Opinion and Wireless and Return on Technology and Technology

ALTOM: Do I need a cell phone that's hardy or handy?

August 28, 2010

It’s time to change my cell phone, and that’s causing me a big problem. I have conflicting needs, and like everybody else in the business world, I can’t seem to reconcile them.

The old phone isn’t anything special, just a standard Motorola flip phone that’s prob-ably five years old now. But I tend to get attached to cell phones to the point where it’s tough on me to change them. I’m not this way about cars. I can trade mine in without a thought when it gets too flaky.

But for some reason, cell phones are different. Maybe it’s because they share my life more than my car does. I carry my personal cell everywhere, fastened to my belt in a quick-disconnect holster. It goes with me more places than my wife does. And it’s endured a lot of unintentional punishment from me. Its face is gouged and grooved from where I’ve dropped it on asphalt, concrete, carpet and wood floors. I’m hard on phones, but this one has hung in there, never faltering.

Yet, everything reaches its end, and so it is with my little Motorola. The keys stick, so they don’t always make contact, and I end up dialing 112 instead of 1132. And it’s hard to use for texting, because it has only the standard phone-style keyboard. When I bought it, texting was the province of overcaffeinated, ambidextrous teen-agers. Now, even my middle-age friends and relatives text me rather than calling. Texting stops being fun when you have to press a sticky key three times to type an “F.”

I find myself today drawn to the smartphones I once ignored, with their expanded keyboards. Apple, Motorola, RIM and others have drastically improved their smartphones since I rejected one and bought my old, reliable workhorse years back. I still think of most of the smartphone attributes as toys with questionable business value, but this is my personal cell, and I think I should have a little fun with it.

But here lies my dilemma: Do I buy for fun or for durability? It seems I can’t have both. On the one hand, there is the sleek and powerful smartphone that now does everything personal data assistants (PDAs) once promised to do, and a dozen more things besides. My wife and I were out with a couple who have small children, and we needed to find a park for them to play in. Out came a smartphone, and within seconds we’d found a charming park with picnic tables and a play area. The world’s biggest online database is now accessible in a handheld device, and I find myself envious.

On the other hand, I know if I owned a smartphone, which has a larger and more fragile screen and a less rigid case than a traditional phone, I’d almost certainly have it in pieces within a few months. I’d drop it out of its holster or knock it off a table, and there I’d be buying a new one at the store, with my old phone’s guts dangling out onto the counter.

Motorola knows about people like me, and it has released the perfect answer to klutziness. It’s a line of cell phones that are like mine, only better: up-armored to military specifications and able to take considerable pounding.

Each wireless carrier seems to have a different version, but they all appear to conform to military requirements for ordinary wear, as well as for dust, solar radiation, high and low altitude, and high and low temperatures. They don’t take pretty pictures, their keyboard layout is no improvement on the one I have, and they don’t access the Web particularly well. But, boy, can they take a lot of slamming. They may not survive desert combat, but I’m pretty sure they’d stand up to falling out of my cell phone holster from time to time.

So I have conflicting needs. I can’t get what I want in a complete package, because there isn’t any such thing available to me. There are smartphones that are also military-grade, but my carrier doesn’t sell any of them, and I really doubt they’d be as rugged as I’d like.

Irreconcilable needs plague us all when we’re buying technology. If nothing else, price versus functionality is a constant tradeoff. When I’m advising others about this, I have them list their needs alongside their number-ranked priorities, and buy accordingly. I’ve done that, and it hasn’t helped. I’m caught squarely in the middle. Part of the problem is that I discount my need for texting until I need to text, so I downgrade that one on my list until I need it, whereupon it leaps to the top for a few minutes.

Perhaps I should observe the economist’s principle of indifference. If I’m truly in the middle, maybe overall I’m really indifferent about which phone I actually want. Maybe there’s unexpected wisdom in eeny-meeny-miney-moe. I’ll try that advanced analytical technique the next time I’m shopping in the phone store.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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