Biting the Bullet

Dave Tutelman  -  December 10, 2019

I finally gave in and got a smartphone.

What took me so long? It was not that I was a Luddite or technophobe. We all know better. Some of my friends will guess it's because I'm cheap.  Bell Labs engineers were selected for this characteristic, and it was trained and reinforced in us. But that wasn't it either.

No, it was a matter of principle.

But I finally wore down. I have dumped my flip phone. Even that mobile phone had been a concession to necessity, and I had stayed stuck on "just a telephone" for a dozen years. But I finally have a Samsung Galaxy A20 and a cell service with data and texting.

Here is where my conscientious objector status came from, and how I gradually got dragged into the same boat as everybody else. It tracks the history of computers and telecommunications from 1980 to 2019, almost forty years.

The 1981 study

My position at Bell Labs included both technology forecasting and prototyping of advanced data communications products. In late 1980, I was asked to head a small task force to blue-sky the telecom architectures and services of the future. I had the absolute pleasure to have a team that included Bob Rosin, Gary Nutt, Warren Montgomery, Gerry Soloway, Jim Kutsch, and Fred Druseikis. (Look them up, and see the breadth of advances they were involved in. A truly inspiring group!)

The "horizon" for our study was 10-20 years, putting it in the 1990s. Keep that in mind in the following discussion. Here are some of the implications of that starting point, and that target. It will give you some appreciation of what we knew and didn't know, and how well we did with our forecast.

Feature or technology Status in
Status in
the 1990s
  • Push-button.
  • No cellular phones.
  • Mobile phones were huge and heavy. They went in your car, but you didn't carry them.
  • Mobile phones became fairly common in the '90s, but no smartphones until 2007.
Television distribution
  • Mostly local airwaves.
  • Cable TV existed, and over a quarter of US homes subscribed.
  • Solid market penetration of cable TV.
  • Additional services on cable grew, like telephone (1990), on-demand programming ('95), and wideband data (2000).
  • Satellite grew.
Computing devices
  • Mainframes and minicomputers.
  • Desktops existed in late '70s, but were not "legitimized" for business until the IBM-PC in late 1981. We're talking about machines like the Apple II, the Radio Shack TRS-80, and the Commodore 64.
  • Nothing portable.
  • Laptop computers, folding portables with physical keyboards.
  • Tablets? Didn't take off until the iPad in 2010.
User interface
  • Mostly command line.
  • Some menu and forms interfaces; still text.
  • Star Workstation (XEROX PARC) existed, but performance and price were both unacceptable.
  • You didn't sell it unless it had a Graphic User Interface (GUI)
  • Windows and MacIntosh quarreled in patent court over what IMHO was really invented by XEROX.
The Web
  • No browsers, no HTML, no HTTP. So no Web.
  • Invented in 1990. Didn't become an important force until the late '90s.
The internet. (No, it's not the same as the Web.)
  • Quite a few interconnected networks.
  • ARPANET ran similar protocols to today's internet.
  • Email
  • File transfer
  • Netnews
  • The internet had been partially federally funded; it's pretty official now.

If you're not interested in what the study forecast, you can skip this "sidebar". I think it's really interesting, but of course I would. So feel free to skip this green-shaded section.

We took our task to be to describe the communications services that would be called for, useful, marketable, in the future time frame. Then we would describe the technology that could be made available in that time frame to provide such services.

Communications services

Rather than catalog communications services as a single, long, unstructured list, we chose to define a framework to categorize services. Our team came up with a framework that placed services as points in three dimensions. There were only three dimensions that made sense to us: media, connectivity, and time frame. That is, any telecom application or service would consist of a medium, a connectivity, and a time frame. For instance, plain old telephone service (called POTS in the telecom industry) is: medium = audio (low bandwidth), connectivity = one-to-one switched, and time frame = immediate.j

In more detail:
  • Media - We saw communications involving audio, image, video, text, and data. Here is how we viewed each medium:
    • Audio - Sound. "Voice" is just a bandwidth-limited (300-3000 Hz) audio. Obviously, this could include AM news radio (slightly larger bandwidth), FM stereo (two channels of 20-15,000 Hz), and hi-fi stereo..
    • Image - A 2-dimensional picture. We said nothing about raster vs vector; that wasn't an issue we understood in 1980. Could be color or B&W. Could also be 3D if and when the technology were developed to encode and display it.
    • Video - A 2-dimensional moving picture.
    • Text - Written language, along with formatting cues. For instance, HTML would be text; it is writing plus "tags" explaining how to format/display the writing.
    • Data - Free-form information that the telecom system does not understand. Only the applications at the endpoints know how to interpret the data.
    It was assumed that the all media are digitally encoded during conveyance within the telecommunications system. Most media have several different possible encodings; for instance, audio can be encoded as 16- or 24-bit PCM, 8-bit compressed PCM, a number of MP-3 codings, etc. The system would be responsible for accepting the encoding given by the transmitter and delivering the coding the receiving end needs, which implies code conversion. We will talk later about potential media conversion, in the section on the integrated inbox. Converting from one medium to another (e.g.- text to speech) is inherently harder than converting between encodings of a single medium (MP3 to PCM).
  • Connectivity - We saw four basic configurations:
    • One-to-one fixed - A permanent connection from one point to another.
    • One-to-one switched - Any interaction was one-to-one, but each member of the interaction could change the connection to a different endpoint.
    • One-to-many- This is a broadcast configuration. There is a "head" and a bunch of "tails". Whatever the head says is received by all the tails. The tails do not talk to the head, at least not at the media level. There may be lower-level protocols that require two-way transmission.
    • Many-to-one - This is exemplified by a polled configuration. Each of the tails may have something to report to the head. Often, perhaps usually, a many-to-one and one-to-many service are part of the same application and overlaid on the same physical and logical network.
  • Time frame - We limited this to two choices, immediate and deferred.
    • For immediate communication, the service is only effective if the parties at each end are simultaneously available for a back-and-forth. Think of a telephone call. Obviously there is some delay (at least due to the speed of light, but usually to other mechanisms in the telecom system as well), but any delay is treated as a degradation of the service.
    • For deferred communication, delay is a service rather than a degradation. Think of voicemail. The point of the service is to delay the audio message until the recipient is ready to listen to it. When we think in terms of technology and implementation rather than service architecture, we are inclined to think of this as "storage" rather than "delay". But "delay" -- which is also correct -- gives a nice symmetry with immediate communication.
Let's put together a multi-dimensional table and put telecom services in as many boxes as we can. Where a service was already in use in 1980, let's just put it into a box. Remember, one of the advantages of a framework like this is it prompts you to invent new services to fill boxes. Where I do that in this exercise, these new services we imagined will be in red. There are some services common today that were unheard of in 1980 that fit well, but that we did not imagine; let me put those in green.

Audio Image Video Text Data
1 : 1 Remote conference
Remote conference
Remote conference
Tech support
text chat
Private line
1:1 Sw Telephone FAX Skype Dial-up
data sharing
1 : N Radio broadcast Visual part
of a webinar
TV broadcast Amber alert signs _
N : 1 Question feed for
multi-location talk
_ Security camera
1 : 1 Answering service
to client feed
_ Anti-expletive
TV feed
_ _ Def
1:1 Sw Voicemail Store-and-forward
_ Message
1 : N Music streaming Broadcast FAX Video streaming Email _
N : 1 Auto-queued
question feed for

multi-location talk
_ Advanced security
camera system
_ Queued batch
processing feed

One mark of a good architecture is that it can include services or applications not anticipated by the architects. I am very pleased with the way the green services (things that are commonplace today, but we never dreamed about in 1981) fit into the table.

Integrated inbox

Yes, it was only 1981. But everybody on the task force was familiar with email, each of us with at least 5 years of use. At Bell Labs, we had UNIX mail since the mid-1970s, and we used it routinely in our work -- just as almost everybody does today. So we were very familiar with the idea of a bunch of email messages as scan lines, lines that would open into the full message if we "clicked" on them.

We saw something like that as the future of deferred communications -- all deferred communications. It was our view of the future that all deferred communications services should be combined in an "integrated inbox", regardless of the media. Also regardless of the service or the route it took to get to the recipient. Here is the sort of thing we thought a scan line screen would look like[1]. (BTW, a "viewgraph" is a picture transparency for use in an overhead projector. Now we think of them as low-tech PowerPoint, but remember that PowerPoint didn't appear until 1987.)

From Subject Date Type Size
P.H. Boss Tomorrow morning's meeting 11/05/80, 6:15pm Text 82 ch
Mom Recipe for spaghetti with meat sauce 11/05/80, 8:27pm Text 495 ch
P.H. Boss Viewgraphs I want you to use today 11/06/80, 7:32am Image 8x6 in
8x6 in
8x6 in
J.P. Mogul I'll be late... 11/06/80, 8:58am Audio 24 sec
P.H. Boss Change this viewgraph 11/06/80, 9:06am Image 8x6 in
IT Support Patch for viewgraph program 11/06/80, 9:45am Data 4096 B
P.H. Boss Meeting postponed to the afternoon 11/06/80, 11:22am Text 45 ch
Darlene Kid's soccer game you were supposed to be at 11/06/80, 3:55pm Video 36 min
P.H. Boss Meeting now for tomorrow morning 11/06/80, 6:03pm Text 61 ch

Our report chose to color-code the media type, though that is certainly not necessary. The important thing is that, whatever the media type, the message clicked on would open and present itself as best it could. For a "terminal" as capable as a modern smartphone, that's a no-brainer. Unless it's data media for an app that isn't on the smartphone, it just opens. But the technology of 1980 was far more primitive.

For instance, suppose the "terminal" is a dumb telephone handset. Don't laugh. In 1980, this is what most office workers had on their desk. It can present information only as audio, and accept it from the user only as audio, or a push of one of twelve buttons, or a "switch-hook" (the switch on a telephone that senses whether the phone is "hung up"). Here is how it might handle the scan lines:
  • Everything is based on voice menus. (Oh, how I hate voice menus. But if all you have is a basic phone...)
  • The phone reads the current scan line to the user via text-to-speech.
  • The user responds with the buttons. As long as we use no more than 12 buttons -- and we are well below that limit -- it is straightforward.
    1. OPEN - Present the content behind this scan line. (See next list for what "present" means.)
    2. DELETE - Delete the message represented by this scan line.
    3. SAVE - Archive the message represented by this scan line.
    4. PREV - Go back one scan line and read that line.
    5. NEXT - Go forward one scan line and read that line.
    6. TOP - Go to the oldest scan line and read that line.
    7. BOTTOM - Go to the newest scan line and read that line.
We have buttons left to do optional things, like "page up" and "page down".
And here is how it would handle each type of media:
  • Audio - easy; just play back the message.
  • Text - use a text-to-speech converter and play back the message. Text-to-speech was certainly available at the time. Jim Kutsch, one of the team members, was blind; but he had rigged his computer terminal with a text-to-speech converter and was perfectly able to use the computer for everything -- certainly including email. The speech may have sounded like a Cylon from Battlestar Galactica, but it was easily intelligible.
  • Image - play an audible error message;  you are not using an image-capable terminal.
  • Video - play an audible error message; you are not using a video-capable terminal. Then offer an option to play back just the sound track.
  • Data - Without the right application and computer, this means nothing. Say so in audio.
Very important note! There are opportunities for media conversion here. The more conversions we can do, the better our offering will serve the needs of the users with a wide variety of terminals, from dumb telephone handsets to full desktop workstations. Here are some relevant conversions, and how technology dealt with them then and now.
  • Text to speech - It worked then. It is very good today. Just think of the voice directions from your GPS navigator.
  • Speech to text - Not good at all in 1980; experimental and not ready for prime time. It is still evolving in 2019; my Android phone has not made a mistake in two weeks of "Hey, Google". It may not be perfect, but it is good enough to be very useful.
  • Text to image - Easy! In fact, easy in 1980. Turning pixels on a terminal raster into text is exactly what terminals did even then.
  • Image of text to text - Assuming the image is a picture of text, this is the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) problem. There were almost manageable solutions in 1980, if you were satisfied with precise and stylized fonts. OCR is really quite good today with typed or printed images. Might even be good with handwriting; I haven't tried that lately.
  • General image to anything else - Ummm, no. We brainstormed a bunch of wild-eyed possibilities, but none seemed practical. Even if it were possible, the alternative media "description" of the image was really not useful to the recipient.
  • Video to anything else - Same as previous bullet item.
  • Data to anything else - Not even interesting to talk about. You need the app that understands the data. Once you feed the data to that app, the data has reached its real recipient. The human user is not the real recipient; he/she is at best the client of the app.
It is unfortunate (at least I think so) that organizing information around properties other than media type still hasn't caught on. Today we are capable of doing it, but the most popular computing and communications environments don't.[2]

Technology - dog food

A prime directive for software developers is, "Eat your own dog food." That means use your own software in your day-to-day business if possible, while you are developing it. That way, you will understand what your customers will experience when the software is done. It is a great way to know what the software does badly or not at all. That's not the same thing as bugs -- though eating your own dog food will catch bugs that formal testing might not. But, at least as important, you will get a chance to change the functionality and the user interface to something better, before it becomes a product and therefore hard to change.

We weren't doing a development, so we didn't have "dog food to eat". But Bell Labs had a lot of prototype services that might be offered in the future. We decided that we would use any of them that might make the task force more effective or efficient. To understand what this meant, you need to know that the task force included members from a bunch of Bell Labs locations: three or four in New Jersey, plus Denver, Chicago, and Indianapolis. Except for members of my own group, each task force member had a "real" job in his own department, so time spent traveling to task force meetings would be a problem. Anything we could do to substitute hours using advanced telecommunications for days traveling would help them -- and get of more of their useful time.

So we got the collaboration of the applied research groups prototyping advanced services that could help us arrive at meetings of the minds without necessarily the bodies. These included:
  • Arrayed microphones and ceiling speakers that allowed natural-sounding voice communications between people in multiple conference rooms, without having to pay attention to the mike while speaking. The mikes were just there, where they needed to be.
  • FAX machines for sharing documents, both during meetings and preparing for meetings.
  • An "electronic blackboard". This was a wonderful invention that never became a real product or service. It was a whiteboard with a touch-screen capability. If you wrote on it with a marker, it not only took the marker, but transmitted the exact motion of the stroke to several other such assemblies in other locations. Same for the eraser. In addition to the whiteboard, each room was equipped with a large TV monitor. On the monitor, we could see the combination of everything everybody had written to each of the boards. They were not separate, but superimposed as if the boundary of the TV screen was the same as the boundaries of each whiteboard. This was not done by superimposing a photographic image, but rather keeping track of all the strokes detected by the touch-screen whiteboard. So we could "do invention" with diagrams that each of the locations was contributing to. The combination of everybody's work was on the final picture shown on the monitor.
  • A slow-scan TV. Full-motion TV required more bandwidth than we could afford. (The team responsible for Picturephone Meeting Service discovered that their potential customers couldn't afford it either, so that development was dropped.) The slow-scan TV refreshed the image every 5 seconds or so. Turned out slow-scan TV was not very useful for teleconferencing.
  • Email! Everybody on the task force was an experienced user of email at that point. So we used it to share ideas, schedule meetings, report progress, etc. I don't remember email being very good for attachment of documents, so that remained a job for FAX. Remember, we didn't have desktop computers, just text terminals connected to networked minicomputers. So "open this attachment" was not part of the email interface. That is why our user interface had messages of different media, rather than today's paradigm where media other than text is an attachment.
This turned out to be amazingly effective. Most members did not attend most meetings physically, though they were there in presence. We had as many as 5 rooms in different cities collaborating at any given meeting. And it is worth noting that I never even met two of the key task force members face-to-face. (Well, not during the duration of the study, anyway. I met Warren Montgomery at a golf event almost 20 years later. But I never met him during our work.)

Technology for the architecture

In the blue "sidebar", I have been talking about the architecture of the telecom services of the future. Now let's talk about the technology. (Remember, the "future" in 1981 was the 1990s. It wound up taking quite a few years into the 2000s to get to what we envisioned, but today it is passť. We're there now and well beyond it.)

We envisioned a middle-term future (1990s) where a portable computer was feasible that would have the following characteristics:
  • Graphic display at the pixel level. (It could make letters and numbers from the pixels.)
  • The display would be about the size of a sheet of paper, 8.5" by 11", so it could display a whole page. That is the portable computer. The monitor for a desktop computer might be twice the size, and display two pages simultaneously.
  • The display is a touch screen. Implications:
    • Ability to push buttons if presented, and even more complex gestures like swipes and drags.
    • A dynamic keyboard can be presented on the screen when needed.
  • Microphone and earphone jack, and possibly a speaker. Can function as a telephone and more.
  • Short-range wireless capability. We envisioned infra-red rather than what we actually have today: radio WiFi. But the capabilities were pretty similar. As long as you were within tens of meters of a "hot spot", you could communicate at very high bit rates.
  • Wire interfaces including that for a telephone cord. At the very least, it could function as a telephone or, assuming a modem is built-in, a simple text terminal.
This does not sound so different from an oversize tablet in today's technology. In all honesty, we did not anticipate today's cellular mobile phones, for several reasons.
  • We can be forgiven for going with a large size rather than today's pocket size. In the first place, our target was the '90s, and that degree of miniaturization was beyond early '90s technology. Also, we thought that a screen that size would be neither appealing nor useful. The votes are in today, and we were wrong. But I'd still rather have a page-size screen and a keyboard appropriate for touch-typing for most of what I do on a computer; my smartphone today is only for when I am on the go. I am composing this article on a desktop with full keyboard and big monitor, and I would never consider doing it on a smartphone.
  • We certainly knew that cellular technology was being worked on. The cellular mobile architecture was invented at Bell Labs, and I regularly took coffee break with the head of the Mobile Systems Studies department. But we didn't believe the hardware would be small nor light enough for our concept of the 1990s terminal. We were right for 1990, but by 1999 the equipment had gotten much smaller.
With this model, we can carry our "business phone" (a multi-media terminal/tablet) in our briefcase. Ideally, instead of our briefcase. We should be able to "carry" all the papers we would have in the brief case as electronic documents, either in the terminal or archived in a place the terminal can access.

If we were in the office, or in any commercial building, we have full wideband capability. Just as all commercial space today has WiFi, we assumed that all commercial space would have our short-range capability.

We did not expect the home to have the same telecom infrastructure as businesses. Much less likely to have a wireless hot spot, and even less likely to have wideband digital access to the telecom network. That reduces the performance, but not necessarily the functionality. By plugging the terminal into an ordinary telephone line, you can have voice communication and, through the built-in modem, digital communications as well. So non-voice content can still transfer digitally encoded, just slowly.

Part of our study involved an exploration of the "name space" -- that is, the way a telecommunications endpoint is named. For instance, in the telephone system, we are very familiar with a namespace of telephone numbers. Every instrument has a unique number by which it can be distinguished. One of the advances of cellular service was that the number is not only distinguished, but tracked as it "roams". To maximize the value of the services, you should be reachable wherever you are, at least if your instrument was connected to the network. Between roaming technology and a database mapping telephone numbers to people -- and even other namespaces, like email addresses, to people -- it would be possible to locate all the telecommunications devices belonging to you, and alert you on all of them.

Summing up what we envisioned for the future, you can be reached for any kind of communications at your workplace, any workplace in general, and (perhaps with some loss of performance) at home. In fact, we could reasonably expect any substantial public or business site to be set up so you could be reached: an office building where you were a visitor, a mall, a restaurant, a sports stadium, a gym, etc. We did not consider en route (mobile) access for the reasons presented. But except while on the road, you could reach or be reached for any purpose and by any media content.

This is good. Right?

The "aha" moment

I think it was Bob Rosin who uttered the phrase that described this ubiquitous situation most dramatically. "I am my phone!" If my business telecom terminal is always with me, then I am always accessible for business purposes.

That may sound dismayingly normal today. Let me assure you it was not normal in 1980. It was scary. In 1980 I could compartmentalize my work time and my personal time. Since most people had to be addressed differently in your different roles (e.g., home phone number vs office phone number), your boss, co-workers, and customers couldn't reach you at all times, and they didn't expect to. A telecom architecture and technology like we envisioned would end all that. We foresaw that the ability to reach you at any time would produce an expectation that it was OK to reach you at any time.

That very day, the day I heard and understood "I am my phone," I promised myself that I would resist letting it happen to me. That, not technophobia, was the reason I resisted getting a smartphone and "becoming my phone". It has been a matter of principle for me, dating back to 1981.

A slippery slope

Bob Rosin's observation certainly appears to be true today. We are our phones! I set out to resist, and held out longer than most people I know. But adopting technology is a decidedly slippery slope. The aspects of ability ("Look what I can do with the new tech!") and convenience ("...And look how easily I can do it!") tends to wear away at one's resolve.

Here is my still continuing slide down the slippery slope. I have not reached the bottom. I am not my phone -- yet. I have reached the point where I have a smartphone and the services needed to become my phone. I haven't used the sort of stuff that is all so addictive; I just use the stuff I feel can enhance my effective use of technology. How long can I hold out? I talk about this below, after I recount how I got where I am today.

Cell phone service

In the 1990s, of course, cell phones became sufficiently small that they could be carried around in a pocket. The phones weren't cheap, but their price was hardly prohibitive. They weren't yet smartphones; they were just telephones. But it was clear that, if a cell phone became commonplace enough, then there was no need to resolve the namespace issue with multiple phone numbers. You carried one phone number around, and you were "always on". The future wasn't quite the same technically as the one we foresaw, but the personal problem was the same or even greater. Now you "were your phone" even en route. Walking. Riding. Plus all the places we had envisioned.

Of course, I didn't get a cell phone. I didn't need one for what I wanted to do, and I didn't want one because of what my job might want me to do. I got a small glimpse of this in 1999, a few years before I retired. My immediate supervisor had a cell phone, and he abused the fact. Even though few of us in his group had one, he found a way to bully us with his. For instance, I liked to get to the office early because it gave me an hour or so of peace and quiet to do stuff before the environment spun out of my control. My boss John knew that about me, but he was a micromanager by nature. So he decided to get some extra "quality time" with me while he was driving to work. He would call me during my quiet, productive time and occupy a good half-hour of it getting a daily status report. When he went on a three-week vacation in Japan, he got an international calling plan for his cell phone, and did it to me, and everyone else in his group, from halfway around the world. (Yes, it impacted his vacation as well -- but that counts as fun for a micromanaging workaholic.)

I got to late 2007 without a cell phone. That was less than a year after Apple announced the iPhone. IMHO, that was the first real smartphone, RIM's Blackberry notwithstanding. (The Blackberry was missing a bunch of things we expect of a smartphone, though it did combine the phone with a number of non-phone features, like email and calendar.) Then my wife had surgery, scheduled but fairly serious. While she was recovering, I could not leave her alone for more than 1-2 hours. I could do local errands, like shopping. But I could not play golf (which was important to me), go out to lunch with friends, nor other out-of-house recreation. So, in October of 2007, I broke down and got a cell phone to lengthen my leash.

No, it wasn't a smart phone. My criteria were long battery life and good telephone reception and transmission; smart was never a consideration. A little shopping told me my requirements were well met by an LG flip phone, which was available free as part of a low cost senior calling plan from Verizon. Perfect for me! Good telephone call quality (both the phone and the network), enough phone time for the essentials (30 minutes per month didn't leave time to make a life on the phone -- and I didn't want one), and no data service and high charges for texting (I wanted to avoid both data and texting).

This was fine for the purpose I wanted: allowing Honey to contact me in case of emergency. I found it had other advantages:
  • I could call Honey from the store with questions about shopping, and she could call me if she forgot to put something on the list. Sounds like a little thing, but almost all our monthly minutes were used that way.
  • I had put off getting a digital "triple play" package for our home; triple play is cable TV, phone service, and internet access in one bundle from the cable company. I resisted because the triple-play equipment was powered from house electric power. A power outage would leave me unable to call the power company to report the outage, thereby extending my time without power. With an old-technology land line, I could use an old-technology phone to make a call because, unlike the cordless phones I normally used, the old phones were powered through the land line itself. I kept an old Princess phone in the drawer of the end table where my wireless base station was, so I could make calls when the power went out -- even if only to the power company. Yes, really! Remember, I'm an engineer in the telecom industry; I really did think through strategies like this.
    Anyway, now that I had a cell phone, I had another way to contact the power company if the house went dark. So I immediately ordered a triple-play service. The cost savings almost paid for the cheap cell plan, and my TV and internet service both improved.

Android pocket computer

My little flip phone did it for me very nicely for years. In 2014, however, I had a decision to make. I found myself in need of a smartphone for two reasons having nothing to do with cell phone services.
  1. I had gotten involved in a golf technology project that needed a smartphone or tablet for the user interface. It was a golf swing analyzer consisting of a set of 6DOF accelerometers and gyros that attach to the golf club. These sensors communicate their readings to the phone via Bluetooth, and the phone is able to calculate the details of exactly where the club is during the swing. (Our project did not succeed, but the technology itself did; here is one of several examples on the market today.)
  2. The United States Golf Association has legalized the use of rangefinders in golf, to measure how far you are from the hole. In addition to [expensive] dedicated golf rangefinders, there were cheap and even free cell phone apps that used the GPS in the phone to do the job.
My decision was -- wait for it -- I would get a smartphone but not put phone service on it! In essence, I was buying a pocket-size Android computer, not a phone. I found a fairly capable phone (LG again, by sheer coincidence) at Best Buy for $40. Why so cheap? Because it was locked into a Sprint cell service. Not contractually, but technically. I didn't have to buy Sprint cell service, but I couldn't put any other service on this phone. And at this price, it wasn't worth trying to "jailbreak" it.

Here it is in the shockproof case and scratchproof screen shield I got for it. Remember, its purposes were to be on the golf course with me, so the battle armor was important.

Turns out it did the job for me. I also found other things it could do, like take halfway-decent pictures on the golf course, and tell me how far I went on my Saturday morning walks. But best of all, it allowed me to remain true to my principles. I was not my phone! I had no cell service on the phone that could have done texting and data. Phone calling was still on my flip phone. You know, the one with 30 minutes a month of talk and no data.

The full monty

It's now 2019. I've had my semi-smart phone (without phone service) for 5 years. Several things are happening that require some sort of action:
  1. My semi-smart phone's GPS went dead. You don't pay for repair for a five-year-old phone that sold new for $40. So my most important reason for having that device, the golf rangefinder, no longer worked.
  2. TomTom stopped supporting my old (2009? 2010?) GPS navigation system. They did it suddenly and without notice. I could no longer connect the device to their web program, not even to do stuff that required no new capability. They just shut off the web site from talking to that model any more. So my GPS navigator no longer did everything I wanted.
  3. I was pushing the 30 minutes a month talking allowed by my cheap senior plan. Honey was having health problems again, and had a full-time caregiver. I was in cell phone contact with Andrea the caregiver far more than I ever was with Honey. (Andrea is her phone -- with a vengeance!)
Those problems could be solved by a smartphone with properly functioning GPS and a mobile data service. (The data service would be needed for real-time download of maps from Google: essential for navigation and a nice added touch for golf rangefinding.) So I was shopping for (a) a new smartphone and (b) a real cell service, complete with mobile data.

I found the cell service first.
  • I wrote off Verizon offhand; their service cost more than I was willing to pay.
  • I started by looking at Altice's new phone service. It was very inexpensive when bundled with their triple play. (Verizon's FiOS triple play had also been going up in price; it was now more than double what it was when we became their customer, and I was shopping for triple play, too.) So I started reading reviews. Altice is not ready for prime time, neither their internet service nor their new cell service. I was astounded at the number of negative reviews. Back to the search.
  • A little online research shows the most affordable plan to be MetroPCS (now called "Metro by T-Mobile"; I'll just call it "Metro" here). A plan with unlimited calling and texting, and 10GB per month data, was only twice what my senior plan cost. But are they any good? The reviews were quite good. Maybe not as good as Verizon, but the difference in coverage was in areas where I no longer travel. (Coverage had been a big deciding point in 2007, when I first got cellular service. I traveled a lot more then.) The cherry on the sundae: Andrea has Metro service, and has no complaints at all. Realize that Andrea lives on her phone. Being with us full-time, and being from Jamaica, her friends and family are only available via her smartphone. So she is on her phone any time she is not caring for Honey, and sometimes even then. And Metro works fine for her. Let's do it!
There is a Metro store ten minutes from the house. It is Black Friday. What a happy coincidence! With Black Friday coming up, I had already done some online shopping for smartphones. At the top of my list was the Motorola G7 Power. When I got to the Metro store, I was the only customer there (on Black Friday?), and I had store manager Joe's full attention. Between its being Black Friday and my switching service from Verizon, I had a very attractive choice of free phones to choose from. At the top of the list were the Moto G7 Power (my first choice from the little shopping I had already done) and the Samsung Galaxy A20 (which had been enough more expensive that I didn't bother to look closely). I was able to lock in the deal if I came back tomorrow and chose the phone then, so I researched it overnight. It was a hard choice; both were very good and both had things I didn't like.

I eventually decided on the Samsung, and I am enjoying it so far. It solves the problems I listed above, and is fast and capable. It still has a too-small display, at least for my taste; in fairness, it is a rather big display for a phone. And I'm still getting used to a tiny touch-screen keyboard. But it is doing the job nicely. Even the speech recognition is very good if I want to look something up.


Having bitten the bullet and gotten the hardware, the telecom services, and much of the software, will I be able to avoid becoming my phone? I'm trying. We'll see if I can do it. So far, I'm succeeding. It is, for the most part, a very capable phone, a decent camera (not as good as my Nikon, but convenient to have with me anytime I am out), a better golf rangefinder than the last one, and a really good automotive navigator, and... That's it!

Yes, I have Chrome on it. Yes, I have Facebook on it. But I am not close to being a zombie with head buried in the small screen. Today I took the car in for service, which took an hour and a half including waiting. I brought the phone and a book. I spent most of the time reading the book. Facebook is almost painful with a tiny screen and a not-very-capable keyboard. I haven't put email on the A20, and I'm in no hurry to do so.[3]

A real computer, with full-size tactile-feedback keyboard and 22" monitor, is so much more satisfying. I'm a long way from being seduced into using the phone for what I normally do on a computer. Maybe I can avoid becoming my phone, even with the phone that has sucked in so many.


  1. Yes, I know the scan line display in the image is not what you would see today. We've learned a lot in forty years by living with systems like this. Today, all the messages would be text; media of any other kind would be attachments; it works much better that way. In 1980, email was pretty much a text service. The email protocols did support attachments, but our experience did not include attachments in other media. So we envisioned it that way without living with it.
  2. Today's most popular technology still seems to organize content not by subject matter nor time line, but by media type or origin. Here are two of the more popular digital platforms around, and the way those platforms organize information.
    • Windows, starting at least as far back as Windows 95, has made an assumption (almost a decree) about the "right" way to organize information. In so doing they have all but decreed that you must do so if you use Windows. The system is installed with four top-level folders in each user's file space, those folders having special status: Documents, Music, Pictures, and Videos. All user-generated or user-saved information "belongs" in one of those four folders. That is pure separation by media at the top level of the information hierarchy. When I first encountered Windows 95 (in 1993, several years earlier than the general public), my reaction was, "That's ridiculous!" I had ample reason to believe it is exactly the wrong way to do it. (a) I was a UNIX user for several decades at that point, so I knew about better ways. (b) My experience with the task force told me that media type is something we should be able to gloss over, almost hide, in favor of the subject matter. For instance, I have a lot of information on my computer about golf. Here are what I want and what I don't want in organizing my files. (a) I was a UNIX user for several decades at that point, so I knew about better ways. (b) My experience with the task force told me that media type is something we should be able to gloss over, almost hide, in favor of the subject matter. For instance, I have a lot of information on my computer about golf. Here are what I want and what I don't want in organizing my files.
      What I want
                  (documents, pictures, and videos
                   organized by logic, not by media)
                  (documents, pictures, and videos
                   organized by logic, not by media)
                  (documents, pictures, and videos
                   organized by logic, not by media)
          (Other, non-golf stuff)
      What I don't want
              (Other, non-golf stuff)
              (Other, non-golf stuff)
              (Other, non-golf stuff)
      Windows encourages the second, "don't want" organization, almost to the point it compels it. I use my "want" organization in all my Windows computers, but I had to customize the backup procedure considerably. Microsoft expects all the data you create and store to be in their four media-oriented folders.

      Let's look at a concrete example. I am part of a company that makes a golf training aid called the "Pro-Head Trainer". In my "Golf" section, I have the source files for the instruction manual for the Pro-Head Trainer. We have two versions of the manual, a conventional text-with-pictures booklet and an instruction video. In order to see all the files -- documents, pictures, and videos -- I can go to one folder at the end of the tree:
           Golf/ TrainingAids/ Pro-Head/ Model-2/ Manual/
      That's five levels of branching, and every one is logically necessary. Once I get there, I can browse and use any of the files for the manual, in any of the media. If I had accepted the Windows paradigm for saving information, I'd have that entire five-level subtree replicated under Documents, Pictures, and Videos. I'd have to move from one tree to another to see all the files involved. Insanity!
    • Android cell phones' folder structure is a lot more hidden from the user than Windows. It is all but impossible to do what I do with Windows, and change that structure from what you are given. The folder structure is not organized by subject matter, as I want on my computer. The top level of the hierarchy isn't even about media explicitly; it is about what kind of process or service put the information there. You have top level folders for texts (not text documents, as Windows would do it, but things stored by the texting service), for downloads, for camera pictures and videos, etc. The only way to get at the information is with apps that know where it is; you can't browse the folders at all; you invoke an app that will display PDFs, or display videos, or... You get the idea. Turns out you can browse files, but you have to download a third party app, a "File Manager", whose information realm is files and folders. And, unlike other operating systems, trying to open a file will not play the video or display the photo. Yeccchhh!
  3. Texting is a strange service. Technically, it is almost indistinguishable from email. Both are deferred 1:N services with the medium being text. The only real technical difference is the namespace: you address email with an internet location and texts with a phone number. The real distinction turns out not to be technical, but rather how the services are used. In particular, it usually boils down to the expectations of the user:
    • Email is a contemplative service. A "conversation" in email does not promote an impatient reaction in the sender waiting for a response. The recipient is free to think about it, take some care composing the answer, and send the answer in due time.
    • Texting, on the other hand, while implemented as deferred communications, is used by most cell phone owners as immediate communications -- a text "chat" service. I suspect it may have acquired that expectation in an antisocial way. It is a way that people can have a clandestine "phone call". That is, they can converse silently and therefore secretly, at a meeting or during a conversation, without audibly dissing the people in their physical presence. That is hardly the only way it is used, but it is definitely used that way. And, unlike email, it is hardly ever used in a contemplative fashion. No well-thought-out responses here. The tiny screen and uncomfortable keyboard do not lend themselves to long, coherent messages -- neither creating them nor reading them.

Last modified  --  Apr 13, 2020