Today was the first day that my mobile carrier, Telus Mobility (once BC Tel, the former British Columbia telephone monopoly), offered Apple's iPhone for sale. I've been a Telus mobile customer since 1998, and have generally had a good experience with customer service, wireless coverage, and phone performance—quite in contrast with how I felt when I quit using Telus broadband Internet four years ago.
I've decided to get an iPhone. I've had a first-generation iPod Touch (kindly given to me by my employer Navarik) for two years now, and my wife has been using an iPhone 3GS on the rival Rogers network since earlier this year. The combination of my iPod Touch and LG Shine 8700 flip phone has worked just fine for me, but I've also seen what those two lack and the current iPhones offer—the camera, GPS, always-accessible email and web surfing, better speed, and so on.
However, today, the first day, was not the one for me to try upgrading. With a little over a year left on my current phone contract, the basic policy is that I'd have to spend several hundred dollars more than the fully-subsidized $200 price for a new iPhone 3GS, and I'm not interested in that. But because I've been with them so long, Telus has offered me deals in the past—if I talk to their phone reps first.
Yet while there seemed to be plenty of iPhones on hand, the Telus retail computer system for its storefront franchisees was up and down all day, the phone customer service was overwhelmed, and I was unable, despite a couple of long waits on hold and a dropped call, to find out whether I would be able to get buy one cheaply. By the time I tried phoning a second time after that dropped connection, Telus wasn't even accepting new calls (!).
I had to step back and stop fuming that this was yet another occasion when a wireless carrier turned an exciting prospect into a frustrating runaround—you know, "I want to give the company more money, but it doesn't seem to want to take it." Yes, Telus should probably have been better prepared to handle the obviously substantial demand for this crazy phone. But the people I talked to were all unfailingly friendly and as helpful as they could be. They were simply let down by a technical sales infrastructure that didn't work for any of us.
Patience is still worthwhile. I'll wait a few days and try again. Telus hasn't quite blown it for me this time. Not yet.
Things have been all a-twitter about Canadian mobile carriers Bell and Telus (my cell phone provider) starting to sell Apple's iPhone, supposedly next month. My wife Air told me the scoop yesterday, and I was surprised, and skeptical.
But it sounds like it's really happening. This is a bigger deal than it seems if you don't follow the mobile phone industry, for two reasons:
In North America, many mobile phones (such as BlackBerry devices) come in both CDMA and GSM versions for different carriers, but the iPhone has been GSM-only since its introduction in 2007. It turns out that Bell and Telus have been installing some GSM technology on their cellular towers for at least a year, and planning to have it ready for many customers in 2010.
But now it looks like they'll be early, and the iPhone may be their first big rollout of 3G (third-generation) GSM wireless. And although it will be awhile, my old CDMA phone is likely on the way to becoming obsolete. Qualcomm, which owns the CDMA patents and licenses them to carriers and device makers, had better be looking for some new way to make money.
I'm still doped up on Tylenol 3's and pretty tired post-surgery, so am not up for much thinking or original posts. I'm also contemplating email bankrupcy again, mere months after my last one, as my inbox creeps up to 800 once more. Sigh. Anyway, here's some interesting stuff:
Any technology you grow up with seems less impressive than it is, because you take it for granted. Air travel, television, the Internet, vacccines, eyeglasses, plastic, treated municipal drinking water, central heating, the wheel—if it became widespread before you were born, chances are you hardly give it a second thought.
Mobile phones are becoming like that, but Rich Mogull in TidBITS this week makes a good point:
...after you learn a little more about the inside of the [cellular telephone] system, maybe, just maybe, you'll be a little less irritated the next time you battle to make a simple call. [...] If you think about it, you are basically wandering the planet with a tiny radio in your pocket, but by calling a single number anyone can track you down in seconds.
For almost the entirety of human history until the past decade or two, that would be miraculous, something available only to Captain Kirk and his fictitious future-centuries cohorts. Now we're cheesed off when it doesn't happen instantly.
In 1992 I'd already been on the Internet for a couple of years, but most people had never heard of it. Personal computers with mice and windows were widespread, but the Web was just being invented, and didn't have images on it yet.
That year, the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service produced a five-part documentary series called The Machine That Changed the World, which was about the history and impact of electronic computers. I would have loved that show, but I never saw it at the time. Fortunately, Andy Baio of waxy.org has digitized the whole thing and made it available for download. I watched it over the past few days.
The three history episodes that begin the series are still very relevant, and particularly useful because they include interviews with many early computing pioneers, some of whom have died in the intervening 15 years or so. The fourth, about artificial intelligence, is both refreshing and dismaying, because in a decade and a half very little has changed in the field of AI—making computers think seems to be a harder and harder problem the more we learn.
You'd think that the final episode, about computer networks, would be the most out of date. After all, the '90s and our current decade are in many ways defined by the rise of the Internet (which gets a brief mention on that show, in the context of how it helped debunk cold fusion in the scientific community). Yet that show is intelligent and has good foresight about how electronic communications can change human societies.
The two things I noticed the most about the series are that the concepts of pirates and malware and cyber-attacks are hardly mentioned—although privacy concerns make up a big part of the final episode—and that pretty much everyone types on clackety, loud, heavy-duty keyboards that many modern geeks would lust after.
What is clear from The Machine That Changed the World is that the computer industry had largely found its solutions to fundamental hardware and software problems by the early 1990s: the Macs and PCs everyone used by then are obvious close relatives of the computers we still use today. By contrast, personal computers 15 years before that, in the late '70s, would be unrecognizable to my kids, and even those were terrifically advanced compared to their room-filling vaccum-tube predecessors of the '40s and '50s.
What changed is now we use them. The final episode takes pains to explain what a modem is, and how it connects to a phone line. It reveals in amazement that "over a thousand" senior citizens in North America communicated by email over "SeniorNet," and that a modem user could connect to Japan, Estonia, and Norway in the course of ten minutes—today we could do that in a web browser with a few clicks, but more remarkably, we probably wouldn't know or even care where the computers we connect to are.
I watched most of the show on my iPod Touch, which was appropriate. Watching the early programmers wrestle with mazes of wire to set up ENIAC, I tried to imagine how much more computing power I was holding in my hand, but the multiplier was too large. Even more amazing, in a way, was that despite their familiarity, the hulking, multi-thousand-dollar desktop computers on the desks of people interviewed for the show were still less powerful than my little handheld media player.
Well, here we go.
No details on pricing or plans, of course.
Tim Bray, who was involved in it all and who lives here in Vancouver, wrote a good story about the beginnings of XML (eXtensible Markup Language), which is the foundation of a lot of how the Web works today. It's a reason that Navarik, the company I work for, has a business, for instance. His story talks about the people who helped make it happen, which is why it's a good story.
At the beginning of his piece, Tim wrote, "XML is ten years old today," because version 1.0 was officially released on February 10, 1998, a few days before my older daughter was born, and during the Nagano Winter Olympics. The specification had been kicking around in draft form for about a year and a half before then.
XML is a powerful way to make information readable and writeable both by computers and by people—and also, most critically, to make it portable between different kinds of devices over different kinds of information networks. In its simplest form, it is merely a well-structured way to format plain-text computer files. And it is an open standard, so no one has to license it or pay for it: you can just use it.
So now you can work with a web browser or a feedreader or another website to grab a web feed from a blog and read or republish it elsewhere. And big companies can wrestle their ancient mainframe computers into sending and accepting data from technologies that hadn't been invented when they were built, like web applications. When you read this website or make an airline reservation or buy a T-shirt online or check your webmail or update your bank balance, XML is involved.
It's one of the key standards that emerged from the dot-com bubble, and has helped the Internet become an essential utility around the world. Not bad for a ten year old.
She could have waited until Christmas, but instead my wife made an early gift of it and had me pick myself a new mobile phone today. It's an LG VX8700, also known as the "Shine." Unlike my previous handset (the ancient LG 3200), it has a camera, memory expansion, outer lid screen, and Bluetooth, and it's metal.
I know Roland "CDMA s*cks" Tanglao wouldn't agree with my choice of a non-smart CDMA phone instead of a cool Nokia-Symbian GSM device. But, quite differently than in other areas of my life, I'm not a phone geek. I have no interest in getting an iPhone, for instance. I probably wouldn't even have noticed that my old phone contract had expired if my wife hadn't pointed it out to me. I just want a phone that works, is reasonably rugged, makes and receives calls, gets decent reception, and can take a photo from time to time:
I've also stayed with Telus as my carrier for this phone, because unlike other parts of the company, their Mobility division actually seems to care about keeping loyal customers (I've been with them since 1998), and gave me a better deal on both the phone and my plan than new customers can get, plus threw in a free car charger.
Telus does cripple some of the Bluetooth functionality and other features of the phone, but I'll live with that for now. I don't want to use it as a modem, or for email or web browsing, especially at the usurious rates Canadian carriers charge for mobile data access. I've figured out how to get files to and from my MacBook via Bluetooth. I think the ringtone-purchase market is insane, but luckily there are several built-in ring options that sound like an actual telephone, so I'll use one of those.
The biggest annoyance? No way to transfer all my phone contacts over without re-entering them. Sigh. But the Shine still fits in the pocket of my carry bag (okay, okay, "man purse," as my wife calls it), which is a key consideration. Off we go.
This week's issue of TidBITS, a free online Mac-focused newsletter published by Adam and Tonya Engst continuously since 1990, exemplifies why I've been a subscriber for so long (I can't even remember when I first signed up). Two articles were particularly impressive: Matt Neuburg's Spotlight Strikes Back and Glenn Fleishman's Google's View of Our Cell Phone Future.
TidBITS regularly takes its coverage of tech topics several steps deeper than most other media, online or offline, even when its articles are short. I don't think you could find a better explanation of the vastly improved Spotlight search feature in Apple's latest "Leopard" operating system release than Matt's. I learned not only what's better about Spotlight in Leopard (nearly everything), but also some of its engineering quirks and powerful search syntax. Much better than anything Apple offers.
Glenn's article about Google's new "Android" mobile phone platform announcement is a masterpiece. He summarizes the international history and technical infrastructure of the entire cellular phone industry; Google's motivations and activities so far—and those of its partners in the consortium—in introducing Android; and how it compares to, and might affect products and strategies from, competitors such as Nokia/Symbian, Microsoft, and Apple. All in fewer than 3000 words. I worked for a wireless telecommunications company several years ago, and I still learned lots of new things.
Yes, I've written for TidBITS in the past, but that just puts me in honoured company. Articles like Matt's and Glenn's are some of the best general-audience technical writing on the Web.