Smartphoned at last!

For someone who makes his living enabling information technology, I can be a technology laggard. So it was with the smartphone and me. Since I am parked in front of a computer for most of the day anyhow, there seemed little reason to buy a smartphone, particularly considering how much it costs to have the privilege of being on the internet all the time. Verizon Wireless’s prepaid plan is $50 a month, and that’s stacked on top of your other communications bills which for most of us is around $150 a month for high speed internet at home, cable television and maybe a home phone. So for me, my $7.99 remanufactured dumb as dirt cell phone with a prepaid $20 a quarter plan from Virgin Mobile (no longer available) made much more sense. I didn’t need the Internet on a mobile device and until recently I was lucky to get one call a week on my cell phone. If it was really that darn important, call me on my cell phone. Otherwise, leave me alone.

Eventually the cost of devices and plans gets low enough where I bite. I bit into the smartphone apple at last this week. Given my daughter’s positive experience with her smartphone and her $35 a month plan from Virgin Mobile for the last year or so, $35 a month did not seem an absorbent amount of money to pay for mobile internet and phone. This plus regular cash coming in from my online business gave me the excuse to take the plunge. So I ordered the fanciest Virgin Mobile smartphone I could find, the HTC EVO V 4G and waited for it to arrive in the mail. For a couple of days I have been getting acquainted with the device and pondering what it means.

One annoyance, which I hope is transitory, is its battery, which cannot seem to retain a charge for more than six hours even when it spends most of its time in sleep mode. I think my battery is a dud so under the phone’s warranty I plan to get it replaced. It may mean dealing with the hassle of keeping the phone’s battery charged more than with my old cell phone, which could go four to 5 days on a charge. I guess all its technology comes at the cost of needing more juice to keep the processor and circuits running.

The phone has 4G capabilities, which is the neatest and coolest IEEE standard in wireless communications. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get a 4G signal, not even along the Dulles corridor where the technology companies are jammed together and the carrier I use, Sprint, has offices just half a mile away. So it is plain 3G instead, which is adequate but still kind of slow compared to the high speed Internet I take for granted at home and at work. This doesn’t bother me that much. I won’t be streaming many videos to my smartphone anyhow.

Buying an iPhone with Virgin Mobile is technically possible, but cost prohibitive, so I stuck with an Android smartphone. At least so far I have found little objectionable using Android compared with the iPhone’s iOS operating system. Navigating the menus and finger motions are a bit different, but not objectionably so. The main thing to understand about Android is that it is not Windows on a smartphone, and it is not a product of Microsoft. Google has bigger plans and understands the mobile market and mobile operating systems much better than Microsoft. So you are unlikely to find Android uncool, just perhaps not as cool as iOS on the iPhone. Moreover, Android runs fast.

A smartphone should marry voice and information intelligently, and my HTC Evo V and Android do a great job. If you are using an Android-based smartphone, it pays to be part of the Google collective, i.e. have a Google account with Gmail and Google calendar. Naturally, it works sweetly and smartly with Google’s services, almost scarily so. It automatically populated my address book with email addresses and phone numbers of people I know and knew. This included a guy I haven’t worked with since 1998, who I accidentally called. It also included a whole bunch of people I really don’t ever want to call or send email to. There was no obvious or fast way to delete these contacts. I ended up keying in many of the most important names and phone numbers myself, as I could not make the Bluetooth connection with my old cell phone quite work.

Some software engineer was also obviously wide-awake designing the phone’s home screen. It is actually incredibly useful. The time of day along with the local weather and current temperature are prominently displayed, along with the number of voice mail, emails in your inbox, and a count of missed messages, which includes text messages and Facebook posts. It is counterintuitive when you first see these that you first must drag a ring onto the screen to tell it you want to do business. Add a security PIN to unlock the phone and that’s quite a bit of pecking and dragging your finger before you can do anything useful.

Still, it’s slick, shiny and has a retinal display. Despite its razzle-dazzle, to my chagrin the smartphone part is quite useful. Appointment cards will soon be a distant memory. I know my calendar instantly now and what dates and times are optimal and it all syncs up in the cloud transparently and permanently. Paper boarding passes will be obsolete as well. Send it to my smartphone and scan it at the gate. Snapping photos is also always available, at least until the battery dies, and photos can be sent via email or social media with but a few strokes of the finger. And of course there is the Internet. The built in browser is adequate but so many sites are now mobile-friendly that most web sites looked stripped down. Most of the time I would prefer the full screen and to zoom into content when desired.

If all that is not enough there is of course a zillion apps, some free, some with price tags that you can easily download and run. It was just a matter of hours before I downloaded my first app, a multi vendor chat app, which can keep me in constant instant messaging status with loved ones and friends. Its main use is to let me know my 23-year-old daughter is alive, because if she is on a computer, she is on MSN chat.

And therein is the problem. By being always on there is the expectation that you are, or should be, always available to any of your extended family or friends on a whim. Sometimes it is not convenient to give attention to your smartphone. Sometimes you just don’t want to type a text message to a spouse or a friend. Sometimes you want to be alone and brood in a corner. Sometimes you need to be absorbed in your job. However, just as often you want those interruptions, because work is often tedious or you welcome some distraction. You find yourself, just because you can do it now, reaching out and touching a friend with a text message or shooting him a picture. There is no reason to wait until the evening to post pictures on your blog or Facebook. Just do it now and let the technology figure out how to handle the logistics of it all.

So I feel like I am giving up something but I am probably also gaining something more valuable. Technology is knitting me closer in relationship and in real-time. Whether this is good or bad I don’t know. Right now it is novel and kind of neat.

Will the iPad mean the death of Windows?

Microsoft Windows has shown amazing resilience for much of its existence, in spite of its arguably inferior status. Microsoft is now busily creating its next version of Windows, Window 8, and is already heavily hyping it. Many years of observation suggest to me that this means the company is running scared. They fear the success of the iPad and the whole new mobile computer market, where Microsoft has floundered.

Apple dazzled the world with its iPad, but it was just the latest in a number of well-received innovations that included the iPod and the iPhone. The cool factor was primarily a result of its amazingly well thought out user interface. Its success spawned a huge developer community that wrote apps for these devices, making them even more useful. While Microsoft was arguably first in the tablet market by creating stylus-based devices like the Tablet PC, they naturally tethered it to Windows. It’s understandable that they would see value in embedding it with Windows, since it is their brand. What they did not see was that a tablet computer needed an operating system where mobility was at its center, not at the periphery. When Apple and Steve Jobs delivered the iPad, they achieved a breakthrough: a highly useful mobile and connected computer that could also do virtually everything you could do on a desktop computer yet not weigh enough to feel burdensome.

What cemented my feeling that Windows days were numbered at last was observing a woman in my chain of command. She dutifully dragged around the required Blackberry for years, but it was largely used for reading and responding to email. With its tiny keyboard, it was hardly ideal for email either. When the iPhone came out, because she had the clout, she quickly got one and realized the freedom of having a useful mobile product. She retired the Blackberry. Just this week her iPad arrived. It’s bigger than her iPhone, of course, but not too big or too heavy not to be easily carried around. Moreover, it was WiFi and 3G friendly. She could be as productive on the go with her iPad as she could in the office.

Executives everywhere are discovering the iPad and to a lesser extent Android-based tablet computers like Samsung’s Galaxy pad. Some of those executives are CIOs and CTOs, and the light bulbs above their heads began glowing brightly as they figured out that these devices make them more productive on the go while also doing 95% of what their desktop computer can do. In fact they do more than their desktop computer can do, because their tablet computers are so portable and geographically aware. When something is 95% as useful as your desktop computer while you are in the office, and more useful than your desktop computer when away from the office, the end of Windows as a client operating system is not hard to infer.

No, Microsoft won’t go away, but desktop computers will become a declining share of the market in general, which in fact is already underway. Instead, you will carry your iPad or Android-based tablet to work, but probably plug it in to keep the battery charged. You will also probably skip the network cable for the convenience of the office’s wireless network. You will mostly use a wireless keyboard to put content on it (at least until voice recognition software too become ubiquitous), and if its relatively small screen is insufficient for the office, you will plug it into your big honkin’ high-resolution monitor. When it’s time to go home you will slip it automatically into your briefcase or bag. It will follow you pretty much everywhere you go, and its low power requirements will mean you can go for many hours without needing to recharge it. But if you do, you are probably near the power grid anyhow.

Windows 8 is supposed to be Microsoft’s answer to iOS (Apple’s mobile operating system) and Android. But no matter how well it is engineered, it is unlikely to be more compelling than iOS and the iPad, which the nation’s opinion leaders are already using. It is they who will slowly strangle Microsoft Windows, and over time kill its Office suite and the other products tethered to it as well. In time, we will discover that iOS and Android are really nothing but smartly thought out thin-client operating systems, because content (most of it resting securely in the Internet cloud) and an optimized mobile user interface to read and manipulate it is what really matters in our 21st century information age.

I think Windows will die a slow death, with income principally coming from its server-based products like Exchange. Eventually the backroom tech team will find alternatives for Exchange, Active Directory and many other Windows server based products, because they will be cheaper and many of them will not be proprietary.

If you own Microsoft stock, I would not dump it all at once since it probably still has a decade of profits ahead of it. However, I would be selling it in hearty slices over the next few years because its value is likely to sink. I believe that eventually Microsoft will become just another niche company, like Novell or Computer Associates, selling dated legacy products at premium prices to a reduced set of customers too incompetent or lazy to go through the cost and hassle of ditching them.