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RIP the Mobile Phone

Nigel Morris-Co...

It's a dream, a bad dream. I'm standing on a street corner, it's late, it's dark, I know my location but I don't know where I am. There are figures in the shadows. I am not comfortable. I decide to call a cab and I reach into my pocket, pick up my phone, the latest model from a leading manufacturer, click to wake it up - but it's dead. And it's only six hours since I unplugged it from the USB cable that it spends most of its life attached to in the office. It might still be a cellphone, but it's hardly mobile, says Pete Jackson.

Remember the days when mobile phone companies competed on the tech, not on features?

Nokia and new entrant Samsung beat each other with sticks to try to overcome the lead that Ericsson had developed with its T39 (please Ericsson, repair mine: those b*****rds at Sony say it's not their product so I can **** right off). The Motorola MicroTac had started the trend towards phones that were truly portable but they were far too flimsy and with an impenetrable menu system. Even so, they led the way in tiny phones with a long life and decent signal.

The Nokia 3210 (the best Nokia ever until a friend put mine in her jeans pocket and tossed them in the washing machine - and Nokia said "we can't fix that") and the Samsung TriBand that survived a dip in my pool both had standby times of as much as ten days and talk time that let me use the thing as much as I wanted in a day. And both had excellent reception.

Technical development was focussed on improving battery life by reducing power consumption: Samsung's push into thin film technology spurred other manufacturers. Soon, if you weren't offering at least 100 hours standby time, you were probably going to be out of luck in the business market, which also demanded email and web-browsing.

The PalmOne Treo was, perhaps, the first true SmartPhone but it was far away from being the first smart device. It was the move towards browsing - and the need for bigger, higher resolution screens that started to eat batteries although a decidedly not smart Nokia would eat itself alive in about 2 hours when it was playing MP3.

But in my dream, my smart but not very clever phone is dead. I've been in a meeting, then out for dinner and then for drinks and my phone, a really, really nice looking device in really glossy white (with a black plastic cover so it doesn't get scratched in my pocket or damaged when I drop it) has been used for e-mail, messaging, using a map to find the meeting, getting walking directions to the bar where the meeting is, it's taken photos and uploaded them to a social media website and it's buzzed to remind me to buy some flowers to put with champagne and strawberries for my girlfriend's birthday breakfast tomorrow. But what it hasn't done is make or receive any telephone calls.

In my dream, I reach into my other pocket. I pull out my trusty, almost ten years old Samsung. It has some kind of crappy browser I've never bothered to use, it has the looks of a boring calculator so I can leave it on tables and not be terrified it's going to be stolen. And, despite the fact I've not charged it for three days, it still works.

As the shadowy figures get closer, I breathe more easily: now I can call a cab.


Since the development (it's not really the "invention") of the smart-phone, the real-world use of phones has got worse not better. Now, the "phone" part has become very secondary behind the idea of the phone as integrated camera, video and sound recorder, personal messaging system, interface with social media, radio, games console, memo pad (in many and various guises) and a whole raft of other things from bar-code reader to torch, from compass to navigator, from spirit level to heart monitor. And, spookily, a tracker that lets you know when someone is awake or chatting to someone else or, even, automatically sends details of the phone's location.

The device has gone the way of washing machines and cars in the 1950s: Planned Obsolescence. In short, when you buy a new phone, the manufacturer has already decided how long it will last before you have to buy a new one. And if you are silly enough to lock yourself into a system that converts data into its proprietary format, you're locked in unless you spend a great deal of time and money to get unlocked.

It's half-a-decade since Nokia's build quality declined dramatically: even solid-looking "business phones" had a working life of little more than a year. Blackberry are moaning that their consumer division isn't producing the expected returns: it's because the attraction of BBM, eroded by the dramatic rise of WhatsApp, means that consumers don't have to put up with the poor build quality of "consumer" grade Blackberry devices.

HTC's build quality is open to question: the Desire's mechanical buttons start to develop "will they, won't they" qualities after a couple of years.

Basically, it seems, anything mechanical in a mobile is not designed to last.

But it's harder to design a short product life into an entirely electronic device. So that comes down to features: turning the phone from a utility device to a fashion item.

The pace of release of new versions is astonishing: the Samsung Galaxy Note is a superb device although the phone element is becoming open to question as it's too big to hold for long. The Note 2 was released a few weeks ago. Today, there is news of the Note 3. With product cycles so short (the iPhone 6 is rumoured to be close to production, and in some countries the release of the iPhone 5 has been within the last six weeks) there are two issues. First, there is insufficient development time: Apple's débâcle on both iPhone 4 and iPhone 5 releases prove this.

What is the incentive for any purchaser to replace a working phone with a current model when that model will be out of date in a few months?

Worse, such "leaks" are often spoilers: the eventual product rarely offers all the features that such "rumours" suggest, indicating a return to the "vapourware" market tactics of software companies in the 1980s.

In theory, this race should be rendered less effective by the use of Android but there's a flaw: increasingly, you only get the new version of Android if you get a new phone. I have an HTC Desire (on which HTC have steadfastly refused to fix "low memory" problem) and a Motorola Xoom tablet: in both cases the manufacturer has not updated the operating system to current versions and I either have to "root" my device or live with an outdated system. Or get a new device.

I thought the war against embedded applications had been won when the EU forced Microsoft to give users the option not to install, or to remove, e.g. the embedded browser and mail programs from Windows. But Android phones (in particular) are doused in useless "apps" that it is impossible to remove without totally reformatting the phone and installing a clean version of the operating system, not a task for the vast majority of users. I don't want my phone to know where I am, to link to Facebook and a host of other social media, etc. And even if I did, I want it to be my choice if it does.

UK magazine PC Advisor (sic) rates phones on their speed for browsing, etc., style and build, software and connectors, display, camera. It doesn't mention battery life.

And it doesn't mention that, if you want to use your phone for more hours than you can count on the fingers of one hand, it has to be plugged in. And so you have to carry a charger at all times.

How, exactly, is that different from using my desktop PC which has a better screen and a proper keyboard?

And if it's plugged in, it might be a cell-phone, but it's not mobile.