Weird Phones That Might Make Awesome Batphones

Post date: Nov 19, 2015 4:50:33 PM

The focus of this site is on task-specific phones and phone lines. You probably have a smartphone and a number that is basically an extension of your identity, and it's probably a high end phone from Apple or Samsung. Maybe you are one of those weird Windows Phone types, I'm not here to judge :-)

The latest smartphones from Apple or Samsung will not get much mention on this site, except as a source of criticism. This is not because they suck, but because making an expensive smart phone a part of your life is discussed better, and by better writers, just about everywhere else. Instead, I want to focus on secondary phones and phone services that are dedicated to a specific task. In that vein, here are some awesomely weird phones that might be perfect for whatever you plan on using your batphone for.

1. The GSM Desk Phone - Anyone who works in an office or a cubicle can appreciate a nice desk phone with multiple lines, a quality hands-free speaker phone, a good headset, and a comfortable handset. Business phones tend to get used for conference calls, sitting on hold, and for marathon tech support or other collaborative uses.

These fancy desk phones tend to be expensive and use proprietary digital lines to connect to expensive PBX systems. If you are trying to recreate the fancy desk phone experience on a budget, your first choice is likely to be an inexpensive IP phone. If that doesn't fit your situation, say because you plan on using this batphone somewhere you don't have a wired connection to the Internet, another option is a GSM desk phone. These handsets are basically large unlocked mobiles. They are often marketed as easy to use mobiles for the elderly.

The nice thing about a GSM desk phone is that your phone hardware, software, and service are all self-contained. If you have a temporary or semi-mobile office, like in a hotel room or a vendor booth, you might want a shared line that multiple people could use so you are not constantly calling individual mobile phones. Because mobile phones are very personal, and spend time in pockets, purses, or holstered to midsections, it feels a bit weird and possibly unsanitary to use someone else's mobile.

Some neat features that I would like to see added to a more expensive version is one with multiple SIMs for multiple lines, an Ethernet jack and the ability to add one or more SIP extensions, and/or an analog phone jack for use with a landline or Analog Telephone Adapter. Another feature that would be great is a big battery that charges via USB, for use with DC power from a battery or solar panel. This would be very handy in situations where you might not have reliable access to AC power, like in an RV.

2. The Smart Desk Phone - If you want a nice desk phone, but your batphone is actually a smartphone app like Skype or Talkatone, you may be able to use an Android desk phone. These devices combine an older version of Android into a VOIP desk phone. Unlike the GSM desktop phone, these devices support multiple VOIP lines and often have conference calling features. An awesome application for these VOIP lines is the ability to use multiple VOIP accounts to make free calls, and then conference them together, turning your desk phone into a bridge between different VOIP networks.

If you are using your desk phone for office-type activities, it's possible to use these handsets to access email and productivity applications like spread sheets and word processing apps, so you basically have a non-mobile smart phone or tablet. The major security concern with a device like this is one of physical access: a mobile phone stays with you most of the time, but a desk phone tends to remain on your desk, so anyone with access to your desk potentially has access to your phone, and therefore to your data. That's not a big concern if you have an office that locks, but if you work in a cubicle, that might be an issue. This is a good use case for a phone that is a docking station for a tablet.

Security concerns notwithstanding, being able to do light office tasks without turning on a computer would be handy, especially if your office computer is a laptop that lives in a bag. A handy upgrade to such a device would be the ability to plug in a keyboard, mouse, and monitor so that you don't need a computer at all. A device like this would resemble the secure terminals from "Archer." Admittedly, this is more the domain of Windows Surface, rather than Android. When coupled with a cloud based storage service like Google Drive or One Drive, a smart desk phone could keep a 2-in-1 tablet in sync with your desk phone and switch seamlessly between your office and travel without fussing with docking stations, cables, or thumb drives.

I think that this is a better option than the smart landline phone, although wireless expansion handsets are a nifty feature for a person who works in an office or warehouse, but moves around a lot.

3. The GSM Analog Telephone Adapter - The Analog Telephone Adapter is a simple device that bridges an analog telephone handset to a VOIP network. Sometimes these devices are called Fixed Mobile Terminals or GSM Gateways, and they tend to be pretty expensive. Unlike the GSM desk phone, a GSM ATA would let you plug a GSM device into analog phone wiring and provide service to multiple analog telephone handsets. This is good for a few reasons:

  1. Analog handsets are fairly cheap - While landline telephone service is really expensive, the equipment to make use of it is fairly inexpensive. A no-frills analog phone can be had for as little as $10, and if it is missing a feature that you want, like an answering system, headset support, or a caller ID display, you can probably pick up a device that does that for a bit more and plug it in to the same line. This is possible because:
  2. Analog telephone wiring is fairly simple - Because analog phone lines are essentially loops, it is easy to chain multiple devices together in tandem. Even without structured wiring systems, it's possible to use line splitters, couplers, and splices to add lines and jacks which would require additional network equipment to achieve with Ethernet.
  3. Cordless is cheaper and easier with analog - VOIP over WIFI can be tricky once you stop using tablets, smartphones, and computers as your extensions. Cordless phones on the other hand, are dead simple to set up and deploy.

Some carriers like t-Mo, VZW and ATT fiddled with the idea of GSM home phones for a short time. The state of the art right now is in Chinese devices of varying quality from companies like Alibaba.

4. The Smart Car Phone, A.K.A. The Smart Dashboard - This isn't really a product that is available now, but more of a wish of my own. I find my self using my smartphone for several things when I am on the road. Most of my hands-free phone use is achieved via Bluetooth, either with a headset or a speakerphone built into the dash somehow. Bluetooth can be frustrating to say the least. Connectivity issues abound, and many dash systems make a fuss when you try to configure them when your car is moving. If I am driving my car, or my partner's, I want to be in control of the computing experience, because the driver picks the music. This may not happen if my phone loses the race to be recognized by the Bluetooth dash.

Never mind the fact that if you decide to use your smartphone along with a dedicated device like a GPS or camera, your dashboard can quickly turn into a curio cabinet of tiny screens that is likely to cause an accident or at least get you pulled over for distracted driving.

There are cars with nifty touchscreen dashboards on the market, but the basically suck. The way to build a decent smart dashboard is to build it similarly to a smart watch: so that it can function to a certain extent without a smartphone.

A better device, in my opinion, is to build a small tablet-like device into the dash and use it for all of your car-based computing needs. I envision it to be a cross between a small tablet and a high-end stereo head unit where multiple sensors, cameras, video, and audio components plug in. Less like a smart phone and more like a small server console for a car. The goal here isn't to pair the dash with a phone, but for the dash to function completely without a smartphone. The dashboard is the smartphone, designed and optimized for use while driving.

Here are a few neat features that I think would make this devices invaluable in a car or truck:

  • Dedicated mobile phone - A Bluetooth hands-free system is great for talking on the phone, but you have to remember to set it up, and enable Bluetooth on your phone before the car is moving. I use an app called Trigger to switch on various apps based on events, but it's a kind of Rube Goldberg solution. Having your car have its own SIM would eliminate the need for Bluetooth, and allow the phone to be designed around the driving experience
    • Dedicated buttons - touch screens don't offer much in terms of tactile feedback, so having physical buttons that you can glance at and press makes more sense in a car.
    • Voice recognition - driving a car basically eliminates the ability to interact with text. The car is also a fairly controlled environment which is ideal for voice, honestly, this is the place for Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and others to really shine.
    • A dedicated phone/console makes switching drivers easier, there's no messing with switching between phones on Bluetooth. Buttons or a fingerprint reader could store detailed profile information for user switching. Services like Google Voice can handle the calling and texting stuff if necessary.
    • There are also times when you want to contact your car, and not the driver. Particularly when you need to know where the car is. Ignoring the possible privacy and security concerns for a moment, being able to text your car and have it auto-respond with its location would be a super handy feature. Doubly so if you have a teenager at the wheel.
  • Mobile hot spot - These are becoming features in new cars, but it would be nice to have an after market device that could provide WiFi to the immediate area around a car. With a strong enough WiFi antenna and some auxiliary batteries, your car could serve as an access point even when the car is turned off, providing WiFi when parked. This would be handy when visiting motels and restaurants with lousy or non-existent WiFi
  • Big antennae - Smartphones are fashion accessories, and as such they must be sleek. A smart phone that can't get a decent signal for data can be frustrating, but a GPS that can't get a lock for navigation is positively maddening. A car stereo also has to look cool, but it's possible to camouflage unsightly WiFi, GSM, and GPS antennae into the car to improve the range, reliability, and stability of these signals.
  • Multi-user - Unlike a smartphone, a car can have multiple users in the form of drivers, but also multiple simultaneous users the form of passengers. Having a dedicated car console set up with multiple simultaneous users in mind would be less of a distraction for the driver when it comes time to decide who is in charge of in flight entertainment.
    • Having multiple screens and audio outputs that can access separate video and audio feeds would be great. If the car is a WiFi hot spot, media stored on the dash unit could be streamed to tablets or built-in screens without access to the Internet. The car could become a kind of local cache for streaming media.
    • Most hands-free telephone systems have one microphone which is optimally placed for the driver. This does nothing for the privacy of the call since anyone in the car can hear; all it does is make it hard for others in the car to participate in a telephone conversation. If the hands-free system had multiple microphones dispersed around the vehicle, anyone in the car could participate, making the car a kind of rolling conference room. You'd be surprised how often I have encountered people shouting in the car to be heard on the other end of the call.
    • Car telephony is about voice, not necessarily text, so multiple users could forward their phones to the number for the dash phone, if they so choose, and continue to receive texts in the usual manner.
  • Multi-camera - Cars are now being equipped with backup cameras that engage when the car is put into reverse. Dashboard cameras like those used in American police cars and Russian civilian cars are also becoming popular for insurance and safety reasons. Making these camera feeds visible to auxiliary screens could be useful for a couple of cases:
    • Augmented vision - Assuming the screen was mounted in better view for the driver, having a low-light or infrared camera could assist when driving at night. Using two low-light cameras to show the lateral views outside the range of the headlights can help when driving on windy roads in the dark, where the road turns out of your view.
    • Dashcam conferencing - We have all talked someone through turn by turn directions by phone. Before Smartphones and GPS units were ubiquitous and affordable, my family used to do "Ghetto OnStar" or "Phone A Friend" navigation when lost. We would call someone on with our mobiles and ask if they have access to a computer so they can look up our location and assist us with directions. Other times, we would use MMS to send pictures of buildings to show where we were. Being able to send the video feed from your dash cam could be invaluable to helping someone navigate unfamiliar territory.
    • Blind spot cameras - Some cars come with lights on the rear-view mirrors to indicate a vehicle in the blind spot, and some cars come with backup cameras to assist with parking. The wide angle lens on a backup camera can make it difficult to to see what is actually in danger of being hit. Having a camera on each of the fenders of the car would provide a better view of a car's surroundings. especially at night.
  • Big-ass-batteries - Battery life is a constant worry with a high-end smart phone, especially for old phones. It's also a critical safety concern if you are relying on your smartphone to call for help, or to get weather or traffic information. As luck would have it, cars have significantly larger batteries than smartphones, and have alternators to charge those batteries when the engine is running.
    • Having a large battery pack for the dash unit to use when the car is off would be handy for avoiding boot times, for downloading updates via WiFi when the car is at home, and making it possible to communicate with the car when it is turned off
    • A smart charge controller could extend the life of both the dash system battery pack and the car's batteries
    • A large enough unit could possibly double as a built-in jump start mechanism, especially if the unit could be charged by AC power if needed
    • Being able to use solar panels to charge these batteries when the car is parked in the sun would be equally handy
  • Cheap storage - When it comes to smartphones, storage is always at an expensive premium. A device installed in a dashboard could make use of a less expensive form of storage, such as SD cards, solid state drives, or old fashioned mechanical drives. Lots of storage in a car is important for long car rides so that you have lots of music, audio books, and video on hand when you are outside of mobile data coverage. When integrated with the on board cameras, it would be possible to have a large archive of footage as well. Because of heat, dust, and vibration concerns, these devices should be removable and user replaceable, because life inside a car would be hell on digital storage.

Because these devices are meant for a specific purpose, their designs are free to be whatever they are. My chief criticism of Apple and Samsung smartphones is that they have morphed from small portable phones in to large tablet-like mutations. These designs try to be phones, tablets, and computers, but they end up not being very good at anything. That's fine, if you want to spend your day with your giant smartphone glued to your hand, squinting at a tiny screen and typing with your thumbs. I do not. I would rather use a device that is designed for small number of tasks, and switch devices when I switch tasks. I would prefer to use a desk phone and a desktop computer when I am sitting at a desk, and use a tablet or laptop when sitting on a couch or at a table without losing access to calling and texting. I am glad to see new devices enter the market that cater to this sort of use.