Thursday, February 22, 2007

Convergence rant

Don't tell my wife, but I just did a little math and realized that I'm on my 9th PDA. 11th if you count the two times I've replaced an existing model with an exact duplicate (once from Craigslist and once when my PDA was still under warranty). 13th if you count the two that I've bought for my wife.

They've all been Pocket PC or Windows Mobile PDAs. Three were handhelds, meaning they had a clamshell design and a built in keyboard. And none of them have had integrated cell phone features. My latest PDA, a Dell Axim X50v can connect to my computer via USB or Bluetooth, and I can go online with WiFi. But I can't make a phone call on my PDA, something a friend of mine was able to do more than six years ago with a Handspring Visor attachment.

That Visor had 8MB of storage, a 16MHz processor, and a grayscale 160x160 pixel screen, but it could make phone calls. My Axim, with a VGA screen, 624MHz chip, and 64MB of memory cannot.

It's not a technical limitation, of course. There are plenty of convergent devices now that can run circles around that old Handspring Visor in terms of web browsing, voice quality, and other features, such as voice commands. That's not to mention how much smaller and cuter the new smartphone devices are.

So 6 years after seeing my friend hold a small brick up to his ear to make a phone call, why don't I have a PDA that can connect to the internet no matter where I am? Don't I want always available access? Well of course I do, I'm a technogeek, aren't I?

But there's a few key things that have kept me from buying a Palm Treo, T-Mobile Dash or Cingular Blackjack.

Size matters

Form determines function, and while it's great to have a mobile device that fits easily into your pocket, I've never had trouble fitting a full sized PDA with a 3.8 inch screen into my pocket (I tend to wear jeans). And the benefits of having a slightly larger device far outweigh the benefits of a tiny phone-like PDA for me.
  1. I like to watch videos, play games, read web sites and ebooks on my PDA. The larger the screen, the better for this. VGA resolutions also help.
  2. A larger PDA can easily accommodate a larger battery. Sure, it makes the device a bit heavier, but being able to run for 7-10 hours on a single charge is a killer app for me.
  3. Smartphones like a Blackberry, T-Mobile Dash, or Palm Treo tend to be large for cell phones, but still have tiny difficult to use keypads. I'd rather have that screen real estate for a larger screen and I can plug in an external keyboard when I need it. Of course, if I had an always-available internet connection I might see things differently.
  4. My cell phone is really tiny. And its battery lasts forever on a single charge. Know why? Because all I use it for is making phone calls.
The cost of doing business

This is the primary reason I haven't bought a convergent device. Sure, you can pick up a Blackjack for free after rebate from Amazon. But that's just the up front cost. Within a year, that Blackjack would cost me as much as I paid for my Dell Axim.

That's because in order to make full use of a convergent device, you need to buy a smartphone, lock yourself into a contract with a wireless service provider and pay monthly for a data plan on top of a voice plan. With my current service provider, that would mean paying at least $80 per month, or more than twice what I currently pay.

Over the course of one year, I'd spend about $540 more than I currently do on wireless service, and since I usually try to hang onto a PDA for about 2 years, that'd be $1080 for a "free" device. I could buy a pretty decent notebook for that kind of money.


I plan to hold onto my Axim for a little longer. For the price of a two year service plan, I could buy nearly 3 Axims, 5 Palm Tungsten E2s, or 10 Palm Zire Z22s! Yet Microsoft dares to call the Smartphone edition of its latest mobile operating system "Windows Mobile 6 Standard."

I do expect that I'll add some sort of data plan to my wireless service. And odds are I'll do it within the next few years. But there's a part of me that's holding out hope that I'll be able to pay for a data plan without a voice plan. This week Skype petitioned the FCC, asking the agency to put the kibosh on a dirty trick by the cell phone industry.

Essentially, mobile service providers throw language into their end user agreements prohibiting customers from making VoIP calls on their data plans. In other words, you can't connect your smartphone to the internet and then use Skype to initiate long distance calls without racking up minutes on your voice plan without violating the terms of your contract.

I doubt many wireless companies will drop the requirement that you sign up for separate data and voice plans in order to activate a phone. But if Skype succeeds in its challenge, I'll buy a convergent device the moment I can find a service provider that grants me a reasonable data-only plan for $40 a month.

1 comment:

Farrah said...

Thirteen. Thir-TEEN. Dude, you're so not getting a new gadget for your birthday.

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