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Smartphones – A Personal History – part 2 Jul 29

In Part 1 I talked about PDA’s that I’ve had prior to having a smartphone. That’s done, we’re up to the good stuff.

Kyocera 7135 – best smartphone ever?

Well, maybe in my opinion. At least one of the first really good ones.

Smartphones had been around for a while, but they were expensive as was the associated data service. I had no business need for one, so I skipped the extra expense. However, prices were coming down and Palm OS devices began to appear on the market which meant I could easily transfer all the data I already had in my Visor. In 2001 I started working for myself as an independent computer tech, consulting on various jobs. I was fairly reliant on email for referrals, I decided that I needed to get with the program and in early 2003 after considering the rather large Kyocera 6035, I bought my first smartphone, a Kyocera 7135 ( amazingly, the Kyocera 7135 site is still active).

The Kyocera was a rather advanced flip phone with a color display at the top and a conventional phone keypad and Palm-style stylus input area at the bottom. While the stylus input ( It was called “Graffitti”) , it was fast once you got good with it, probably faster than today’s touch-screen keyboards.  It came with a docking station that had space to charge a spare batter at the back. While it didn’t have a camera, the phone had much of the features and functions that we consider essential to today’s smartphone. The screen could display pictures and videos, there was an MP3 player with stereo output that could read from a SD card ( admittedly a small one).  There was a rudimentary browser, probably the biggest difference from today’s smartphones, that while capable of showing some websites, couldn’t display anything at all complicated. Email was pretty good, though and I could tether a laptop to the phone and get it on the internet, something an un-jailbroken iPhone still won’t do.

Like the Palm PDA’s that used the same OS, there were tens of thousands of applications on the market. I had password keeping tools, alternative MP3 applications and all kinds of other stuff. Unlike many of today’s phones, there wasn’t a single application store, software was sold by individuals and companies and installed directly on the phone by the user. The stylus and the touchscreen allowed for easy select, copy and paste.  Palm’s OS wasn’t capable of multitasking, but it was very good at switching from one application to another easily and quickly, which made up for it, particularly compared to the multitasking capable but poorly executed windows mobile.

What the 7135 did BETTER than today’s phones was…be a phone. Crazy, i know. Open, the phone had large, backlit buttons like a regular cellphone and a speaker that fit your ear and went LOUD, as did the speakerphone on the exterior of the lid.  Inside the svelte, folding body was a trimode radio and an extendable antenna. This meant the phone was capable of using not only the relatively new digital towers but the older, longer range analog towers, which meat that when other phones ( particularly digtal phones ) were out of range of a tower, the 7135 was ready to go. Analog usage really chewed through the batteries, but having a spare battery charged in the morning partially made up for that. I took this phone on a vacation, to the Olympic National Park. This phone had better service than all 4 other phones on the trip. On another trip to the Grand Canyon, I even managed to make a call from the south rim when the other two phones along hadn’t seen a signal in hours.

I was sad when this phone finally broke and I had to give it up for a Treo 650.

The Treo 650

Verizon had stopped selling the 7135, so when it broke it was replaced with a Treo 650. The Treo used similar Palm OS software and had similar internal “computer” hardware, but with the addition of a camera and bluetooth.

The screen was a little better and brighter. Instead of the Palm-style input sensor, the Treo used a Blackberry style QWERTY keyboard. The keys were just barely far enough apart for my fingers to use, but the short separation distance was helped by the round shape of the keys. I prefered the Palm input sensor on the 7135 to the keyboard.

So while it’s abilities as a PDA were pretty good, the 650′s abilities as a phone were a step down from the 7135. Audio quality took a dive and the radios inside were not as capable as the Kyocera. I dropped ( or was unable to complete ) more calls than I had with the 7135, something that prepared me for iPhone ownership years later. The worst part was trying to use those little keys ( the dark ones are the number pad ) to dial a phone number. You could use a soft keyboard on the touchscreen, but response seemed a little slow. The one good phone feature it had was an on/off switch for the ringer on the top of the phone.

On the positive side, bluetooth and an integrated camera were nice, so  I began to talk hands free with a bluetooth headset.

After a couple of years with the Treo, I moved back into windows mobile with the Samsung i730.

Samsung i730

It seemed like Palm development had slowed, so with my next phone I headed back into Windows Mobile ( 2003 SE ) with the Samsung i730. The i730 was a vertical slider phone with a fairly large vertical format color touchscreen on the upper slider and a QWERTY keyboard on the lower slider.  Verizon wireless still has their site up for this phone with cool animations that walk you through operating the OS.

The bigger screen was a welcome improvement, but the keyboard wasn’t as good. The keys were awkwardly shaped and the lower plane of the slider made them difficult to use, compared to the Treo 650.  The device was a little thick and chunky, particularly with the extended life battery on the back. That extended life battery didn’t extend it as much as one would have hoped, either.

As a phone it was a mixed bag. Reception was pretty good, but much of the time you were still left punching in phone numbers on the little numberpad. However, Windows Mobile was slow and this adversely affected its abilities as a phone. Dialing could be a tedious affair – punch in a few digits and wait for the phone to catch up with you and show what you typed. Go too fast and you’ll have to backtrack and do it all over again since you wouldn’t be able to see your mistake until the phone displayed it. Address book response wasn’t much better, but at least you couldn’t mistype the number. Voice recognition dialing was included, but it left a lot to be desired as well, often unable to understand what I said.

Windows Mobile’s biggest problem seemed to be the same as it was when I first used it years earlier on my Everex A-15 PDA ( I talked about this in part 1 ) – poor memory management. When you were done with an application, there was no easy way to stop it. You simply returned to the “desktop” and left the application running in the background, taking up memory and CPU cycles. Windows Mobile ( or WinMo ) was supposed to close unused applications, but didn’t seem to actually bother to do so. Rather, it allowed these unused applications to take up more and more memory until the phone slowed to unusable levels.  Closing down applications manually required going into the system settings and into the task management, a process that required moving through about a half dozen layered menus.

This gap in function was partially filled by the WinMo software market with task manager programs that made ending programs easier.  My favorite application added a “minimize”  icon ( the “-” ) to the top of most programs and modified the “X” so it would end the program rather than just hide it. This worked, but I still ended up restarting the phone every couple of days ( sometimes several times a day ), usually in frustration when the phone was too slow to answer a call before it went to voicemail.  This is even worse, considering the phone got several unrelated restarts a day as I exchanged batteries.

When the phone was running right, it was pretty fast and slick. U.S. versions didn’t have cameras ( supposedly a security consideration for corporate purchasers ), but everything else was a step up over my previous phones. The screen was big enough and the processor was fast enough that I could watch a video. I began listening to podcasts with aftermarket MP3 player applications ( because Windows Media Player mobile was LAME ) and Podcast Catchers to download them over the 3G wireless. Browsing was still pretty pathetic, but mobile Email was top notch with multiple account capability.

I used the i730 for several years until I started working for Monroe County BOCC and they began supplying my smartphones.

Palm Treo 700w

The Treo 700W was underpowered and not my favorite phone.

Sure, it had a camera and better battery life than the i730, but other than that it was pretty much a Treo 650 with a worse user experience. Palm decided to not use their own OS and instead installed WinMo 5, which STILL had memory issues. Palm decided to address this in Verizon phones by REDUCING THE MEMORY TO 32MB. Seriously. User interface lag on this phone may have been worse than any other phone I’ve ever used. In my humble opinion, this phone was the start of the decline of Palm. I didn’t have this phone for long, though, I moved on to the Verizon XV6700, which I will cover in part 3.

Next up, more WinMo, iPhone and Android in Part 3.

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Smartphones – A Personal History – Part 1 Jul 01

PCWorld’s “Talk Nerdy to me” email hit my inbox and caught my eye with the title “A Brief History of Smartphones”.

Cool, I’ve been using these since just about the beginning. Let’s take a trip down memory lane. I clicked through and found this:

http://www.pcworld.com/article/199243/article.html?tk=nl_tnx_h_topstory.  I was frustrated that it contained no mention of either Windows Mobile or Symbian mobile operating systems, both of which ( IMHO ) were important early mobile operating systems. I’ve never really been a Symbian user, but they still own 44% of the smartphone market – more than Blackberry, iPhone and Android combined.

Instead, the article spent 3 of 9 panels with Android phones, which have only been around for two years.  I felt I could do better just talking about the smartphones and devices that I’ve owned. So here goes:

Personal Digital Assistants

Everex A-15 Manager

I started with a PDA in 1998. My first was an Everex A-15 Manager, one of the first Windows CE devices to use the now-familiar portrait orientation that Palm made popular.  Here’s a contemporary review.

The display was tough to read and battery life, while good by today’s smartphone standards, wasn’t as promised. Everex ( and Microsoft ) referred to these as “Palm Size PC” and their big selling point was the ability to multitask, while Palm’s Pilot could only run one application at a time.  As it turned out, a 66Mhz processor and 8MB of RAM isn’t enough to do it well. I spent as much time killing applications to free up memory as I did using them and Microsoft didn’t see fit to include an easy way to do that. Fortunately there were a lot of third-party applications out there a ( decade ahead of the iPhone ) and plenty of developers made task managers.  Microsoft would fail to learn important memory management lessons from Windows CE 2 and every subsequent Windows Mobile device I would use in the following decade would suffer from similar performance issues.

Everex exited the PDA market in 1999.

Handspring Visor Platinum

My fustrations with the Windows CE operating system pushed me toward the Palm OS, if not their hardware. Handspring made PDA’s with Palm’s OS and their own devices. Palm OS was not capable of multitasking, but “paused” applications and switched them fast enough that it wasn’t really a big deal, particularly if you had lived with the problems that real multitasking gave Windows CE.

While the hardware inside the Visor was not as fast as the Everex, the resulting user experience was far superior. Searching for a contact would take a fraction of a second, rather than the 20-30 seconds it could take with Windows CE. Battery life was better, but the display was not really much of an improvement. Still, I loved my Handspring.

Phones

Somewhere around this time I started using a Motorola StarTac “wearable” cell phone, the first really small cell phone.

I was still carrying my Handspring for all my contacts.

Putting the Two Together

What set Handspring’s devices apart from Palm’s own line of PDA’s was their Springboard Expansion slot in the top/back. Springboard modules were available to fit into the PDA to add software or hardware capabilities. Games, reference material, GPS, WI-FI, even a phone module called the Visorphone.

I was tempted by the prospect of having my contacts integrated into the phone and carrying one less device. Mobile email and limited web surfing were attractive as well. However, I got a Geodiscovery Geode GPS springboard module for my Handspring and found that the PDA portion was very dependent on the third party software to make it work well. The Geode hardware was good, the software turned out to be garbage.

The Visorphone used a different cell carrier than I was using and I didn’t want to incur the rather major charges to switch. In the end I never used my Handspring as a Phone, but it introduced me to the concept. Within a year, Handspring had introduced their first integrated smartphone ( Treo ) and by 2003 were purchased by Palm.

Next time: I get an actual smartphone.

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Kennedy Space Center May 15

With the excitement of the launch over, we paid a visit to Kennedy Space Center on Saturday.  It really is staggering to stop and think that only 58 years separate the Wright Brother’s first flight and the first manned space flight.  That’s really the blink of an eye.  If you’ve never been and you are fascinated with space flight, you really should go.  They have actual capsules you can climb into (just looking at a Mercury capsule made me claustrophobic.  Did you know that the final criteria for Mercury astronauts was whether they were small enough to fit into the capsule??), Apollo capsules on display that show streaking from the heat of re-entry, and Neil Armstrong’s actual space suit: lunar dust, scuffs and all.  Incredible stuff.

It really IS rocket science! May 14

With only 3 shuttle launches left on the schedule, we figured it was now or never to make a trip to Cape Canaveral to see one.  Jethon rode with us and we met Ella & Jonathan (who drove from North Carolina) there.  We couldn’t get tickets to watch from Kennedy, so upon arrival on May 13, we did reconnaissance in Titusville along the Indian River.  We had been told that Space Park was the best spot to watch from, but it was already a zoo with TV trucks and yellow caution tape strung all over the place.  So we drove around along the river until we saw a sign that said “park here for donation to Relay for Life.”

Here’s the site on Google Streetview.

A great couple lived there (he’s a retired NASA engineer) who opened their house for launches.  They had snacks and drinks (for a donation) and a bathroom that was much cleaner than the port-a-pottie at Space Park!  Their yard is directly on the Indian River across from the massive Vehicle Assembly Building.  It’s about 12 miles from the launch pads as the crow (er, shuttle)  flies.  We got there early and just lounged all day, catching up with Ella & Jonathan.  It was miserably hot, but everybody was in a good mood.  The launch went off as scheduled at 2:20 pm.  Honestly, you can get a better view watching it on TV, but nothing can capture the feel of the sound of the take-off.  Yes, that’s what I meant to say.  We were several seconds post-launch, watching the shuttle climb, and I remember thinking “that’s so odd – I thought for sure we’d hear something!”  And that’s when the rumble hits (sound travels just over 4 miles/second).  You actually feel the rumble a milli-second or 2 before you hear it, and the sonic boom just puts the exclamation point on the whole experience.  The sound alone was worth the 7 hour drive!