Learning from cellphones

Annoying though they are, fact is that cellphones outnumber our beloved Pocket PCs and Pocket PC Phones by a grotesquely huge margin. Cellphones are absolutely everywhere, and it's becoming increasingly rare to see people without one plastered against the side of their head. The sad conclusion us PDA guys have to draw is that cellphones fill a need that our beloved Pocket PCs can't. So let's see why they clobber us, and where we may just have a chance to make up ground....

I think one reason why everyone has a cellphone is because the darn things are free. Or they appear to be free. Just sign on the dotted line and you get a shiny new ultra-sleek highest-tech phone with multi-megapixel camera that doubes as a vidcam, MP3 music, mobile TV and a few dozen other ultra-cool features. All free. Well, not really. You do have to sign a pact with the cellphone company devil. That will cost you penty in terms of always higher than expected bills, all sorts of features that you thought were included but cost extra, all sorts of extra charges (what? 40 cents per minute for overage????! Yup.) Oh, and then there are the taxes and fees and surcharges and, inevitablly, stuff you never ordered and that you know will take you two hours on the phone with some call center to perhaps get off your bill. Once the cell phone company has you by the you know what, they gotcha, and they won't let go.

No, those phones are not free by any means. They cost you two years of frustrating bills, endless hassle with the cell company, amazingly lousy service, marginal coverage and, well, you get the picture.

So why do we put up with that? Primarily because those pesky little phones do a lot of stuff much better than our PDAs. For example, they pretty much always work. Flip or slide it open, and the phone works as reliably as a video game console. Nothing to configure, nothing to load, nothing to boot. While one-handed operating remains an elusive dream with PDAs, phones mastered that years ago. Sure their screens are dinky and awful, but since they do not have to accommodate ultra-compressed versions of Windows, it works just fine. And all the software works and pops right up. The old "will it work or will it crash or hang?" is simply never a issue.

But what about text entry? Those little pests don't even have touch screens. Well, they don't need one either. The interface, hideous buttons and microscopic key labels nothwithstanding, works. Entering text with multiple clicks on the same numric key is a pain, but it works. And then there's the miraculous Tegic T9, the same we once dismissed as nothing special on early PDAs. I must admit that I never really gave T9 a chance back then. Onl recently have I startd using it, and it works great! So texting back and forth quickly becomes addictive.

Even that should not be enough to make cell phones THAT popular. I mean, the built-in cameras are nearly useless, and transferring a picture is essentially impossible unless you want to spring for all those extra fees and set up three extra email accounts (why can't one single cell phone company give you ONE email addy, or even use yours?). The computer interface usually bites, and the apps are laughable. Yet, the things are so small and unassuming and so simple to use (and hey, "free"!) that they've simply taken over. Never mind that getting a real email message requires five minutes of tapping and trying, and doing anything else useful on the web other than buying ringtones (now there's a concept I do not understand!) is essentially out of the question. And despite the bragging of superfast access, it's deadly slow.

The phones don't even have a standardized user interface, and they still beat the crap out of us. I mean, every phone seems different, both in hardware ad software, and the menus in most are ugly as sin. Yet, people figure it out while many puzzle over how to use a Pocket PC. Go figure.

Honestly, it's all still a mystery to me. And I totally fear that soon all of our Pocket PCs and even our notebooks will have cellphone connectivity and, thus, will become reduced to nothing more than revenue generators for the wireless companies. I see that happening, I really do. But we have to go with the flow, whether we like it or not.

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