One thing I noticed when I got my new LG U990 Viewty  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  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  that allows you to read documents, and a Nokia N800 tablet phone  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  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 ) 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 . 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…
-  http://etbe.coker.com.au/2009/05/31/lg-u990-viewty/
-  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kindle
-  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nokia_N800
-  http://etbe.coker.com.au/2008/07/21/review-of-the-eeepc-701/
-  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BlackBerry
-  http://www.choice.com.au/
-  http://mako.cc/copyrighteous/20091017-00