The always on myth is reduced in value to the electronic equivalent of a postcard

While I was in Greece for a 2 week vacation I decided to bring along just my iPhone to stay in touch with the rest of the world. I don’t make a habit of working too much on vacation, but circumstances made me decide to check e-mail once every few days. I was staying in an area where I knew there wasn’t any Internet connection. Going to an Internet cafe wasn’t an option either, so I used my 2G iPhone to get to my e-mail.

It was a pretty crappy experience overall. The iPhone may be the best mobile handheld device, but it simply sucks for me as a user in this situation. I have written before about the iPhone probably being one of the worst mobile phones I ever used. I’ve come to the conclusion that unless you have a wifi access point somewhere, using the iPhone as a connection device simply sucks. I know that you technology lovers out there think that I am crazy, that the device is the best ever. That may be. But I’m not talking about its technological capabilities or its innovative design. I’m looking at it from a user perspective. And the iPhone fails badly, just like any other mobile handheld. I don’t settle for “better than others”, It’s just not good enough.

This isn’t just the iPhone itself. Mobile technology gives us the promise of an always on life, but it doesn’t live up to this promise. And believe me, I have used the mobile Internet for a long time. I’ve used 2G, 3G and HSDPA technology to access the web. In terms of speed HSDPA obviously wins. It is the only technology that provides a reasonable web experience. In terms of reliability 2G wins, marginally. Mobile access technology isn’t nearly as reliable as for example a Wifi connection. The connection disappears frequently, the quality of service is very unreliable. And to top that off the mobile device using that access technology (in this case the iPhone) simply can’t deal with this inconsistent signal.

The most frequent problems I ran into were:

  1. Endless re-typing of usernames and passwords while using a web service. After logging in, the connection might break down, and for some reason the communication between iPhone and web service leads to login screens instead of seamless continuation where I left.
  2. Pages are too big to display. And I don’t mean in terms of pixel size, but in terms of Mbs. Safari gave me a lot of “Page too big too display” errors. Off course, these were the critical files I really wanted to see (and would be willing to wait on using the crappy 2G connection)
  3. The iPhone screen lock which kicks in destroys the web connection, which is a “great” feature when you are downloading something big. It leads to step one and a redownload of expensive bytes
  4. Watch out for iPhone enabled web services. Sorry to say the experience sucks in most cases. I might get an optimised view, but I also get limited options and in most cases a UI that isn’t intuitive or easy to use. for all you friendfeed lovers out there, I managed to post a message to Friendfeed “who:everyone elsas” which was supposed to be a search term to get an overview, instead of a new message. I might be Internet savvy but that one slipped through 😉
  5. Uploading data (a picture for example) is even worse than downloading data. Not only is the interface to accomplish this crappy (I had to install an e-mail account that pointed to my gmail. How many users do you think could understand and do that while they were away on a 2 week vacation), but the speed at which the uploading takes place is just off the charts. It took ages to upload one stupid picture.
  6. Reading and writing  e-mail gives many different smaller problems making it almost useless. Scrolling within a message is nearly impossible. Responding to e-mails and trying to use some of the text I am responding too is impossible. There isn’t a copy/paste I use often. The iPhone lets me enter text somewhere halfway some mail, but then doesn’t allow me to scroll further down and enter more text. The number of typos I made made reading my responses a difficult task. I haven’t had so many complaints or laughs about my typing errors. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The iPhone keyboard looks great but it sucks when you type. The miss of tactile feedback, the overintelligent respelling of words, the tiny characters you need to land your fingertips on. I’ve practiced it for months and it simply doesn’t pass any usability test. Try moving your body just an inch and still type correctly, it’s impossible.

This whole experience took me to much time trying to get on line and get access to those things that were important to me. I haven’t discussed the costs yet. I managed to send out some 12 Mb of data and downloaded about 68Mb of data. That’s going to be a bill of about 500 Euro.

Was it worth the 500 euro? Honestly, I don’t think so. I ended up making a few phone calls to get the things done I wanted to get done. It took way less time and money.

I’ve said before that the always on and instant access paradigm everybody is so full off right now is really just a myth thought up by trend watchers who need to say important and intelligent things. We don’t need to be always on or have accesss to aything whenever we want. It isn’t user driven, there isn’t a need for it. It’s a technology driven prediction. The technology enables us to be on-line, so it must be important. Sure we are more on-line than ever, but this relates mostly to non-mobile, fixed internet connections. The always on and instant access paradigm breaks down as soon as you enter the mobile, or on the move domain. Any trendwatcher that predicts that, hasn’t actually tried to integrate this into his own personal experiences.

You know what you really need when you are away for a 2 week vacation? It’s a postcard you can send to the ones you love, or its electronic equivalent called SMS. It lets you reach out asynchroneously whenever you want. It’s short, not expensive, and has the ability to make you laugh out loud when a friend or family member responds with a small but o so funny or dear reply. The always on myth is reduced in value to the electronic equivalent of a postcard.


About vanelsas

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2 Responses to The always on myth is reduced in value to the electronic equivalent of a postcard

  1. Hi Alexander, I love my iPhone but I could not agree with you more.

    Its when you REALLY need to use the iPhone “in anger” for a few days as your only Internet Device (as oppossed to the “cool demos” for your friends) that you realise the limitations of the iPhone. I’ve stopped using it for many Web Apps because of the constant signing in requirement (I use a long password for security its a nightmare to keep rekeying it).

    Love the blog BTW, keep it up.

  2. Michael, thanks and I agree (obviously). We tech lovers tend to fall in love based upon specs, technology, and cool demo’s. But the real test lies in using that in your daily life. And there isn’t a single handheld mobile device that can give me that satisfaction yet. Not even a cool iPhone 😉

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