The Dream Phone Initiative(tm)

Post date: Mar 2, 2017 9:26:33 AM

On a different blog, I talked at length about what I thought the perfect mobile phone would be. It took up a number of posts, and it ultimately led to creating this blog.

What I am looking for in a mobile phone, is to split the device into two pieces: a mobile data transmitter and receiver, and various screens that connect to said transceiver. The key difference between a device like this and a mobile hot spot is that I the transceiver to do more than just provide Internet access, and I want it to be built tough enough to live in a bag or coat pocket.

Why two (or more) devices?

I love mobile phones, I just hate having so much of my life depend on a small device that is prone to loss, theft, or breakage. I have seen social media posts over the years stating something to the effect of "My phone is broken so if you need me, message me here." Smart phones are as much fashion accessories as they are personal communicators. Sleek designs and beautiful screens make for expensive and fragile objects. The smart phone is the center of many people's whole worlds and when it dies, they are cut off from the world. Sleek designs don't have room for large antennas, big batteries, or slots for memory cards. The state of the art in mobile design is embracing stronger glass and more waterproof construction albeit at the expense of user accessible storage, batteries, and ports. Despite all of the trade offs, that still does nothing to prevent loss or theft.

Using multiple devices is important because I misplace my phone more than occasionally. I leave it in my car, I leave it on my desk at work, I plug it in at home and walk away from it, or a small child takes it and leaves it toy box. Most of the time, it's not a huge concern, I just have to retrace my steps or call it from another device. Sometimes it's like being alone and defenseless in a dark scary place. I would rather have a fleet of gadgets that I can use to access the world, and a utilitarian device that will keep that gadgetry connected at all times. This way if my phone is dead, lost, or broken, I'm not cut off from the world.

The Gadgets

I own several gadgets: more than one desktop computer, laptop computer, tablet, and phone. They all have uses in a specific situation. My desktops at home and at work have multiple screens, ergonomic keyboards, and full-sized mice, all of which I can use while sitting at a desk in a proper office chair. For me, this is the ideal setup for long sessions of gaming, writing, coding, or hacking. Using any other device, while seated in any other position, is sub-optimal for long periods of use.

As comfy as this is, I don't spend all of my time at a desk. I travel, I work out, I go shopping and I relax at home on the couch. When I do these other things, I want to stay connected, so I use the other gadgets in my arsenal.

When I need to use a "real computer" away from my desk, I have a laptop. I have a big laptop for times when I can work or game at a table, a lightweight Chromebook for when I travel but expect to be writing or coding, a small netbook for note taking at work or at school, a tablet for when I am sitting on the couch or in bed, and a smartphone for when I am on the move. I listed these gadgets in descending order of screen and keyboard size, and in ascending order of mobility. The smartphone has the smallest screen and keyboard, but it has the best mobility both in terms of size, battery life, and connectivity.

I also have several telephones. In my offices at work and home, I have desktop speakerphones which I use hands free when I am sitting on hold, in a conference call, or talking to someone while gaming. In my living room and bedroom I have cordless analog telephones, and in my car I have a hands-free Bluetooth setup for my smartphone. In the glove compartment of my car, I have a cheap prepaid phone (a.k.a my batburner), a light for me in dark places, when all other lights go out.

When I am on the go, I dearly love my smartphone. I listed my phones in descending order from most comfortable to use, and in ascending order of how portable they are. My burner is very lightweight, so lightweight that I sometimes carry it instead of my smartphone when I am wearing basketball shorts.

Understanding the times and places that I use these different gadgets is the key to understanding what I (and I assume most other people) want from a mobile phone.

A desktop computer and a hardware speakerphone is the ultimate in comfort for long use, easy talking and typing, powerful processing, and cheap storage. It is also the absolute worst in terms of portability and ease of connectivity. WiFi mitigates some of the portability issues, but not really. You still need a broadband hookup from the local cable or telephone company.

The smartphone is the ultimate in mobility and connectivity, but it's the absolute worst in terms of comfort for long use. The most expensive and powerful smartphone still pales in comparison to the cheapest of desktop computers when it comes to computing power, upgrade-ability, and affordable storage. The smartphone also adds concerns for battery life into the mix. Also, even though most carriers promise unlimited mobile broadband, the reality is that you only get so much and you pay through the nose for it.

In the middle of both lists you have laptops and tablets, which do decent jobs of being comfortable for sustained use. Laptops have options for power and affordable storage. Most tablets support SD cards for affordable storage. Both devices suffer from the need to be connected to WiFi. A tablet or laptop with no WiFi is almost useless, other than a few notable exceptions. These devices also have batteries which can affect their usefulness. Battery life varies wildly among laptops, but in general a tablet will last as long, or possibly longer than a mobile phone. This is important to note because what I want my ideal tablet to be is a clone of my smartphone, just with a 7-10 inch screen.

Many portable storage and power options abound for laptops and tablets. Portable storage options include USB hard drives, thumb drives, and the ability to connect to file servers. Portable power options abound for tablets and phones, such as car chargers, rechargeable battery banks, and even portable solar cells. When I travel, I have a satchel dedicated to power options, and my laptop bag is full of storage options. I also have a 12v power inverter for my car to charge things when necessary. Yeah, I'm that guy.

In other words, I have a ton of gear that keeps me online, but I wish I could get by with significantly less.

The Connector

Once connected to WiFi, a laptop or a tablet is superior to a smartphone for long use, full stop. A mobile hot spot could solve this connectivity problem, but the mobile hot spot is a one trick pony. All that it can do is bridge mobile data to WiFi. It does not address the other shortcomings of mobile devices, such as affordable storage, battery life, or computing power.

What I am looking for in a mobile communications device is a small box with powerful transceiver, a large battery, and ample storage that is also able to connect devices to the Internet, to charge them, and to provide storage and compute power when necessary. It should have little to no screen, a small number of buttons, and have removable (and therefore user replaceable) antennae, batteries and storage. The idea is for the ugly box to live in a pocket, bag, or drawer, or to be clipped to a belt and not require much in terms of user interaction. I envision a small WiFi hot spot, Ethernet switch, external hard drive, battery bank, analog telephone adapter, fixed mobile terminal, and compute stick all in one drop-proofed package. Add in a couple of USB and HDMI ports for emergencies, and you have the ultimate personal cloud server.

This lets the design of user interface screens make use of the best hardware and software for that use case. Highly portable screens can run Android or whatever designed more for graphics and battery life. Non-portable screens can run Windows or whatever and be focused on the things computers excel at.

This also lets the business of connecting and communicating be handled by hardware and software that makes sense for that use case. Think of the device as a small milspec server. The "server" is dedicated to connectivity and services, and the "client" (the screen) is dedicated to the user interface and experience. I want my PC to connect to the box using a connector and user interface that makes sense for a PC (Windows and gigabit Ethernet for example) and for my smart phone to connect using a connector and user interface that makes sense for a smart phone (Android and WiFi). I want this because I want to avoid these problems:

The Bluetooth Problem - Bluetooth connections can be unreliable, especially when connecting devices like car dashboards or voice headsets, where the peripheral has a single button and a single light to convey all of its error states. There is nothing more frustrating than needing to get on the road in your car, and messing with Bluetooth so you can use your GPS. Many dash units also prevent configuration while the vehicle is moving. I have corrected connection problems on more than one occasion by turning the car off and on again. I would rather have the software built into the dashboard, and have the sensors, network, and storage come from a USB connection to the portable server.

The Docking Station Problem - Using a dedicated docking station for a device always means proprietary connectors. This makes your expensive gadget and its dock a matched set; upgrading the gadget means upgrading the dock. A better approach would be to use the appropriate device to connect to a particular screen or interface using standard networking technologies and protocols and then handle communication with the appropriate application. So instead of plugging your smart phone into a dock that you replace when you get a new phone, you have a portable network server that your TV or computer connects to with HDMI, WiFi or Ethernet.

The Peripheral Problem - Similar to the docking station problem, an expensive peripheral almost always relies on a proprietary application to connect. You see this most often with printers that become useless when the PC upgrades to a new version of Windows. It can be especially bad when the peripheral is an expensive piece of scientific or medical equipment such as a microscope. The PC is the link in the chain of devices that is most likely to go obsolete. A better approach would be for the peripheral to have its own CPU and OS, however rudimentary, and to use standard networking technologies and protocols (HTTP/FTP/SMB) to provide connectivity.

My Dream Phone isn't so much a phone, but a separation of the mobile user experience from the mobile services of data, voice, and text. I want to connect to the Internet, make calls, and receive texts on multiple devices, using a single phone number and email address. I want access to calling and messaging over WiFi when it's available, and over 4G when it's necessary. I want my computers, phones, and tablets to have the best interfaces for their respective platforms, that means the ability to use large screens or small ones, keyboards and mice or touchscreens. I want to let Windows be Windows, Android be Android, and not worry about a Rube Goldberg system of apps syncing data across disparate devices.

The problem with this vision is that it forces convergence of 3 distinct markets for devices (phones, computers, tablets), 2 distinct markets for connectivity (residential broadband, and mobile broadband) and three distinct markets for voice and messaging (mobile voice and SMS, VOIP, and Instant Messaging). It's not just changing mobile designs, it's changing whole markets. Whole markets that, by the way, don't want to compete on equal footing. Everyone just wants broadband and the freedom to run the apps that they want to run. Why do we have to buy that 2 or 3 times over?

This market problem is compounded in the case of mobile broadband, voice, and messaging because they are sold at a significant markup when compared to their residential counterparts. Mobile data is seldom unlimited, while residential broadband normally is, and even when one has to consider caps, the residential cap is significantly higher than the mobile one (100GB or more vs. 2GB or less). Mobile minutes, even when they are unlimited, are more expensive than unlimited VOIP minutes: $40 or so per month for mobile service vs. $15 or so for unlimited VOIP. The same goes for SMS compared to messaging apps like Signal or Facebook Messenger where SMS is bundled into your calling plan that you probably don't use very much while messaging is basically free once you have network connectivity.

In addition to residential and mobile broadband, I also use a few hosted servers. I pay about $5 per month for a server that has 1TB of transfer. Assuming that I am paying strictly for the transfer (I'm not) and that the transfer is sold to me at the provider's cost (it's not), that means that the wholesale backbone rate for data is roughly 200GB for $1, or $0.005 (half a cent) per gig. Using that metric, assuming that my transfer at home is 1TB per month (it's way less) and my broadband bill is $100 (it's more with the TV service, taxes and fees) that puts the residential rate for data is $10 per gig. I get that running a fiber network to the home is expensive and so there should be a markup on the price of service, but should the markup really be 2000% compared to the wholesale rate? Using those same metrics again, assuming that I pay $40 per month for a mobile data plan that caps at 2GB. Again, assuming that I am paying $40 strictly for the data (It's more with taxes and other fees) the cost is $20 per gig. I get that running a 4G LTE tower network is expensive and so there should be a markup on the price of service, but should the markup really be 4000%? Even if the mobile cap is raised to 4GB, it's still 2000%. These are cartel prices.

Cartel Ownership

The kind of major change that would need to happen in the markets for devices and data services might come about from competition from new firms, were it not for the fact that a small number of hardware companies (Apple, Samsung, Motorola), a small number of software companies (Microsoft, Apple, Google) and a small number of service providers (AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, etc.) all tightly control these markets so that there's really only 2 or 3 options. Sure, companies like Sprint and Nokia sometimes do cool things, and as long as you aren't concerned about Chinese malware,* there are off-brand phones available from Shenzhen. But for the most part, each company is doing pretty much what every other company is doing: making small improvements on established offerings. Expecting these cartels to butcher their cash cows is not just unreasonable, it's laughable. Converging devices and networks in this way is the definition of creative destruction.

*Pre installed malware is a security concern for all phones, not just knockoff phones or phones made in China.

Building Your Own Dream Phone

This is why I am such a fan of Google Voice. It lets me do calling and texting across a number of devices. Verizon also offers an app called Message+ that lets you make and receive calls on devices other than your VZW mobile, which I would use more, if I hadn't already moved my main contact number to Google Voice.

Being able to WiFi tether my phone is also an option, but again, it murders my battery and my mobile data allowance. I can charge my phone with my laptop, but that's not ideal when I can't plug in my laptop as well. Also, my employer pays for my data, but I don't want to be greedy. They've already given me a smart phone and a laptop, I can't really ask them for much more.

The voice/text/messaging/email problem is largely handled, what remains is connectivity. Again, a mobile hot spot might alleviate some of that, but they aren't meant for all day use, nor do they provide compute power or storage, which can come at a premium on a mobile phone. The goal here is to have a portable private network server that connects to the Internet through a variety of means (Ethernet, WiFi, 4G) based on what's available.