third LG phone, my main reason for buying it is that it has the highest resolution of any camera-phone that I consider affordable and also has the largest camera lens (due to manufacturers lying about ISO numbers it seems that just inspecting the lens size is the best measure of likely picture quality).

    I expect that my next phone will be an Android.

  • etbe kindle-killing-dual-screen-nook-e-reader-leaked/

    The Barnes and Noble “Nook” seems interesting. It runs Android and has a color touch-screen for the UI as well as a power-saving e-paper display for reading. The only down-side is that it only has 2G of storage, but I expect that they will soon release versions that have more storage.

  • etbe

    Polprav: You can quote an extract under fair use or fair dealing, or you can quote an entire post if you are not making money from it (which means no Google adsense). If you translate a post into Russian then you can do what you wish with it as long as you give me credit and link to the original post. You own the copyright on your translation work (but not on the output of Google translation).

  • Hi Russ,

    faced with a similar problem to yours I got the cheapest Nokia I could buy: the 2610, it is substantially chunkier than more expensive models, but having no camera or extras my battery lasts 11 days…. And it has the best sound quality of any phone in my household. Does the quality of the camera really make a difference without a proper lens cap?

  • etbe

    Helen: Camera phones have a hard plastic or glass sheet covering the lens which is recessed in the plastic body of the camera. They tend to get damaged slowly and the 2 year replacement cycle of the phone occurs before the damage gets too bad. Also the best way of dealing with scratches if you can’t prevent them is to have a large enough lens that you get light coming from around the scratch. With serious telescopes they paint over scratches so that they don’t diffract light, so the real problem with a scratch is not blocking part of the light but distributing it where it’s not wanted.

    Lots of scratches on the clear lens cover will probably just result in the picture becoming increasingly fuzzy.

    I’ve sent you a private message with an attached picture from my LG U990 Viewty phone, as you will see the quality is pretty amazing. It was only in about 2006 that I got a non-phone digital camera which can give better quality than that. My previous digital camera couldn’t compete.