Managing Expectations in a Mobile World

I’d like to share some frustrations I’ve been having with my Android phone, the T-Mobile G2. I was a completely satisfied customer of the G1, which was released about 2.5 years ago – an eternity in mobile technology, but not really that different from the current iteration of devices in a significant way.

Mobile devices have reached a shocking level of compatibility and functionality. Paired with a suitable data plan, the modern smartphone can legitimately be compared to a computer. You can watch video from sites like Hulu, YouTube and Vimeo; capture, edit and share photos and videos to other mobile devices, computers or web services; create and edit office documents, access web pages, stream music, send e-mail, chat and connect over any of dozens of web services, manage your finances, find near-by points of interest, turn-by-turn navigation…..the list of computer-like things a mobile phone can do goes on and on.

Note I said computer-like things because, despite all the progress that’s been made, cell phones are still sorely lacking in actually being able to do most of the things I’ve listed quickly and easily. Cellular providers share some of the blame, which I’ll get to in a few moments. Cell phones have advanced well enough to where they can be judged on the same standard as a basic desktop computer – and are falling flat on their face as a result. Just being good “for a phone” isn’t enough any more when the end of the PC is approaching and marketing efforts are setting customers up for disappointment if they’re expecting a full-featured experience.

The G2 is about as unmodified of an Android build as you’re likely to find on a mass-production phone – and it’s a mess of usability issues, bad design, poorly thought out features and to top it off some of the limited potential it does have is being choked off by the cell phone companies. Take for instance Android ActiveSync, the application that connects Android phones to Microsoft Exchange servers. It frequently loses the ability to synchronize, forcing me to reboot the phone to restart sync. It doesn’t effectively sync subfolders, meaning that my “Alerts” folder nested inside my Inbox is never synced if Inbox is the active view. And occasionally it spontaneously forgets I ever attached an ActiveSync account, and instead of my e-mail in the morning I wake up to the Add Account wizard. That’s utterly unacceptable for a production device – but this happens not only on my Android device, but on multiple phones on different providers belonging to others.

Flash on the phone has been another area where phones have effectively fallen on their face. There are some technological reasons behind this failure, but the fact of the matter is, Flash that works just well enough to render the applet’s interface but not well enough to let you actually interact is completely useless. Flash is being sold to Android users as being able to unlock the “rest of the web”, but I can’t even manage to load the Pandora desktop SWF functionally.

And speaking of Pandora, we come to the role of cell phone providers in this whole mess. I live in a dense metro area, the 23rd largest city in the country. The area is blanketed with fast “4G” coverage measured in megabits per second. Pandora offers a mobile application for devices – with significantly reduced audio quality from the desktop application, which they blame on the cell phone providers:

Pandora on phones is limited by hardware and bandwidth. Many carriers have trouble streaming even the “normal” quality audio on phones (32kbps). The High quality is 64kbps.

Desktop normal quality is around 128kbps, and high quality is 192kbps. If providers really have trouble streaming audio in the same quality as we had on desktop computers in 1998 – 13 years ago – there is a serious infrastructure issue in our country. Net Neutrality might help with this somewhat, but most likely not.

There’s a long way to go before the “end of the PC” really arrives.

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