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Your smart phone is not a phone…

October 5, 2017

It is much, much more than a phone. Apple, quite rightly, is getting criticized for the fact that borinqueños cannot use the FM receivers present in older iPhones. It should be dinged even more that those receivers are absent in newer iPhones.

Those of us who are nerds or who venture often into areas where cellphone service is absent see the smart phone as something that has a broad range of purposes, only some requiring cell service. A modern smartphone should be able to do all of the following, in the absence of that:

  • Receive FM radio.
  • Determine lat-lon from GPS.
  • Act as a compass.
  • Provide mapping applications.
  • Text and voice short distances over peer-to-peer wifi mesh.
  • Control other wifi-enabled devices, such as game cameras.

All of those are safety features. Apple’s talk about “modern safety solutions,” then referencing only those that require cell service, is stuff and nonsense. What if you’re out of cell service range? As Puerto Rico’s plight still demonstrates, cell service is one of the things often lost in emergencies, sometimes for days or weeks on end.  If their smart phones were capable of texting through a peer-to-peer wifi mesh, they would have pretty good communication within towns and village centers, even if not between them or to more distant areas.

My old Pureview 808, a phone released five years past, could do everything in the list above except the last two. When I was traveling with folks who had other smart phones, in areas where there was no cell reception, they were amazed that Nokia maps still worked like a charm. But why shouldn’t it, once the map data is on the phone? The only difference a mapping application should exhibit when offline is a warning when map data isn’t available. Google Maps since has gotten better at managing that.

Application designers always should ask themselves: How much of this application can work without cell service? How does it work when cell service cuts in and out? They should test their applications in those modes, and provide owners an easy way to use the application offline, even when cell service is available.

Platform designers, likewise, should have present in mind that the smart phone will be used when various communication channels are down. They should provide application designers the right interfaces and tools to support robust application design. They should provide owners the right settings and displays to manage the device in a variety of contexts.

Of course, the cell service providers want you to see your smart phone as a portal to their service. Apple wants you to see the iPhone as an endpoint in the Apple ecosystem.

Nerds and sailors and wayfarers see our smart phone as the next evolution of our personal tricorder. We want to be able to use its communication channels smartly and independently of each other. We want to be able to use its other devices fully, even when communication channels are down. And we don’t want marketing decisions or poor design or cell service options getting in the way of that.

Photo shows a tug pushing a barge carrying a crane this weekend past, somewhere on the Texas ICW, possibly in the range of cell service. Or not. Why doesn’t my smart phone include marine VHF capability?

Update: The bezel-less craze is not helping.

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