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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The General Failure of Smart Phones in the Modern World

I can now, without equivocation, state: smart phones are a failure. Disagree? Read on.

We live in a world that looks very much like a future predicted by many science fiction writers and futurists. Touch screen interfaces. Video calling. Flat screen televisions and phones on our wrists. Silent electric cars. Food that looks like small colored blocks. The ability to make products on demand in our homes.

And yet, for all of the promise and execution that has been accomplished in the last 35 or so years, something bad, very bad, has happened. We've lost the desire to get things right.

You may point to this interface or that one and say "Look how elegant that is! How can you tell me it isn't right?" First off, because I can, I'm an independent human being. But more accurately, because it isn't. Even when a product gets something right for a little while, it's only a matter of time before it gets ruined.

But I specifically want to deal with the fundamental component of modern culture: the computer, and more specifically the smart phone. I want to first set a stage.

I grew up as a child in the 1970s. I was born in 1970, in fact. And like many families, our family had a land line telephone. Eventually, we even had more than one, which was quite a luxury. At around age ten, it became clear to me that the telephone wasn't perfect; were we to call relatives in Hawaii or New York, there was a noticeable delay, which made the conversation somewhat stilted and more difficult. This was compounded by the fact that we were paying more for those calls. However, because a greater distance was involve, something in my mind understood why there were problems, and why it cost more.

Move forward now to around 1995. Magically, that delay? It disappeared. You could call someone almost anywhere on the globe, and have it seem like they were right there with you. The calls were clear and immediate. And the cost was even going down. I seem to remember this was the beginning of unlimited long distance calling. Of course, phone bills weren't terribly cheap, but they were good. The cel phone was just starting to be useful, and if the calls on a cel phone were horrible, well, nobody worried that much, after all, you were calling on a mobile phone. How futuristic!

Think about that today, though. How many of us still have landlines? And when I ask, I mean literal landlines, from the phone company. Not DSL VOIP, or Threeplay TV+Internet+Phone. I mean honest to god, old school landlines? And even if you do, how many of your calls are to other people with real landlines? Not too many, at least not if you live in a city or can't afford $90/mo for a simple telephone and three or four calling features.

Instead, then, your experience is more akin to those old school long distance calls. For every call. Think about it: how often do you find yourself apologizing because you're overtalking someone while on the phone? Ever wonder why it happens? It's because your calls are out of sync with the other person. There's a delay, and it goes both ways. It makes it, therefore, impossible to have a real conversation without absurd pauses because you're afraid to overtalk the other person. Heaven forbid you're talking to someone who will keep going if you don't interrupt them.

Let's go back again to 1995. It also occurs to me that finishing a piece of software was important. I mean, there were always seemingly unsolvable bugs. But for the most part, software needed to be finished and basically work before a company added new features or released an update. A notable exception to this rule was Microsoft, but their tendency to release incomplete software or add features before fixing things was known and readily complained about.

Today, though, it seems like the only important thing is to make sure a piece of software gets released by a certain date. As long as it basically does what's needed, it seems most companies don't really care if there are obscure bugs that only some users will experience. Never mind that those bugs could literally brick their systems. It would seem, then, that the marketing people have won out over the coders. What's more, it now even seems like coders no longer care, because even open source software, supposedly the last bastion of the pure "coding for coding's sake" mentality really don't care any more, either. Could it be that they really only wanted to code because they thought eventually someone would give them piles of money for their brilliance? And then, when that didn't happen, they basically gave up, saying "Yeah, that's good enough. Is Twitter hiring?"

Yet, all of that, while depressing, isn't even what prompts me to this rant.

I finally broke down a couple of years ago and got an advanced smart phone, a Galaxy S III on T-Mobile. This happened because first, nobody sells a phone any more that is a phone first. Even the cheapest flip phones are all software based, and so you can't depend on them to make and receive calls. I even tried one for a while, to hopefully get away from the whole "phone as computer" annoyance I'd experienced with an iPhone first gen, and that crashed and burned. It was a horrible experience. "Well," I thought, "if I have to suffer through a stupid phone that doesn't take calls properly, I may as well get the best one." The SIII was, at the time, the best phone I could get from T-Mobile, so I ponied up.

The SIII is certainly interesting. It has many, often annoying, little swipe features. Most of them happen when you don't want them, at least in my experience. Thankfully, you could turn them off. Then, there was the business of the screen going dark while it was against your face. An important feature, to be sure, as you don't want to face-activate device features while on a call. However, the system is so sensitive, that if I do need to use another feature while on a call, I have to approach the phone very carefully, lest it think my hand is my face, and make the screen go dark.

Then there is the issue shared by all touch screen devices: the failed interface of the touch screen keyboard. Now of course, yes, you can in fact type things with a touch screen keyboard. But the fact that it is so common and understood when autocorrect turns "pen is" into penis, or on my phone, thinks I want to type "dint" when I'm trying to type "don't" (or "nit" when I want "not"), means that this "solution" to touch screen has, thus far, failed. And, considering there have been seven years since the release of the first iPhone, you'd think that they'd have found the solution to this.

Which brings me back to my first point.

It seems like developers of software and electronic hardware no longer care about getting anything right. I don't necessarily blame them. It could be their training. It could be their supervisors. It could be marketing and CEOs and any number of others. But the truth is, something as key and central to a touch screen computer as the touch screen keyboard should have been solved by now. Instead, we have all sorts of swipe features and proximity features, and thumbprint scanners, and any number of other non-essential aspects of interface and media that simply isn't as important as the fundamental interface in the system.

What's more, and the very specific reason I am writing this, I had a personal experience that makes me so frustrated I cannot remain silent.

My ecosystem of phone, contacts, email, voicemail, and so forth, was limping along at an acceptable performance. Not working well, mind you, but working well enough. Then, without any warning or action on my part, it began to fall apart. First, I couldn't dial numbers after a call started. Forget using Google Voice or other systems that require entering numbers. Then, while trying to solve that problem, things changed with my email and other contact data because of updates that supposedly would fix my first problem.

Finally, after trying every solution suggested to me that didn't require it, I finally had to factory boot my phone. That meant backing up, which I did, thinking all of my data and settings would be backed up. Of course, that was not the case. Why did I believe it would be?

To be fair, a lot of information was in fact backed up. But now I have a phone that doesn't do all of the things that were working well. In fact, I can't even test what was wrong yet because I have to redo so many settings to get there, many settings that the backup software specifically told me it would save.

The worst part? It took me 13 hours to get to this point where I now have a phone with none of my apps installed, and most of my settings lost.

The bottom line: I understand that making a computer operating system is difficult, and that things happen that can cause problems when different programs interact. But it seems to me that if software was actually completed, that would happen a heck of a lot less. Instead, you end up with unstable crap that is pretty, but eventually will fail.

I really miss the ethic of reliability and wanting to finish things right. Hopefully, that will return someday. If it doesn't, though, you can count me out of whatever the next generation of technology is. I can only imagine the heart attacks that will, quite literally, happen when they release Google Brain.

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