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By Joel Klebanoff

Ruffled Serenity

In my opinion, you have to be rich, stupid, or a combination of the two to spend $1,275 on a cell phone these days. According to an October 26, 2006, Washington Post article, that's what you'll pay for a phone, dubbed "Serene," that was designed by Bang & Olufsen (B&O) using technology from Samsung. Personally, I think the phone's name is incredibly ironic because I can't imagine ever being serene after paying $1,275 for a cell phone.

How can they get away with such a high price for a phone? Oh, but it's not just a phone. If you go to the Serene Mobile Web site and click on "in use," you're told that Serene offers "discreet, pleasurable interaction." OK, now I understand. I've never priced them myself, but plenty of people spend a lot of money for discreet, pleasurable interactions. Of course, unlike the act of buying a Serene phone, soliciting for the purpose of engaging in those sorts of interactions—or, in some places, just the act of paying for them—is illegal in most jurisdictions.

As you would expect given that B&O is one of the two companies that developed it, design is an important element in Serene. Quoting from the Web site, "The dark, hardwearing surface of Serene almost disappears in the absence of light." That's so amazing that it almost makes me want to buy a Serene just to marvel at this wonder of modern science. I assume that when it says "almost disappears," it's talking about the perceptions of us humans, not animals that "see" via echolocation or some other means that doesn't require the presence of light. If so, it's truly incredible. Until now, to the human eye, everything entirely disappeared in the absence of light. But, according to the marketing copy for Serene, it seems that some technologists have developed something that almost, i.e., not entirely, disappears under such conditions. Now that they're finished building Serene, maybe they can fiddle with the gravitational constant to make transportation on the planet easier and more energy-efficient.

I suspect that B&O and Samsung really mean low light levels rather than the absence of light, but it doesn't matter because I don't consider disappearance—partial or complete—under any circumstances to be a strong selling point. That would significantly increase the opportunities for me to lose a $1,275 phone, in which case I would be anything but serene.

What do you get for your investment in Serene beyond a design that is so exquisite as to compel fellow travelers on the toll road of life to exclaim, "Cool phone!" just before beating the crap out of you as punishment for repeatedly demonstrating your infuriatingly boorish cell phone habits? For one thing, you get a motor that can open the clamshell-design phone. If the phone is in its charger cradle, the motor can automatically open the phone when a call or message comes in. This doesn't seem like a great benefit to me because, in its cradle, it's functionally little different from a wired phone. Why not just buy a simple speaker phone instead?

When out of its cradle, the motor will not engage automatically. Instead, you need to apply "gentle finger pressure" to activate it. That's a good thing because you wouldn't want the phone to open robotically while it's still in your pocket. Depending on which pocket you carry it in, that could be rather embarrassing in a Mae West sort of way.

So what is the benefit of the motor? I didn't see any mention of it in the scant online literature provided by B&O, but maybe it would help some people who have physical handicaps. I'm all for that. Then again, because it's not automatic when the phone is out of its cradle, you still require manual dexterity to open a Serene when putting it to a cell phone's traditional purpose, unencumbered communications. The only instance I can think of when the motor would help a physically challenged person is when that challenge is solely a lack of sufficient strength to open the lid. My current cell phone is not of a clamshell design, but my recollection from when I did have such a phone is that the amount of strength required to open it was small enough such that, if you have the manual dexterity but not the strength necessary to open the lid, then you probably also lack sufficient strength to perform other essential activities, such as breathing, in which case I doubt that a cell phone would be of much use to you.

Another Serene benefit is that, in normal operation, its screen is at the bottom of the phone rather than the top position found on most cell phones. (Because there are some instances when it is more appropriate to have the screen on top, a single command flips the screen image so it will be right way up when you use the phone the other way around.) What's the reason for this design choice? It keeps the screen way from your ear and other face parts when you're talking on the phone. Consequently, according to the Web site, "Greasy screens are now a thing of the past!"

That sounds to me like a high price to pay for a greaseless phone. Because I'm fairly certain that more readers of this column are American than any other single nationality, I went to an American online grocery shopping site, Peapod, to do a little research. I lied to Peapod and told it I was shopping from a Brookline, Massachusetts, zip code. What did I find? At time of writing, a 15-roll package of Bounty paper towels was priced at $17.99. A 26-ounce bottle of Windex Glass Cleaner—and not just any old bottle, but one with a "No Drip Trigger Spray" mechanism—was $3.19. So I figure that, considering its small size, you can clean your cell phone screen every day for its entire useful life for just $21.18. That's using brand-name products and not shopping around. If you're willing to use no-name products and do a little legwork to find the best deal, I'll bet you could get that down to well under $20.

Keep in mind that the above numbers assume that you're going to clean the screen every day. I've owned my current cell phone—one with a screen that's on the dreaded upper portion of the phone—for well over a year. I can't recall ever—not even once—feeling the need to clean the screen in all that time. True, I'm a devout slob, but even taking that into consideration, I still think that the daily cleaning of your cell phone screen would be a strong indicator of pathological anal retentiveness. Thus, even if you are less slovenly than me, you're likely going to have a lot of cleaning supplies left over for that 20 or so bucks.

Yes, I know that you have to consider more than just the cost of the cleaning supplies. You also have to do the work. Well, I don't know about your financial situation, but if I turn into the sort of person who goes around willy-nilly spending $1,275 on a cell phone, then I'm not going to be able to afford to do anything else, so I might as well fill my time cleaning the screen.

Another Serene difference is the placement of the telephone keys. Instead of the normal rectangular layout found on most modern phones, the keys are arranged around the outside of a circular, thumb-operated navigation wheel. It's been a long time since rotary dial phones were widely used, so few people are still familiar with this type of layout. Besides, Serene starts the number sequence at a different point on the circle than rotary dial phones did, eliminates the gap between 0 and 1 that existed on old rotary dials, and includes the pound (#) and asterisk (*) keys that weren't available on the old phones. Thus, until you become familiar with Serene, a high comfort level with rotary dials will probably not negate the need to spend time searching for the numbered buttons you want when you're trying to make a call. Further to my point in the previous paragraph, I guess that's so that, by spending all of your time hunting for unfamiliar keys, you won't notice that you no longer have sufficient funds to afford to do anything else. Why wouldn't you just speed dial from the phone's memory rather than tapping in the telephone number when you want to make a call? Hold on; I'm getting to that right now.

Obviously, there were limits to what the Serene designers were able to squeeze into one small phone. For example, while Serene can synchronize calendar entries and to-do lists with Microsoft Outlook, it can't synchronize address book entries between the two. Let me see if I understand this. I can easily get my calendar onto the phone, but not my contact's phone number. (Yes, I did use the singular intentionally. I'm not very popular, so this is not as big a problem for me as it may be for you.) I don't know about you, but I think that a phone would be a startlingly useful place to store phone numbers. Maybe I'll put a note in my Outlook to-do list reminding me to research this point further. That way, the note will end up in my Serene if, in a moment of acute weakness, blinding stupidity, or unimaginable wealth ownership, I ever buy one.

Why can't you synchronize contact information? Because, according to an FAQ page that I found by doing a search on B&O's Web site (but not on the Web site set up specifically for Serene, which, at the time of writing, didn't mention synchronization at all as far as I could find), "The structure used for synchronising contacts is optimised for the DECT synchronisation feature, which makes it possible to synchronise the phonebooks of Serene and a Bang & Olufsen cordless DECT telephone system (BeoCom 6000 / BeoCom 2). Due to this special structure it is only possible to synchronise contacts with a DECT system and not with Microsoft Outlook." That sounds like a bunch of technical gobbledygook intended to ensure that we don't realize that what B&O's marketers/developers are really saying is that it was their job to find a way to convince us to buy other B&O products, not Microsoft products. (I apologize to my American friends for the above FAQ quote. The B&O Web site recognized that I was browsing from Canada, without my giving it that information. Even after I told it that I wanted American rather than Canadian English spellings—an option that the Web site generously offered and then ignored when it displayed the information I requested—it still spelled the derivatives of synchronize and optimize with an "s" rather than a "z." The funny thing is that's one area where the generally accepted Canadian spelling is the same as the American, not the British, spelling.)

Huh? It can't synchronize contact information with Outlook? For better or worse, Microsoft Outlook is one of the most—and, for all I know, possibly the most—widely used software of its kind on the planet. You'd think that B&O and Samsung would be able to find a way to support contact synchronization with Outlook in addition to any other synchronizations it supports. What's more, even if there really is some technical reason why it's impossible to do so, after spending $1,275 for a phone, I'd expect B&O to send someone to my home or office to manually enter the contact information into my phone every time I key a new entry into Outlook. Considering the price, I don't think that's asking for too much.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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