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Back to the dumbphone?

May 30, 2012

I've been using smartphones almost since they were invented, which happens to be before the word was invented. I suppose the first real one I had was a Palm Treo 750 which allowed me to replace my PDA (remember them?) and my mobile phone with a single device. It did everything I wanted at the time – rang people, maintained my diary and contact list, let me interact with Twitter and Facebook once they appeared (with programs, before "programs" became "apps"), played music, did WiFi (if you bought the aerial to stick in the side), displayed web sites badly, took photographs, worked on even the weakest signal. The battery could stand up to at least two days use without needing a recharge and you could drop the thing without doing much more than putting a scratch on it. It had a real keyboard.

My first one was stolen a few weeks after I got it so I bought one new off eBay for $500, which was many dollars less than the price being charged in shops and by telcos for the units.

When bigger screens started appearing I thought about replacing it. The obvious choice seemed to be the Palm Pre, which managed to combine a reasonably sized screen with a slide-out keyboard while still being thin enough to get your hand around. Yes, I considered a BlackBerry but at the time they seemed to be marketed as an email delivery system and screen wasn't much bigger than the one on the Treo. I had been using Palm devices since forever so I decided I would hang out until the Pre became available; reviews were universally favourable in overseas publications and I wasn't worried about build quality (I had never had any problem with a Palm device ever).

Then Palm imploded. They pulled out of the Australian market completely and shortly after were taken over and destroyed by Hewlett Packard. (Has any IT company gone from excellence to incompetence as completely and as quickly as HP has in the last few years?)

The options for me seemed to be iPhone or iPhone (Android was in its infancy, where some say it still is), but then HTC appeared with the biggest screen and the thinnest body around. As I was already set up to work with a Windows phone because of the Treo it was a plus that the HTC HD2 came with Windows Mobile, so getting it all working with my PC software should be relatively easy. (Had I got the Palm Pre I would have had the same conversion effort as if I had bought an iPhone or an Android. Inertia is a powerful force.)

I wasn't the only person who thought the same way and two days after the HTC HD2 had been released I had to try two different Telstra shops before I could get one and even then the salesman had to fiddle the type of deal to get me one at the right price. In both shops the salesmen told me that they had been hanging out for the Palm Pre and it had been mentioned by several customers.

At first I wasn't too fond of the HTC Sense user interface that HTC put over the top of Windows (they do the same thing with their Android phones) but eventually I got used to it. Battery life was disastrous, but HTC weren't alone in that. (Friends with iPhones used to ridicule us HTC owners for always carrying a spare battery. The laughter usually stopped when their phones went flat ten minutes later and we said "Why don't you just put your spare battery in?".) The camera had a lot more megapixels than the Treo but it was difficult to use with one hand; the position of the button to answer calls made it easy to drop the phone and the "slide-to-answer" feature was a bit clumsy also. All of these are what are known as "first world problems". It was and is a very good phone indeed. I found ways around the battery life problem (but I still carry an emergency charger) and the rest I just learned to live with.

The improvements over my previous phone made the change worthwhile. I soon got used to a touchscreen without a stylus, the ability to have it become a WiFi access point made travelling with a computer more pleasant, I could look at web sites without needing a magnifying glass, and it told me what the weather was so I didn't need to look out the window. All the things I did on the Treo now worked faster and there was a wider range of add-on programs, although I neither needed nor wanted more than a handful.

Fast forward a couple of years. Smartphones have improved, with excellent models from Apple, Samsung and HTC, but the real buzz is tablets. Once the dust settled in the courts Samsung had an excellent competitor for the iPad in the stores, and Asus, Toshiba, Acer and others were nipping around the edges. I looked at my Lenovo netbook that I had been carrying around (together with its charger, power cord and 3G mobile broadband dongle) and decided it was time for an update.  An adjustment of phone plans saw me with a Samsung Tab 10.1 and a phone plan with very little data provision. (The data allowance for the Samsung was twice what I had on the phone. Dropping the phone to a lower plan almost paid for the Samsung and its plan.) The Samsung Tab does everything that I used to do with the phone (except make phone calls) and does it quicker on a screen more than four times as big.

An obvious question I'm asked about ACT! all the time is how does it interact with smartphones. I can offer several solutions depending on the particular phone, with some being easier than others to integrate. Something that I had done in the past came back to me – I had used the netbook with its slow processor to demonstrate that ACT! could run on underpowered machines, so perhaps I could do something similar with a phone that's not as smart as the ones that people are carrying around. If contact and diary can be synchronised to a phone with primitive capability then it would be obviously no problem doing it to one of the latest pocket microcomputers. Now that I didn't need the HTC for anything except phone calls I could address its greatest fault (one shared with other smartphones) – it's too big to put in your pants pockets if you want to be able to sit down comfortably without breaking it. A smaller handset would be ideal.

Smartphones cost big dollars. They are complex devices with lots of computer power and memory built into them. My new phone is a Sony Ericsson Cedar. The model has been discontinued (the manufacturer's name tells you that) and so I was able to pick up a brand new one for $25. Add a USB cable (the same one used for connecting the HTC to my computer) and a free software download and the thing is synchronising contacts and diary like a bought one. The only problems are that I have to ask it to show me my appointments (the HTC put today's diary on the front screen) and I have to get used to using the abc-def phone style keyboard for text messages instead of a qwerty one, but I used a Nokia (remember them?) for a lot of years and I'm sure the skills will come back. I don't send a lot of text messages anyway. There's those first world problems again. Oh, and I have to stop tapping the screen and expecting it to do something.

Call me Ned Ludd, but my new phone rings people up and tells me when people are ringing me. It's light and it fits in my pockets really well, and the battery lasts three days at least (but I still have the emergency charger and it fits perfectly). Get it talking by Bluetooth to the hands-free unit in my car and electronic life couldn't be better.

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