Just a phone, dammit!

I’m a pretty big computer geek most of the time, and I do love gadgets. However, even I can sympathize with the consumers in this story:

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. – Nathan Bales represents a troubling trend for cellular phone carriers. The Kansas City-area countertop installer recently traded in a number of feature-laden phones for a stripped-down model. He said he didn’t like using them to surf the Internet, rarely took pictures with them and couldn’t stand scrolling through seemingly endless menus to get the functions to work.

“I want a phone that is tough and easy to use,” said Bales, 30. “I don’t want to listen to music with it. I’m not a cyber-savvy guy.”

But the wireless industry needs him to be comfortable with advanced features and actively use them. As the universe of people who want a cell phone and don’t already have one gets smaller, wireless carriers are counting on advanced services to generate the bulk of new revenue in coming years.

Consumers last year paid $8.6 billion for so-called data applications on their phones, up 86 percent from the year before, according to wireless trade group CTIA.

But they’ve also shown a growing frustration with how confusing those added features can be. A J.D. Power & Associates survey last year found consumer satisfaction with their mobile devices has declined since 2003, with some of the largest drops linked to user interface for Internet and e-mail services.

That has providers working hard to make their devices easier to use — fewer steps, brighter and less cluttered screens, different pricing strategies — so consumers will not only use data functions more often but also be encouraged to buy additional ones.

Basically, I tend to agree. Cell phones should be first and foremost phones.

All the extras that have been tacked on tend to mean little to me. I don’t text message, and never could see much utility in it. In fact, on the rare occasion that someone tries to text message me I get ticked off because it costs me money. (Because I don’t use the feature, I don’t have it in my plan.) I don’t want to watch video on my phone on a tiny little screen. I will occasionally use the Internet to check the weather, but only infrequently. I almost never use the phone to take pictures. About the only extra that I have a soft spot for are downloading all sorts of strange ringtones, but I could easily live without that.

Just give me a phone that holds a signal and doesn’t drop calls all the time, and I’m happy.

Oh, and it’s helpful if it’s cool-looking, too.


  1. #1 Roman Werpachowski
    May 29, 2006

    I don’t text message, and never could see much utility in it.

    Jeez man, get come out of the stone age! Suppose I want to give you the new phone number of our common friend. Which would you prefer: me dictating it over the phone, with you having to write it down and possibly make a mistake, or to receive a text message with the phone clearly spelled out on the screen?

    In fact, on the rare occasion that someone tries to text message me I get ticked off because it costs me money.

    Ah. You see, in Europe only the sender pays for the SMS 🙂

  2. #2 wolfwalker
    May 29, 2006

    I’m with you, Orac. A cellphone should be a reliable phone first and foremost; everything else is secondary. When I bought my current cellphone I looked for one with as few extra features as possible and didn’t even activate anything that would cost extra. Camera, Internet connection, email, music player, etc. — that junk belongs on something the size of a PDA. I don’t even like the trend toward ever-smaller-and-lighter phones; I like something whose weight I can feel in my hand. I’d rather they put in a larger battery and transceiver so the signal was more reliable.

  3. #3 Left_Wing_Fox
    May 29, 2006

    Advanced feature to me means the pocket camera on my phone. It takes pictures of my pocket. The stupid thing has an easily activated button that activates the camera, then puts the phone into a live video mode that drains the battteries instantly, while the memory card fills up with photos of pennies and lint.

    The first of the “Advanced Feature” phones that finally appeal to me came out recently. Mototrola has two, actually. They will sync with the address book and calendar in my Mac wirelessly, and I can dial in through my mac as well, by calling up the address book, rather than hunting for it on the phone at home.

    One of these two phones also has long battery life and iTunes compatability, but that model is only available on a competing network, while I have nearly 2 years left on my contract. Somehow I see the last point as a bigger problem with adoption. 😉

  4. #4 decrepitoldfool
    May 29, 2006

    A phone camera isn’t high-quality enough for the documentation I do so I carry a nice digital camera the size of a deck of cards. Another problem with phone cameras is that in many workplaces you can’t have a camera with you. If your camera and your phone are one device, that’s a problem.

  5. #5 magista
    May 29, 2006

    Guess I must be a cellphone luddite as well. I’ve had a cell phone since 1997 (first was a flipphone, because hey! communicator!), and have gone through a couple of models since, but I seldom use all the features. Our car has an even older, large body one, that we’re keeping just in case, because its transmission range is much larger.

    My current phone is another flip type, about 1/4 the size of my original (and the battery is easily only 1/10 the size and lasts much longer, a feature I do appreciate very much), but for the past 2 upgrades I haven’t even bothered setting up my voicemail. Ever since they changed the protocol for retreiving messages away from just dialing your own number and entering your passcode, I can’t bring myself to make the effort.

    My phone’s on for maybe an hour a day, when I’m in transit between home and work. Can’t be on at work, because I’m a teacher, and what kind of example would I be if I evaded our draconian cellphone policy? I want a phone I can make outgoing, possibly only emergency calls on, not one where people can track me down all the time. Do you know how many minutes I used last billing period? 23.

    About the only thing the camera’s been useful for is taking pictures of an accident I was in last month, when I needed to defend myself.

  6. #6 Deacon Barry
    May 29, 2006

    I don’t have a cellphone. I had one, but I didn’t use it. I’ve got a digital camera for taking photographs, and I’ve got this computer for the internet. So what do I need a cellphone with extras for?

  7. #7 Colst
    May 29, 2006

    I feel pretty much the same. I’ve apparently got internet access, but I’ve never actually used it (it’s not included in my plan so I’m sure it would cost a fotune). I’ve got a camera phone, and although I’ve taken pictures with it, I’ve never found them worth saving, sending, or showing to anyone. Text messaging has come in handy once or twice, but only from the other person – I have no interest in tapping out patterns with my thumbs.

    The only features I actually use are the address book, caller ID, and the calculator. The calculator frankly sucks, so I don’t even bother with it often.

  8. #8 Elf Eye
    May 29, 2006

    My cellphone is off unless I want to be able receive calls from my 17-year old daughter. Her cellphone, however, is on nearly continuously. When I insisted she turn it off for a wedding, she did so but said that she felt ‘nervous’ with it off. At her high school, which has abandoned its no-cell policy, she has it set to vibrate even though she cannot answer it if it goes off during a class. I do not find my cell to be as vital as my daughter obviously does, but I’m glad we have our mother-daughter set. It makes scheduling and rendezvousing immensely easier. It has allowed us to call for tows on several occasions when the other dominant technology, the automobile, has proven fallible. Given the nature of society, I am glad my daughter and I have phones as mobile as we are.

  9. #9 Alexander Whiteside
    May 29, 2006

    My phone cost £40, and its only special feature is a torch on the top (which is something I actually use). It doesn’t even have a colour screen, although it has Snake. If it gets stolen or breaks (although I’ve mistreated it a lot without any problems so far) I can just buy a new one. I don’t like the idea of having to insure my phone.

  10. #10 sharon
    May 29, 2006

    Yep, my phone is as basic as you can get these days – no camera, no colour screen, pay as you go (I don’t use it that much, and I don’t keep it switched on all the time). Even then it has a bunch of features I never use. I’ve had it for 2 years and will probably keep it for as long as it continues to work. Not much profit to the phone manufacturers there.

    Texting though, I don’t agree with Orac: it’s useful for sending short messages, especially if they only need a yes or no answer. (Can work out a lot cheaper (as well as quicker) than talking when you do pay as you go.) Predictive text does my head in though… can’t get used to that at all.

    A couple of friends of mine have found a great use for their phones’ cameras though: one of them has a tendency to go out to the shops and forget to take the shopping list, and she can just phone the other one at home and get them to photo it and send it to her…

  11. #11 usagi
    May 29, 2006

    I can’t say enough good things about pay as you go if you’re not a constant phone user. The initial outlay is higher since you buy the phone outright with no rebate for a service plan, but I worked up a spreadsheet when I was looking a few years ago and figured I’d need to go over 120 minutes a month to cost justify a plan, even getting the highest end phone (a little Kyocera slider). The biggest downside has been the cutsiness of the website since the phone is marketed at teens (even has the MTV logo). I picked up the low-end phone for my partner, who keeps it off and in his briefcase or knapsack (I take it out and charge it once a month or so). If he needs to reach me in an emergency, he can.

    Text I’m torn about. There are times it’s handy, but I foolishly replied to a weird message when I was on vacation and ended up with text spam. Fortunately, the provider can turn the text feature off. I haven’t really missed it.

    Ellen Goodman had a good column on this topic last week, “The complexification of the toothbrush.”

  12. #12 David Harmon
    May 29, 2006

    I’m mostly with the “Luddites” on this one, on the basis of Scotty’s Rule: “The more complicated the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the works”. Also, some of the “new features” are security hazards in their own right!

  13. #13 epador
    May 29, 2006

    I used pay as you go in Europe and loved it – I don’t call out much and incoming calls were free (plus the home phone was ISDN with bundled DSL for a whopping 40 bucks a month).

    Cell phone contracts and use in US is too greedy and messy.

  14. #14 Nathan Myers
    May 30, 2006

    It’s in *somebody’s* interest to stuff all this junk into your phone — just not yours. As in the cases of television, magazines, and supermarkets, the indifference to your wants demonstrates you’re not the customer, you’re the product. On TV, the customer is the advertiser. At the supermarket, the customer is the vendor renting shelf space. I wonder who the customer is, in cell phones.

  15. #15 LiberalDirk
    May 30, 2006

    I have heard that the US system for cellular telephones is ridiculous. It seems this confirms it (and brings up to my mind the disrespect I have for telco companies)

    In South Africa cell phones work like this.

    Two options, contract or pay as you go (and minute and per-second) billing.

    A minute costs the equivalent of $0.31

    On contract they send you a bill at the end of the month.
    On pay as you go, you buy cards and dial a number to load them.

    All cellphone providers can connect to all the others as well as landlines. The fees for each is the same.

    One receives air-time in two flavours. The airtime you spend to make calls and the airtime you have to receive calls. You receive incoming airtime when you purchase call airtime, about 1 week incoming for 10 minutes talking.

    On my pay as I go phone, my incoming call window expires in 2010. I do not have to pay extra for any incoming calls or messages. In short, I could stop giving my provider any money today and I would still be connected till 2010.

    Of course in SA we get ripped by the telkom monopoly, which is why there are more cellphones in the country than land lines.

    Sometimes I wonder how telcom companies get away with what they do.

  16. #16 Bronze Dog
    May 30, 2006

    Glad I’m not the only one who feels the way I do: Get the basics down first. I’m sure there are plenty of people who enjoy the bells and whistles, but I’m not one of them, and I don’t want to feel like I’m being charged extra for the “free” options.

    Usagi: Somewhere I recall hearing that in the US, text message spam is a criminal offense, since it’s putting charges onto someone else’s bill against their will.

    Tangentally, I’m reminded of the N-Gage: A cell phone that was intended to double as a gaming console. It had a vertical screen (which was letter-boxed for some games), and you practically had to disassemble it to change games. Last I recall, they were trying to give them away.

  17. #17 usagi
    May 30, 2006

    BD, I should hope that it is, but unfortunately the messages were for exotic Ukrainian mail order brides and the like. There’s no hope of pursuing the perp.

  18. #18 Bronze Dog
    May 30, 2006

    Dang national borders. We should use the moon as a Katamari and roll up all the nations, and there’ll be no borders… Oh, wait, that only works when I’m on mushrooms.

  19. #19 Ren
    May 30, 2006

    I’m getting one of those pay-as-you-go plans, since I never use up all the minutes on my current plan.

    Why don’t cell phone manufacturers work on making the phone reception better? So people don’t have to SHOUT when they’re on the phone, particularly when they’re talking to another cell phone user. Out in public, I don’t want to listen to someone shouting about their parents’ marriage breaking up, or about the horrible weekend that they just had (complete with a liberal usage of 4-letter obscenities).

    Probably the worse incident on this sort was at my public library, where a grandmother got a call while sitting next to the ‘no cell phones, please’ sign. Naturally, she proceeded to shout to her daughter-in-law about stopping by the Home Depot. I got into an argument with Grandma about her lack of cell phone etiquette, and she told me to leave the library if I didn’t like it.

  20. #20 Bronze Dog
    May 30, 2006

    Probably the worse incident on this sort was at my public library, where a grandmother got a call while sitting next to the ‘no cell phones, please’ sign. Naturally, she proceeded to shout to her daughter-in-law about stopping by the Home Depot. I got into an argument with Grandma about her lack of cell phone etiquette, and she told me to leave the library if I didn’t like it.

    Did she get the morale bonus to Strength and Constitution as part of her rage Barbarian class feature?

  21. #21 guthrie
    May 31, 2006

    Pay as you go is eaven cheaper if you find a friend of relative upgraing their old phone, and get the old phone for whatever buttons you want to pay for it. Then voila! A 2 or 3 year old phone with possibly the same kind of lifespan again, if you dont use it every day. I think I spend about 20 pounds a year on my mobile.

  22. #22 Nomen Nescio
    June 1, 2006

    i can see how text messaging could be tremendously useful, if only there were some way to — you know — actually enter text into a cell phone!

    if somebody’d bastardize the plain old Morse code, add a couple of extra buttons to the sides of the phone (one each for “dot” and “dash”, i’m thinking), and perhaps allow you to use the regular number pad for punctuation, shifts, and so on — heck, i’d teach myself Morse keying in a heartbeat just so i could text-message without having to push the damn number buttons o-over and o-o-over again to get the letter i want…

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