Wednesday, October 30th 2013
If anyone said I had an obsessive relationship with my mobile phone, I would vigorously deny it, of course, though I can understand how a casual observer might think that! I have made no secret of the fact that my phones are important to me. They play a useful – in fact, I would say essential – role in my life.
I won’t bore you, as a true obsessive would, with an account of all the mobiles I have owned and how each has outshone the preceding one as the technology developed. I will, though, mention the Nokia 9300 Communicator which was one of my favourites and, in its day, probably the best phone going, at least for my kind of usage. Its importance lies both in its own excellence and in the fact that it fixed in my mind the model of the perfect mobile phone. I wrote the drafts of many of my blog posts on it and kept the household accounts with its spreadsheet software. It had two screens, a normal enough phone screen and a wide screen that was good for surfing the Web though its Web surfing abilities were slow by today’s standards. It could also do email, the first of my phones to have that capability.
Much as we both loved our 9300s, the tecnology moved on apace and we came to feel the need to upgrade. Given the characteristics of the 9300, which was classed as a business phone, its natural successor was pretty obvious. I had already flirted with Blackberry by buying an old model secondhand from Amazon. Though I never managed to get online with it, it persuaded me that Blackberry was the make we should move to.
Tigger, being somewhat more adventurous than I when it comes to new technology, had a couple of Blackberry phones while I stuck to my Curve 8900. I could at last do proper email on my phone and there was a wonderful instant messenger that allowed Tigger and me to remain in contact even when apart. Blackberry’s two selling points are its excellent email and its built-in physical keyboard. Tiny as the latter is, it is well designed and no on-screen keyboard can match it for efficiency and ease of use.
Once more, however, technology moved on and our phones gradually came to seem inadequate. We decided to stay with Blackberry and chose the 9900 model.
It was a great disappointment. To be frank, its operating system is a mess. The touch screen (mercifully absent from the 8900) is far too sensitive (even when the sensitivity is turned down as low as it will go) so that you are always clicking on links when you don’t mean to. You can’t avoid the touch screen because some functions require it. Despite my attachment to Blackberry, I hate the thing. Even though I have had it for 8 months, I have not made my peace with it.
There is also another problem with Blackberry. The company, like Nokia before it, seems to have lost its way. Profitability has plummeted and none of its new products, such as the Playbook tablet, have taken off. The much vaunted OS 10 and the two phones designed for it have failed to stir the hoped-for level of interest. It is beginning to look as though Blackberry, after a brilliant career, is on the way out.
We hear that Blackberry is up for sale and if a sale goes ahead, it’s hard to predict what changes may occur. Does this matter to users? Even if the company goes to the wall, surely the existing phones will go on working until they wear out and you replace them as you would have done anyway? That would be true of practically any brand of mobile except Blackberry. The reason why it is not true of Blackberry is because of its main virtue, the email system which is the envy of the rest of the industry.
If you have an Android phone, say, and you use it for email, you will have an app on your phone that is called an email client. This will connect with the servers of whatever company or companies provide your email services and will fetch the emails from them and send your own emails via the same servers. Your phone will continue working as long as the email providers remain in business.
With Blackberry, on the other hand, you do not connect with your email providers direct. Your phone communicates only with Blackberry’s own servers. These fetch your emails from your providers and “push” them to you. This means that you receive your emails much more quickly than you would if your email client had to poll the servers from time to time1.
It is this “push email” that is the jewel in Blackberry’s crown but it is also a vulnerability as far as users are concerned. Back in 2011, Blackberry’s servers in Slough went down twice, and while they were out of action, Blackberry users could not recieve or send emails, use Blackberry Messenger or surf the Web. You can imagine the outrage. More importantly, however, the conclusion is obvious: if Blackberry is sold, there are no guarantees that the services that drew people to the brand will survive. Our “smart” phones could become “dumb”.
If I liked my phone, I would go on using it while carefully watching the state of play, ready to jump ship if that became necessary. But I do not like it. It continually frustrates and annoys me. I have been looking around, trying to find another make and model that will meet my needs and be more pleasant to use. The Blackberry company’s shaky state has added a extra impetus to this search.
Tigger and I have decided that the time to change is now. But to what? It makes sense for us to have the same phones, or at least closely similar models, in order to maintain the efficient and real-time communications that are important to us.
Recently, we each acquired an Apple iPod Touch. I had always been an Apple sceptic but I have to admit that I was impressed with the quality of the iPod and the smoothness of its functioning. If you have an iPod, you know what it is like but if you do not, it is hard to describe. The iPod is like a miniature tablet PC, perhaps. Originally designed as a personal music player, it has now gone far beyond that. Like Android, Apple has an apps market but, unlike Android where anyone – including malicious people – can upload apps, Apple supervises its apps store and this guarantees that the apps will be of good quality and free from viruses and other nasties.
On my iPod, I have books to read; I have maps and a virtual satnav; with WiFi I can surf the Web, send and receive email, send instant messages, access Facebook and Twitter, see weather forecasts and read news bulletins from the BBC and Le Figaro. I can do some of these on my Blackberry too but not nearly so easily or pleasantly.
Everyone has heard of the iPhone and a succinct definition of the iPod might be that it is an iPhone that cannot make and receive phone calls. Now that I’ve said that, you can probably see where this is going. We use our iPods all the time for many things, frustrated only when we cannot get a WiFi connection. Wouldn’t it be nice, we often think, if our iPods could be “on” all the time? Well, they could be or, rather, we could have a similar device that is always on. To achieve this, all we would have to do is swap the iPods for iPhones. This is what we are in the process of doing. We have opted, as we usually do, not for the latest model but for the previous generation, the iPhone 4S rather than the iPhone 5S, partly because of the saving in cost.
We have bought our phones from Apple who sells them unlocked, meaning that we can use them with any network. Initially, we intend to use them with Orange, on the same pay-as-you-go tariffs we have on our Blackberry phones.
There are disadvantages to this solution as well as advantages. Firstly, while each iPhone has its own “native” email account which works with push, any other accounts you add cannot be pushed. Mail is fetched at intervals or manually. Wasn’t this an insurmountable obstacle for an email fan like me? It almost was, but I have found a modus vivendi which I think will satisfy me. I will explain how this works when I post a narrative of how we get on with our new phones.
Secondly, the iPhone has an on-screen keyboard and I find this hard to use. It is too small for an adult male’s fingers or thumbs. This was nearly enough to disqualify the iPhone but I am finding ways around the problem. This too is something that I shall describe later.
The phones are supposed to arrive tomorrow and then the real story will begin. I will recount it in due course.
One of the problems of reading reviews of popular makes of mobile such as Blackberry and iPhone is that reviewers almost always describe the new model by comparing it with the previous one. This may be of use to the owner of the old model but it is of little use to anybody else as it never answers the questions I want answering or gives a complete picture of the device in use. I do wish reviewers would realize this.
Perhaps if I set out my own experiences with the iPhone 4S, that will be of use to people thinking of moving to iPhone who have never had one. If you think that might be useful to you, watch this space!
1The polling interval is typically from 15 minutes upwards. The reason for this is that the shorter the polling interval, the greater the drain on the battery and short battery life is the weak point of the modern “smartphone”.