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Monthly Archives: October 2010

No, I don’t mean the software – that’s a different topic.

I mean the actual physical hardware.  Let’s take mobile phones, or more specifically, smartphones with increasingly large touch-based displays.  They’ve got a lot of glass (the display), and more glass (the touch panel).  Here’s an idea – in addition to all that glass on the front, let’s add glass to the back as well (Yes, I mean you, iPhone 4; check out the preliminary iPhone 4 failure rate).  Don’t you dare drop that thing onto something like a concrete sidewalk!  Apparently, when you buy a new phone, you’re supposed to immediately bury it with rubber bumpers, skins, and covers, and as a consequence, destroying the original aesthetics and design intent of the phone.

This phenomenon is even worse with iPads.  They’re unrecognizable by the time they’re festooned with covers, folios, and other protective contraptions to make them usable in the wild.

Even larger form factors like laptops?  Well, they just break.  Drop the average laptop: it likely suffers some serious damage.

Hey, manufacturers!  Devices that people hold, carry around, use on the move, and put in their pockets, bags, purses will get dropped, crushed, scraped, and bumped.  I’m old enough to remember when phones were leased, not purchased, and breaking Ma Bell’s equipment was virtually impossible.  I also remember that early generations of mobile phones were built like tanks.  Were they as thin as crackers?  No.  But dropping them was not a big deal.

A few companies have specialized in building products engineered for real-world environment, perhaps most notably, Panasonic.  We recently bought our second Toughbook, model S9.  Our first Toughbook was the R5.  The Japanese-only model R5 outlived a number of other laptops from large manufacturers that I won’t mention, and it wasn’t because it was cared for gently.  I was shoved into cramped bags, dropped, bumped, and user heavily.  It just kept working and working.  In addition, both laptops are very light (the S9 is 3.2 pounds), and both have great battery life that’s enough for all-day use (the S9 is rated for 11 hours).

Panasonic S9

Downsides of the Toughbook?  It’s very expensive, and you won’t find it any mainstream retailer.  It is the embodiment of a niche product.  Wait, a laptop with great battery life, decent performance, light weight, and robust design intended to withstand real-world use is a niche product?  Yes.  Heavy, fragile laptops that are addicted to wall outlets are the norm.  This is completely backwards, and contrary to what real people need.

If form really does follow function, then mainstream products have gone seriously off track.

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People ask me constantly why I don’t have an iPhone.  After all, “it’s the best phone”.  Some people assume that I don’t have one because I work at Microsoft.  Given the prevalence of iPhones on Microsoft campus, that is certainly not the case.  Perhaps I’m using some Android phone?  Nope.  A pre-release Windows Phone 7 device?  Nope.  I got to use one for a few weeks (I really liked it), but the hardware is not yet broadly available.

 

A primary reason I don’t have an iPhone is that as a consumer, I detest service contracts and lock-in.  If at all possible, I like to own my devices free and clear, and to be able to walk away from a service without punitive early termination fees.  I also want the freedom to be able to switch from one phone to another when I want, not based on a service provider’s schedule.  The data plan for what I need (email and the occasional search) is also inexpensive, and the phone plan options seem much more flexible outside the iPhone plan walled garden. 

 

 Another reason is that I like having a physical keyboard.  I have tried using touch-based keyboards and I find them error-prone and hard to use.  I know that some people like them; I am not one of them.

 

Battery life is a big deal for me.  I don’t want to have to worry about making it through the day; I prefer to have phones with 2-3 days of battery life.  That won’t happen with an iPhone, or any smart phone with a large display. 

 

 

I also like phones that are relatively small.  I consider the iPhone to be too large for me to have in my pocket and forget about.

 

I need my phone to have robust Exchange support with full push email and bug-free scheduling.  iPhone is weak in that department.  My friends with iPhones are constantly battling with missed meetings, meetings that don’t get properly updates, etc.  No thanks.  It’s the one thing I need my phone to get absolutely right. 

 

I am also not interested in apps.  I need some basic functionality, and that’s pretty much it.  If I want to do real work or real play, I need a real display.  I find small display maddening for anything other than basic functions.

 

Last but not least, I don’t want to belong to the Church of Steve Jobs.   The iPhone smacks of a somewhat totalitarian approach to products – the people shall all have one phone.  I find it boring and predictable, and life’s too short for that. 

 

After all that, I should mention that my current phone is a Nokia N72 available unlocked directly from their online store.  My other source for unlocked phones is www.mobilecityonline.com.  It satisfies all the requirements above, and also has free voice-assisted turn-by-turn GPS which is great for traveling, is very pocket-friendly, has a sunlight-readable display, and doesn’t drop calls.  The Symbian OS is pretty much a joke and the UI is evocative of the early ‘90s, but the phone does do what I need:

 

 Nokia E72

my E72