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My not-so-excellent cell phone adventure

Before somebody finds out, I’ll say it up front: I hate phones. I hate the way they ring at you and make you leap out of your seat. I hate the disembodied voices unmoored from any actual human being. And most of all, I hate the need to think on my feet. My mind doesn’t move that fast.

So, on the whole, I’d be quite happy with a landline phone I could quietly keep unplugged. A few years ago, just in time for the twenty first century, I was dragged kicking and grumbling into the twentieth. Somehow, entirely by accident, my cell phone tended to be off a lot.

Then came the phones that weren’t phones. Or weren’t just phones. They were PDAs, they were web browsers, they were restaurant finders. One could set their ringers to play “‘enery the eighth I am, I am….” I began to get excited.

The main thing for which I’ve used my Palm Pilot is writing occasional snippets in parking lots, on the tedious parts of trips, and the like. Unfortunately, every PDA-type phone I tried in stores had impossible keyboards. My hands aren’t as big as a bunch of bananas, but they’re not small enough to use those keyboards without major frustration. And the five hundred dollar prices, give or take a hundred or so, were on the frustrating side too. So I coveted, but things didn’t go further than that.

Then came the LG vx9800. It’s a thick candy bar shape when closed, and opens on the long side to a usable qwerty keyboard and good screen. It wasn’t too heavy, it could take miniSD memory cards big enough to hold entire books, and it seemed all-around marvelous. By this time, I was rather cross with Verizon, who was offering the phone. (It’s a long story, but involves the usual useless hours on the phone with customer “service.” And then there’s Verizon’s attitude problem about municipal free wifi.) But I was so taken with the vx9800, I renewed for another two years, plus over $200 for the phone and accoutrements.

The feature list you see in Verizon’s sales material is heavy on GettingItNow (now, now, now!) from Verizon, but oddly silent on what you can actually do with the phone. I was told you could do lots of stuff. And besides, who would put an excellent screen and keyboard on a phone and then make them unusable, right? Right?

Wrong, of course. It took me days to find out, but there was literally nothing, *nothing*, you could do with that keyboard except send text messages (at ten cents a message), and those were limited to 300 characters. You could save pictures to the minidisk, but not text. Go figure. How is it any kind of skin of Verizon’s massive nose if you want to save text rather than picture files? I can’t imagine, but they’d made it impossible.

And I do mean impossible. The phone uses the Brew operating system (aka Get-It-Now, EasyEdge, etc.), whose cardinal feature seems to be that it locks the phone down to whatever the seller wants it to be. Not the buyer. The seller. Bitpim is a great piece of open source software that provides an alternate route to using the features of supported phones (see under Phones), but Brew is a no-go zone. As Roger Binns, one of the developers, explained it to me: “Brew applications can only be made with the agreement of the carrier and testing via Qualcomm. You also have to have a revenue sharing arrangement with Qualcomm and the carrier. … Bottom line: If I wanted to make an application available to Verizon phones, it would cost me around $6,000 a year plus certification fees for each new model as they came out and Verizon would have to agree it to and would insist on charging a fee so they could take a cut.”* I guess customers aren’t the only people Verizon treats like dirt.

A workaround would be to use web access and something like google mail to write whatever you needed in a webmail account. Basic web access on Verizon’s plan costs an extra six dollars a month plus per-usage fees, and unlimited is an extra fifteen dollars. Fifteen dollars. Plus airtime. On top of all the other money they’d already gotten and were getting.

It seemed that the couple of hundred dollars I’d just paid Verizon bought me nothing but the privilege of being a cash cow for them. I was so offended, I returned the phone, much as I loved it. I’m back to having one of those phones which, inexplicably, ends up turned off.

So what should I have done, in hindsight? Don’t buy a locked-down phone. Java-based (J2ME) phones are more open to third-party applications and are a much better bet. Dan Fitton’s site has good explanations and links to the universe of java-type phones. Wikipedia, as usual, has excellent info: In the US, as of Dec 2005, Nokia phones generally fit that type, as well as Blackberries, some of the Motorolas and the Samsungs. TMobile offered the most different kinds of J2ME phones.

A cool cell phone service finder, which lets you specify phone features (but not operating systems) and your area providers is And on another tangential note, Paul English’s site has all kinds of useful cell phone info, including a list of shortcuts through the voicemail thickets of many megacorps.

The future looks interesting, unless the megacorps(es) lock it down. EVDO is a wireless broadband protocol adopted by many CDMA-based cellphone providers (i.e. most of the Americas, Japan, etc.). (Europe, which uses GSM-based services, is getting off to a slowish start through greed before the market could bear it. The acronyms there, besides GSM, are GPRS and EDGE. See Wikipedia for more detail.) To the untutored mind like mine, the easiest way to understand it is to think of wifi, but with a several-mile instead of several-feet range from the transmitter, and the transmitters are cell phone towers which are already spread everywhere. In effect, we could have broadband wifi accessible anywhere there are cellphone towers, and that means one could use voip (like Skype or Vonage) everywhere, too.

Officially, the taxpayers own the airwaves, which are merely loaned to the providers currently using them. So, legally, wireless utopia should be possible. Practically, it’s going to be another story. You can safely bet that business will use its ownership of the towers to charge extortionist prices for use of the airwaves it doesn’t own. And cellphone providers would probably rather die than facilitate wireless voip.

So maybe we should help them. Vote with your wallet for the least pernicious providers, and vote in elections for a consumer-friendly government that actually amounts to something.

*More info on Roger’s LG vx4400 developers site, and the Qualcomm developers site for the whole nine yards.

Update: This just in, as they say.
On AmericaBlog: Anyone can buy a list of your incoming and outgoing phone calls, cell or land-line, for $110 online. FBI, police, Congress, you, me, and our Aunt Tillie. The company doing this is getting that info from–I’m sure you’re surprised–the phone companies, who are apparently peddling it to them for a profit. Reported in July 2005 in the Washington Post, and a couple of days ago by Frank Main in the Chicago Sun Times.

And via Engadget: Microsoft blocking MP3s on Verizon Wireless phones? “…users aren’t being warned ahead of time that they’ll lose MP3 playing functionality by upgrading their phones. … You know, if the customer didn’t always come first with these big corps we’d really be in trouble, folks.” [emphasis mine]

[typo fixed and another wikipedia link added, Jan 8.]

Update, Jan 12: AmericaBlog just bought Gen. Wesley Clark’s phone records which was enough to (finally) get media attention. CBS News is going to report on the cell records privacy scandal tonight (1/12/06) on their evening news broadcast. T-Mobile, mentioned in my post, unfortunately seems to be one of the companies busily selling info. Verizon, much as I hate to admit it, does not.

Technorati tags: cellphones, mobile phones, LG vx9800, smartphones, EVDO, cell, phone, phones