They don't make mobile gear like they used to

Summary:A chance encounter with an old cell phone had me thinking about how far we've come, and how much we've lost with our latest communications technology.

motorola-razr-flip-phone
The Motorola RAZR V3, the absolute pinnacle of dumb phone technology.

An odd thing happened yesterday, one which had me thinking about the state of the mobile industry in unexpected ways.

For the last two years, almost exactly to the date, we've been living in our new home in South Florida. We've more than just settled in at this point -- we now really feel like the Broward County area is home.

I no longer look at New York Metro area news first, and my geo settings on my news apps are all set for the Fort Lauderdale/Miami area. I consider myself a Floridian now.

That being said there are still vestiges of my former life left. Like boxes of stuff we forgot to unpack two years ago. 

I was chiding my wife over the last week to finally open these boxes and see what was in them. Yesterday, she finally did.

"Hey... look what I found!" I heard from my office.

"What?"

"A cell phone!" My wife said.

"So what? I'm sure we got half a dozen old smartphones lying around."

"It turns on!"

"No freaking way!"

Sure enough, she was right. She trotted into my office, and lo and behold, was one of my old work phones I had used when I was at IBM. It was a Sprint Motorola RAZR V3. And while it was showing battery nearly empty, it was alive.

What's more amazing about this is that this CDMA 3G phone had to be off for at least two and a half years. It wasn't even the last work phone I had used at IBM. It was a phone that I was told to stop using, because the company switched carriers for something else, and I was sent something else instead. I wasn't even told to send it back.

So there it sat at a bottom of a box for who knows how long. And now, with the faintest of charge remaining, it was locking onto Sprint. With five bars.

This got me thinking about the current state of our personal communications hardware. We have these awesome smartphones now, that can do data at 4G speeds. With super-high-resolution screens. With crazy fast processors. With powerful apps.

But get through a day without running out of charge? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Try to turn one on two and a half years later after sitting in a cardboard box? I'm dying of laughter here.

I would love to see all of the respective mobile device manufacturers look into ways we can conserve battery life, or to come up with some kind of "Emergency Function" mode when the device is low on power.

If the RAZR was an AT&T phone, and I could throw my Nano SIM in it, I would have kept the thing for an emergency communications device and for long business trips. But it's not compatible with my provider network and I'd have to activate another line on it even if it did. So we brought it to Best Buy and threw it in the box they use for women's shelters looking for free 911 phones.

In Florida, we get hurricanes and tropical storms that can knock out our power for extended periods of time. External battery packs are good to have, but a smartphone will bleed a battery dry in no time unless you turn every service imaginable off.

I remember that RAZR had incredibly long standby and talk time, despite a puny 780mAh battery. I could go on God knows how many ass-melting conference calls a week on the thing without having to plug it in and not have to charge it until the following Monday.

What do most smartphones have today, 1800mAh? The iPhone 5S is considered to be anemic at 1570mAh.

Of course the RAZR was far from the most battery miserly device out there. David Gewirtz and I were talking about this yesterday and reflected on the days when the PalmPilots and the Treos were king. Those devices had CPUs that could be measured in double-digit Megahertz, and were pimped out at 2 Megabytes of RAM.

And to this day, even with my awesome Nokia 1520 with Exchange support and killer display, I still miss how two AAA batteries could keep a Palm III working for 30 days, if not more. How easy the displays were to read because of the high contrast black and white used, despite the pitifully low resolution by today's standards.

And how efficient the code was. A "Big" app on one of those things may have been a few hundred kilobytes. The database files weren't much larger.

Good luck with those daily charge smartwatches, folks.

I know a guy who works for the City of New York who has one of the last generation Treo phones that still ran on PalmOS. He still uses it because he refuses to migrate to a different contacts manager and it has incredible battery life.

I asked him how it was possible that it was still running. It turns out he bought like half a dozen of them, still brand new, on eBay. He has a bunch of them sitting in his desk drawer, like spare clone Cylon bodies on Battlestar Galactica, ready to be revived on a moment's notice.

He's all set until he retires. As long as he has a carrier that still supports 2G CDMA/EVDO/1xRTT, he's golden. As I understand it, Verizon isn't planning to turn their legacy 1G/2G network off until 2021.

I have no idea what he pays for his voice minutes (he doesn't use any data, apparently) but it has to be dirt cheap grandfathered somehow.

Now, I'm not saying that I want to go back to a PalmPilot or a RAZR V3 on an everyday basis. But we can learn something from this.

I would love to see all of the respective mobile device manufacturers look into ways we can conserve battery life, or to come up with some kind of "Emergency Function" mode when the device is low on power.

Windows Phone, for example, has something like this called Battery Saver, which shuts down WiFi, Bluetooth and GPS and various services to keep the phone alive for as long as it is possible when it's low on battery, and it's a good start.

What I am thinking of, however, is some kind of barebones JeOS that any smartphone OS can boot into when battery hits a user-defined threshold, or whenever the user wants. All this JeOS would do is be able to make phone calls in 3G/GSM and receive texts, and perhaps report raw GPS coordinates if turned on, for emergency purposes.

It would be a software dumb phone.

The display itself could even go idle (dark) unless a phone number is being dialed or texting is occuring. You don't need a display while actually making a phone call.

Even with 10 percent battery life remaining, you could still get a few hours of standby life, maybe more. That might be critical in any number of situations. And in an infrastructure failure scenario, such as during a hurricane, you may not be able to charge your phone after the power goes out. You'd want to boot directly into that mode, even with a full charge.

The TSA is now going to screen electronic devices at foreign airports with flights inbound into the United States. If you can't power on your phone, you might be leaving it in the bin. How many times have we been stuck with a dead device when we needed it the most? It happens.

Do you fondly remember your "Dumb" phone? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Smartphones, Mobile OS, Mobility

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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