Sunday, April 13, 2008

There's a Phone in my Phone?

Recently, I watched an interesting, passionate speech by science-fiction author Bruce Sterling, on the subject of user interface design as it relates to networked devices. One point he made had to do with the convergence of devices. He used the cell phone as an example, which has (in his words) “replaced” so many other common discrete devices, such as the digital camera and the calculator.

I disagree with him on this point, because while it’s true that those functions do exist in a cell phone, they have been added more as sales bling than as actual replacement devices. It’s like the convenience store and the supermarket. You only use the convenience store when circumstances make it worthwhile to forgo the better selection and better price available at the supermarket. The calculator is clumsy to use, the camera doesn’t produce a high-quality image, but sometimes, the convenience of immediacy outweighs the troublesome search for a more competent dedicated device.

It’s possible that in a few years, the user interface issues of current cell phones will have evolved to the point where the calculator will be easier to use, and perhaps the quality of the embedded camera will improve to the point where it will compete with dedicated cameras.

    NOTE: I admit they may have reached this point already in some high-end products, but I don’t really have a need for a high-end product.
While thinking about all of the devices now contained in my cell phone, I realized that the one primary function of the cell phone (the telephone) ranks pretty low on my list of most-used functions. It’s a wonderful convenience, to be sure. But it’s not a convenience I use that often, and not in the manner I observe others using it.

I use the telephone function of my cell phone for brief factual information exchanges. A typical call from me from the grocery store: “Honey, did you want the regular or the barbecue flavored potato chips?” She says “Regular,” I say “OK,” and that’s it. Call over. 90% of my calls are under 2 minutes, and 90% of those calls are under 1 minute.

My wife uses her phone very differently than I do. She uses it to maintain relationships or vent emotions. Her calls are lengthy, and very little factual information is exchanged. She doesn’t want to talk about what’s going on, she wants to talk about how she feels about what’s going on. As an example, she’ll call me during a busy time at work to tell me that she’s in a hurry to get somewhere and the traffic is all backed up, which is going to make her late. She’s angry and frustrated and vents her feelings in long tirades. I find this kind of thing very frustrating, because men like to fix things, and I can’t do anything about the traffic. But of course, she doesn’t want me to fix it; she just wants to talk to a sympathetic ear about it. My wife ranks the telephone feature of her cell phone very high on her list of available features.

Number one on my cell phone usage list is the calendar function. As I age, I find my memory less and less reliable. But the cell phone calendar is 100% reliable. I can enter a doctor’s appointment, a birthday reminder, my passport renewal date, anything. The cell phone calendar is better than a “real” calendar, because you have to remember to look at a real calendar. The cell phone calendar will politely remind me as the marked date approaches. It’s a form of artificial memory, and it’s a lot better than none at all.

Ranking very high on my cell phone usage list is text messaging. I like text messages because I can drop off and receive bits of factual information very easily, privately, and without the need to engage in time-consuming social conversation. For example, I’ll get a text message from someone saying “Lunch?” And I’ll respond: “When & where?” A minute or two later, the answer will appear: “DP 12:30.” At this point, the conversation is over, the decision has been made, and I can maintain the relationship face-to-face at the restaurant. I can conduct parts of this “conversation” whether I’m in the bathroom, in a meeting, in a theater, in a noisy bar, wherever. It’s not a total substitute for a voice conversation, but it works in so many situations where a voice conversation would be inappropriate, that it easily bubbles up to a very high position on my list.

Next on my list of favorite functions is the camera. I know, I know – I just declared that the phone camera was not a substitute for a “real” camera, and it’s not. But the convenience of having a camera, even a poor one, in my pocket all the time is an undeniable convenience, and has enabled me to post many pictures to this blog that I would have missed otherwise.

Finally, I have to say that I love the game function on my cell phone. I usually put one game in the phone and play it to death. I use it during those periods of time when my brain would otherwise be sitting in my head like a wet loaf of bread, doing nothing. Sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, for example. Sitting in the airport. Sitting in a traffic jam. Of course, I could use my cell phone to call my wife and tell her how upset I am about the traffic jam, but somehow, that seems wrong to me.


fourstar said...

Add to the "convenience of immediacy" the "lack of giant pockets" :)

Right with you on the wife/traffic jam thing though...

Robert McIntosh said...

of course, playing a game, taking a photo or even talking on your phone in a traffic jam are illegal in this country (UK) so therefore not much use!

good points about convergence and convenience.

one thing that may be worth exploring is people's need to be constantly plugged into a social environment these days

the phone alone helps, but texting, photos, browsing the web and music are all part of that too (you missed the integration of MP3 players in phones)

I don't know what it is like with you, but these days I challenge anyone in London to spot an individual person walking down a street NOT; on the phone, texting, listening to an iPod/MP3 player

when do people stop to think? even you mention times "when my brain would otherwise be sitting in my head like a wet loaf of bread, doing nothing". That used to be called time for thinking & contemplation. I have my most creative ideas when stuck on a bus or train and am not distracted by email, phone, chores,... and using the phone or listening to music only interfere with that.

don't get me wrong, I like the ability to access things I need, but sometimes we need to go offline, if only for a few minutes.

Tim said...

Well, I didn't exactly MISS the MP3 aspect of the telephone, I just didn't discuss it. My phone has an MP3 player. It's just not a feature I use that often. Recently, I used it on a plane ride to listen to an audiobook, but that's an uncommon circumstance.

It's true that people seem to be so connected to their social networking systems that they're disconnected from their cognotive systems. But I've found that in my life, my best "reflective periods" occur when I'm in the shower. Thank God there's no device currently available that ... wait a minute - I sense a business opportunity here!

Robert McIntosh said...


just make sure you turn the camera off

fourstar said...

"...make sure you turn the camera off"

I think that was the business opportunity :)

burton said...

great comments. i actually think best to music. this started well before the age mp3 convenience. when i am pressed for time and have a deadline to meet for an article, i put on the headphones and let my fingers do the dancing.

burton said...

i also agree completely with your take on telephone conversations and texting. i am guilty of using the cell phone more than you, but the text option is something that is priceless to me. no unnecessary conversation or phone tag.