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.

Ain’t young or hip enough for Virgin Mobile

Are you cool enough to own a Virgin Mobile phone? Apparently I am not, but the company is glad to sell me their phones anyhow. Based on my calculations I am at least twice as old as their target demographic: young and hip adults.

A lesser known fact about Virgin Mobile is that it targets cheapskates. You have to be something of a cheapskate to own a prepaid phone, which is still offered by many of their plans. Owning a prepaid phone implies that you apparently don’t plan on actually using the phone that much. That’s why I am with Virgin Mobile. I use my cell phone maybe once a week, and often less than that. It’s there for emergencies and convenience. Because I have been on their service a long time, I am grandfathered in under an old plan. I pay twenty one dollars a quarter, unless I exceed my prepaid minutes, which rarely happens. That’s also probably a price I would be willing to pay if I were a young adult who was stretched for cash and needed a cell phone. I didn’t have these options when I was a wild and crazy thing.

The thing about being a cheapskate is you don’t usually want to be thought of as a cheapskate. Virgin Mobile has figured this out, which is why its sites and ads are plastered with hip young adults, and their ringtones tend to be loud, jarring and obnoxious. Virgin Mobile people apparently are skinny. They wear designer jeans. They are pictured at wild parties. Their hair tends to be longish but at least washed. They often come with smiles on their faces that look like they just won a contest on how many people could be stuffed into a phone booth. (Wait a minute: they probably have no idea what a phone booth is.) They are not afraid to be loud, either visually or aurally.

If you dare, call Virgin’s customer service number (1-888-322-1122). First you get blasted by what sounds like a jazzed up ringtone. Then of course you get the Virtual Virgin Adviser and have to work your way through the usual confusing menus or try to say what you want in English or Spanish and hope their software interprets you correctly. The Virtual Virgin Adviser sounds like he still has acne. He probably isn’t captain of the high school football team, but instead he comes across more as voted Most Popular.

A couple of times I made it through the virtual adviser and actually talked to a “Live Adviser” (yes, they call them that). They too sound young and hip and clearly they have been coached to feign enthusiasm and youth. I assume it is an effective strategy because the owner of Virgin Mobile, Virgin Airlines and other affiliated companies is Richard Branson, and you don’t sail around the world in your own high tech and custom made balloon by not knowing how to make some serious money. Still, it is annoying. As a cheap middle-aged guy, I’d gladly select another company just as cheap with less cool advisers and boring sites. I just haven’t found them, or figured it wasn’t worth the effort. After all, my unused minutes keep accumulating. It’s unlikely I will ever need to spend them.

While I tend to be inured to design, I will confess that one of the harder things about sticking with Virgin Mobile is that its cell phones are ugly. Their ugliness is primarily because of all the glowing red. Virgin Mobile has been going with a bright red theme and it’s going to stick to it. I guess it’s part of its branding. Which means your cell phone wallpaper is likely to be a bright red and your ringtones, unless you are half dead, will wake even a sleep-deprived teen from a deep slumber.

So I may have to buy a cricKet phone someday, because they cater to us older folks with their inoffensive green color schemes and their tiny but at least familiar looking keyboards. Unfortunately, their cheapest plan is $35 a month, which is probably why I am still using Virgin Mobile and putting up with its garish phones, hip “live advisers” and obnoxious ring tones. I also have to put up with its limited coverage area. In some states it is hard to use the phone at all, as I discovered when I spent a week in South Dakota. That’s because they piggyback on top of Sprint’s cellphone network, and Sprint serves mostly metropolitan areas along the coasts. That’s probably the real reason Virgin Mobile is so cheap because if you are not near an urban area you are probably out of luck. Fortunately, 98% of the time I am near my house, so it’s only a problem when traveling.

Aside from Virgin Mobile’s low, low prices, there is at least one other reason I stay with them. I recently lost yet another cell phone. Fortunately, I paid only ten dollars for it. Even more fortunately, it was easy to replace it with another ugly, piece of crap phone. I went to their web site, searched on “replacement phone” and within minutes I had another ugly piece of crap phone on its way, for $7.99 plus tax. It probably cost them more to ship it to me than the phone is worth. And now it sits in my back pocket waiting for calls that rarely come. As I expected, no one left me any voice mail in the interim.

If I have some advice for Richard Branson, it would be to create a division of Virgin Mobile for us older, unhip Americans. There are a lot of us and given the downturn in the economy, many of us need to economize anyhow. We just don’t want to deal with all the hip stuff. Moreover, we would prefer cell phones that don’t suggest our pockets are on fire. In addition, we don’t want to talk to a virtual adviser, but with a live one please. I might even let you charge me some cell phone minutes for the privilege. Deal?