I Almost Forgot – AT&T The Biggest Vacation Disappointment

Often my phone would show full signal yet be unable to originate or receive calls. Data was pretty spotty too.

It was my intention to totally depend on my iPhone 3Gs’s cell service for voice and data while on vacation in Las Vegas. Like everyone I’ve heard horror stories, but my service here in Connecticut is mostly good. Unfortunately, I have also documented trips to New York, Los Angeles and Boston where service was frustrating. Add Las Vegas to the list.

Often my phone would show full signal yet be unable to originate or receive calls. Stef’s BlackBerry and Helaine’s Samsung suffered a similar fate.

Data was pretty spotty too. Sometimes my phone would display “3G.” At other times it was the slower “E” or mysterious “O.” Often there was no data indicator at all! Unfortunately even seeing a data indicator didn’t mean there was access!

I ran an online speed test a few times. Once it wouldn’t work because there was no data access. Other times it was so slow as to be unusable for any purpose other than establishing how slow it was!

This is just nuts. There’s no excuse for this. Cell service is supposed to be a mature product. How can AT&T be the only company that hasn’t mastered this?

Is The Future of Video Portable?

I am talking about watching live video on the iPhone, but any comparable device will work. The device must be fully portable.

I’m on the sofa. Just a few lights on down here. As I type on my laptop the Phillies are playing on the iPhone.

The image at the top of this entry is a real size screengrab off the iPhone. That’s how it looks. I think it’s pretty darn good on WiFi. 3G has less bandwidth so sometimes the picture gets a little blockier.

I’ve written about this before. Allow me one more shot. The portable media player is a very powerful platform.

A few definitions first.

I am talking about watching live video on the iPhone, but any comparable device will work. The device must be fully portable. I’m using my WiFi network at home, but the phone will effortlessly (though not smoothly) get its data through the cellular 3G network when needed.

What’s the right programming for these portable devices? Figure that out and win the prize. Nobody knows for sure. Sports works, but not when it’s also available on the big screen.

Portable needs content different from fixed. The standard thirty minute TV blocks don’t work here.

This would be narrowcasting as opposed to broadcasting–specialized programming to fit an occupation or hobby or locale. To thrive the programming must be short and compelling–compelling content. Production values aren’t as important when the viewer wants what’s in the show. That allows lower production costs.

I purchase a subscription to see the Phils. That’s a revenue stream legacy TV doesn’t get. Is advertiser supported also a viable option, or maybe a blend of both?

The real business model is still unwrtten.

How much of a problem is bandwidth and battery life? Video sucks batteries and bandwidth voraciously. It’s all problematic at best.

It’s just the more I use a mobile video platform the more powerful it seems. As soon as everyone else has the opportunity to use portable video this whole concept will explode.

When Ya’ Getting An Ipad, They Ask?

If anything keeps the iPad from being a success it will be because Apple forgot we are their customers, not apple itself.

ipad-touch.jpgFriends and colleagues know I’m a technogeek, so it didn’t take long after Steve Jobs’ iPad announcement for the queries to begin. To summarize the two top questions are:

  • “Are you getting one?”
  • “Why would anyone want one?”

I probably wont be getting an iPad. It has less to do with what it can do or what it costs than the restrictions placed on it.

Imagine a world where your Chevy could only use gas approved by Chevy (and where Chevy siphoned off a cut of the profits)! In essence that’s what the iPad is all about. You may be buying the iPad, but you don’t fully own it because you are limited by license (and I suppose law) from using it freely as you wish.

Apple has already used this business model in the iPhone. I have one. I am often frustrated by improvements which should, but don’t, exist.

steve jobs with ipad.jpgBelieve me, there are lots of things the iPhone can and should do, things which developers would certainly write software but that Apple restricts. Google’s “Google Voice” app is a perfect example. It exists. People would like it. Apple hasn’t approved it and isn’t all that forthcoming in explaining why not.

IPhones&#185 can be ‘jailbroken’ to allow some of these improvements, but it’s tough to embrace a technology where you have to violate a license or law (or both) to use the equipment. Beyond that Apple has shown a propensity to patching jailbroken phones, sometimes ‘bricking’ them–leaving them with the capability of a brick!

Beyond that the iPad seems crippled by design failures. There’s no camera–and this would be the perfect product for video calling. There’s no ability to multitask–run two apps at once. Though it has a 3G modem there’s no cellphone functionality, even through a Bluetooth device.

To me the iPad seems more proof-of-concept than mature platform.

That brings me to the second question. Why would anyone want one?

A relatively small and light computer seems the logical step beyond a laptop, especially if it’s a laptop, telephone, TV, movie and music, book newspaper and magazine playing device. The screen is small for sharing, but for arm’s length viewing it can and will provide a big screen experience.

A device with the form factor of an iPad can be a unifying device that brings all media to a single place, especially with the ability to connect through both cellular and WiFi data networks. It’s exciting in the abstract.

A few years ago Qwest ran an ad (attached at the bottom of this entry) which left most people scratching their heads. Devices like (but not) the iPad are what is needed to make the commercial finally make sense.

Alas, Apple isn’t as interested in providing this total experience as they are in maintaining a toll road. Make no mistake about it, they want every penny you spend to pass through their outstretched sticky fingers.

If anything keeps the iPad from being a success it will be because Apple forgot we are their customers, not Apple itself.

&#185 – when a proper noun begins with a lower case letter, like iPhone, does it get capitalized if it’s the first word of a sentence? By naming something with a lower case letter you’ve already violated the rules of English so the next step gets iffy at best.

Ding Goes The Elevator

Our hotel room is near the elevator. We’re at the Crowne Plaza. Ding–everytime it opens … All night long! Other than that it’s a suprisingly pretty hotel.

Internet access on my iPhone is horrendous. To get any service I have turned off 3G. This will be a short entry.

We saw “Rock of Ages” the 80s rock musical last night.

If leaving wanting more is the sign of success this is a successful show. More on it and more on this trip when I’m back on a high speed connection with a real keyboard.

Gate 5 LAX

Everything went smoothly. I wasn’t totally sure that would be the case.

As usual, I misplaced something (my Bluetooth earpiece) and had to search before I could leave. Even so, I waved to Cousin Michael (Melissa and Max having long since left) and headed out around my planned 9:00 AM departure.

The GPS was programmed with the out-of-the-way address for Deluxe Car Rental. This was an address that hadn’t been added before the trip and it took a minute or two to enter. Once again, it was like having a co-pilot.

I headed up the San Diego Freeway passing Irvine and Anaheim. A lot of people in those brand new, shiny office towers must be sweating it out today. This is ground zero for the subprime mortgage meltdown. Countrywide, in Calabassas went down earlier today.

Around 30 miles from LAX I hit my first traffic jam. From 65 mph, I slowed to a crawl. I then continued to crawl for the next 45 minutes! Suddenly the traffic was gone. I was moving again at the speed limit.

What was causing the tie-up? Nothing I could see. This is typical of Southern California.

At the airport, a medium sized crowd was waiting to check in and go through security. The Southwest agent who gave me my baggage claim check couldn’t have been nicer. All smiles!

Then I climbed a flight of stairs to the TSA’s special portion of hell. With all my electronics, I used three bins. I probably could have used four.

As I was standing in line, listening to Luna on the other side of the magnetometer yelling at us to remember our boarding passes, I realized what this whole process reminded me of: prison!

Thanks to MSNBC’s “Extended Stay” prison docs, I realize security at the airport is similar to what prisoners go through when they’re brought into the slammer. Who knew a documentary could be so practically useful?

I found some food to bring on the plane and Starbucks has brewed my first cup of coffee. Now I’m sitting in the waiting area, plugged into half the freely available power outlets I can find. My cell phone (connecting at old school slow speed and not 3G) is my link to the web.

Helaine says it’s quite foggy in Connecticut. Hopefully that will be gone by the time I land in Connecticut late tonight.

How Times Have Changed

Last night, in the middle of the night, I plugged a cable from my new cellphone into my laptop. An experiment was underway.

Since the phone is on the Internet, it’s possible to tether it to my laptop and use the cell connection as an Internet connection. In essence, the Samsung Blackjack would be my modem.

It was very simple and it worked, but it was ploddingly slow. Though the phone works with AT&T’s high speed 3G network, there’s no 3G service here. I ran a speed test and found 76 kbps. My cable modem speed a moment ago was 7,275 kbps, nearly one hundred times as fast.

At least I know it works in case of an outage.

There’s something else I thought of at the same time. Back in the dial-up days, when modems were 28.8 kbps, I used to connect at 24.4 kbps.

As slow as last night’s experiment was, it was still three times faster than the Internet service I used to be happy with. Times have really changed.

What we have now for connection speed is only a stop, not the destination.

The New Phone

I’ve got a new phone. Helaine’s got a new phone. Stef’s got a phone, but it’s currently on a UPS truck somewhere between here and college.

I’m not sure this was the most difficult decision I’ve ever made, but it was pretty close. That’s ridiculous, because a cell phone decision should be easy… or at the very least, easier. I think the cell phone companies make sure it’s as difficult as possible to compare plans.

They’re willing to compete. They just don’t want to compete on price.

Yes, my new phone is a toy, but I wanted a PDA type phone. You know the type. It’s got a full QWERTY keyboard and 320×240 pixel screen. I have no business reason for getting one. I still wanted it.

Originally, I had my heart set on a Motorola Q9, a sharp new phone. It was supposed to be out in August, then September, then…. well, it’s not out yet. In the meantime, my Motorola RAZR died (though it has since mysteriously come back to life), rushing the process along.

I finally decided on a Samsung Blackjack. It’s bigger than today’s standard cellphones, but it still fits in my shirt pocket. It is a phone, camera, camcorder, audio recorder, computer. It’s probably got more going for it that I haven’t figure out yet.

More on the phone in a minute. First, the process of getting it.

As it stands now, there’s no way to buy a cell phone and know you’ve gotten the best deal. Seriously. I wanted to stick with AT&T, but they have different prices on the Internet, in their retail stores and from their independent online dealers. And, of course, few of those prices are obtainable.

One online retailer showed my Blackjack earning me $60, on a new contract. Yup, buy a phone and get $60 back.

Hey, that’s for me. My old AT&T contract expired in August. But when I called to get the price, I was told it wasn’t for me.

As a good AT&T customer, I wasn’t eligible for their best price. That was only for switchers. The price for me would be $250 more per phone! I will maintain a bad taste from that for a while and though it was the independent telling me… I’ll blame AT&T, the enabler.

On top of that, AT&T sells the exact same Internet access for a variety of prices. If you’ve got an iPhone, you really get jobbed. There’s also a different price for Blackberries, phones like my Blackjack and standard phones, like my old RAZR.

It’s all the same access. It’s all unlimited access. They’re just differently priced.

A blog reading friend, Pat (who once worked selling cell phones), was incredibly helpful, setting me up with Rob at the AT&T store in Meriden. Rob did what he could, but it still cost me $160 more per phone than that online teaser ad led me to believe.

Rob was the calming influence in all of this. Of all the people I dealt with, he’s the only one who could say the sky was blue without me being tempted to look up and make sure.

This is one very cool phone – though being a phone is only a small part of what it does. I’ve already been online, downloading programs to better web surf, deal with email and upload photos and video.

The video and still image quality is surprisingly good, considering the tiny lens. It’s not going to unseat “Clicky,” but I will be using this functionality. In fact, on our upcoming vacation, I’m planning on doing a little vlogging from the Blackjack.

The phone connects to the Internet on AT&T’s high speed 3G network (available here at work, but not at home). It’s still not like real broadband, but it’s not too bad. Of course the relatively small screen is not well suited for web browsing.

If you’ve never used one of these, you’ve probably looked and said, “those keys are awfully small.” They are. Still, I haven’t had any trouble with the keys. Where my big fingers do cause trouble is with the center navigation switch. For me, it’s very difficult to press it, without pressing what’s next to it.

Some of my trouble is caused by being left handed. There’s a navigation wheel located perfectly for right handed people, but not me. I will learn to use it with time, as lefties learn to use right handed computer mice.

It didn’t take more than a few minutes to start to realize the power this phone possesses. I understand even more why the phone companies are fighting network neutrality. This phone allows you to bypass the cell carriers on many things they want to sell.

For instance, there’s a service sold by some carriers for around $10 a month. It turns your phone into a pretty cool GPS receiver with live traffic reports. Google gives that functionality away for free! It’s tough to sell against free. As far as I can tell, I’m about $40 away from using Google and my phone as a GPS receiver.

I’m curious to hear Stef’s impressions when after she unpacks her phone. I hope she’s as pleased as I am… and I’ve only scratched the surface.