Why Do Cell Phones Suck So Very Much?

This rant was written a mere 3 months before the first iPhone was finally released. I actually did buy one on the first day it was available and was pleasantly surprised to find that Apple really had revolutionized cell phones. The changes that have happened in the cell industry since then have been amazing and delightful to watch, with genuine innovation driving hardware, software, and services to new levels. In hindsight this rant seems shortsighted in light of the changes that were right around the corner, but I like to reread it occasionally to remind myself just how truly bad things were right about then.

I've owned a cell phone for about 7 years now. I'm not a heavy cell user. I only really work my phone a half-dozen days of the year. And while mobile communication can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat on those days, I've never really felt the dread of disconnectedness when I was without it. But I do demand a certain level of technical functionality from my phones, especially since purchasing a PocketPC-based smartphone in December of 2005.

I found that my intuition about smartphones was correct in that they are mediocre at both being a PDA and a phone. But one thing I found essential was the abilty to send a receive email. I'm not a heavy email user, certainly not as much as some of my coworker. But I do appreciate being able to sort through and deal with work email when I have downtime, particularly on the train. I also enjoy being able to take quick photos with my phone and sending them via email to friends or to myself. So, that's my cell-profile: pretty technical user, but I don't push the limits of what the phone should be able to do.

Considering my cell phone usage, why do I feel like I am asking for miracles from the current cell market? I look at what's available and the hardware sucks, the software REALLY sucks, and the service providers seem hell-bent on shaking you down for every tiny thing that they possibly can (SMS messages are 15 cents?!? Are they out of their minds?) Phones with 200+ MHz processors feel sluggish and are painful to use. The software is abhorrent, some of the most shockingly poor examples of embedded systems around. And the features that the providers are pushing are downright insulting. Verizon is offering to sell me, at a premium, the "entertainment I crave" at "broadband quality". I'm sure there are people out there gullible enough to part with their money in order to watch TV on a 1 inch screen or purchase the same music over and over again, but I find it difficult to believe that the investment that cell phone providers are making in these capabilities isn't being paid for with higher rates for the vast majority of us who just want a first-rate communication device and service.

Here's my proposal: make the phones strong and sturdy, make the software less excruciating to use, and offer services that people actually want at competitive rates. But this will never work. They are the phone company and like the old saying goes "they don't care because they don't have to".

And who is leading the charge with the software behind these state-of-the art phones? Microsoft.

...We're doomed.

While I will most certainly be purchasing an iPhone, probably the day they come out, I still don't have high hopes that Apple will be able to work their UI magic on this technological nightmare. The problems are too deep and too entrenched for even the company weilding the mighty iBrand to be able to really change things. There's already much discussion on the net about how Cingular is running roughshod over their customers who are wanting to synchronize their plans with the iPhone release. Poor customer service... and the product isn't even out yet! No, there's no teaching those old dogs new tricks. Lest we forget that they are the offspring of Ma Bell the cell phone providers take every opportunity they can to strong arm users into plans they don't need with features that they'd rather do without.

We're doomed, I tell you.