They don't make mobile gear like they used to

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.

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.


"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


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience 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.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Speaking of that TSA directive - does anyone know if

    the TSA would allow a "smartphone with a dead battery but using a smartphone battery case that still had some "juice" left in it?

    I know, a technicality but .. Just asking.
    • Guess would be no

      My guess would be no since the whole purpose of the rule is to not leave a large cavity in the device for an explosive. It's really aimed more at laptops with large batteries.
      Buster Friendly
  • Those old Motorola and Nokia phones...

    could also make decent voice calls, which seems to be beyond some smartphone makers....
    Jack Schofield
    • I am not unconvinced

      That the move to VOIP over 4G networks has actually degraded voice quality because of the type of adaptable codec being used and UDP. 3G was still technically straight up GSM for voice, wasn't tied to the data channel at all, even though it was digitally encoded.
      • JP, I have that same exact phone and it still works.

        A friend of mine recently broke his phone and need a temp replacement phone. So I loaned him my old Motorola RAZR V3, one I had dropped in salt water while sailing a few years ago. He liked it so much I still have not gotten it back.

        Those were great phones.
      • Not true

        Volte provides better voice quality than most of the 3G codecs. Some of the CDMA operators really dialed down the voice quality of EVRC-B.

        Most Volte implementations will be using AMR-WB by default.
    • Some smartphones

      don't even like doing voice, at least not in quantities that a phone should be able to deal with.

      My boss talks for 4+ hours a day on the phone and his iPhones rarely last 1 year before the batteries die and the speaker or microphone often gives out before then...
      • Speaking of iphones

        When I first got my razr maxx (to this day the only smartphone that really had a sensible sized smartphone battery) I couldn't believe how long it ran for. So I looked I to all this and was quite surprised:

        For one, my also new iphone 5 actually had a longer talk time than any of my dumb phones had before them.

        Working on this basis I decided to use my iphone like a dumb phone - I turned off wifi blue tooth location services, basically every option in settings! quit all apps and restarted the phone, locked the screen and only used it for calls and texts. I charged it up on a Sunday night and it shut off on the way home from work on Thursday. This is pretty inline with my old sony Ericsson and nokia phones.

        What I did notice was that my new super duper motorola only did 2 days because I was on it all the time! Used to having a work and personal smartphone, I did all my online stuff on one - I could not go a week without a smartphone.

        I'm a big fan of the windows feature - when I tested a lumia 520 and 720 it added hours, but I also found they already did many hours over an iphone anyway.

        I think what we really need is bigger batteries.

        The battery dead in a year thing is because people are charging more than once a day and hitting upto 500+ charge cycles in a year! Also with a smartphone a tolerate battery wear far less than a laptop!
    • Best Phone Ever

      Between myself, wife, and kids we went threw 6 Motorola RAZR phones. I have never purchased more than one series of phones since then. I have always felt for many small reasons the Motorola RAZR's were the best phone we have ever had. To bad they were dumb.
  • They don't make mobile gear like they used to....

    Indeed and you use to be able to drop them without the fear of Terminal damage. Oh yes of course we now live in a throw away society don't we.
    Laptops were built to last. I wonder how long those shiny new Surface Pro 3's will stand up to daily life ?
    • Glued in batteries are the worst

      The glued in batteries are the worst abuse. The battery lifespan is much shorter to every other component. People put up with it so every company starts to do it.
      Buster Friendly
    • Droppable Smart Phone

      It was not just the dumb phones that could be rugged.

      Once, while cleaning the gutters on my house, I managed to dislodge my Verizon XV-6800 (HTC Mogul, IIRC, running WinMobile 6.1)from its holster (thought I might have to call for help if the ladder fell down...). It fell from the 2nd story onto the 1st story front porch roof, then bounced from that to the concrete sidewalk at ground level.

      Aside from a few scratches to the back, and popping the battery out, it booted right up, and worked normally after I put the battery back in!

      I still have it as a backup for my backup XV-6900 (HTC Touch/WM 6.1), which is a backup for my Imagio (WM 6.5), which is a backup for a Droid Bionic. I am a bit paranoid with all the backups since I would have to give up my grandfathered unlimited data plan with VzW if I ever switched back to a dumb phone which would finally give VzW an excuse to force me to a "new" plan. No new subsidized phones from VzW for the same reason. eBay is my phone supplier.
  • Never owned a RAZR

    in fact, I don't really remember what the model of my phone was back then, just the brand (Motorola.)

    I do miss one thing about flip phones, though: I miss whipping it open and going.... "SCOTTY.... stand by to..... BEAM ME UP!!!"
    • Had the flip down

      I had the Kirk flip down. I would pull out my startak and do a wrist flip making it look like that's how I opened it. The trick was to push it open with your index finger.
      Buster Friendly
  • A Motorola RAZR V3 flip phone - oh the memories.

    In 2005, I purchased my last flip phone model, the Motorola RAZR V3 model offered thru Verizon. I used my Corporate discount and purchased two phones thru Verizon's "family plan" package. Of course I also bought the matching bluetooth headsets, belt clip phone holders and an automotive battery charger.

    That flip phone was the last phone I purchased and used before I bought my next phone and first smartphone - an iPhone 5. It looked like it had been thru the wars but it worked. And that second RAZR - well, it was used by my Dad until "he didn't need to use it anymore" two years ago. Of course it was in pristine shape.

    Like Jason stated, they don't make phones like they used to. Sigh.
    • Startac for me

      I went right from the digital startac to a Treo 650 as my first smartphone. I think I got my Treo in about 2005 or maybe 2006. Before that we used to carry our palm pilots and a phone.
      Buster Friendly
      • Nokia 7110 Slider

        Way cooler. No question.
        Little Old Man
        • Wrong comment

          but you get the gist.
          Little Old Man
  • Remember it? It is 3 ft away.

    Sniggers. I have a lowly pay as go T-Mobile phone made by Samsung (a T159). It is a flip style phone and has far more features than I've ever needed. it has a measly 96x96 pixel screen

    I use it only for calls, and wipe its memory every few days. I do not use it to go on-line, do not use it for GPS, do not use it for images, do not even do texting. It has a camera function but could not even tell you how it works. It has multiple ring tones but never even bothered checking them out. It has so called Essential Games, not sure how to even get to them.

    They are fairly cheap and disposable. They cost only about 20 each. I have a couple of the same model and that has come in handy as I've already needed an emergency battery swapout. When one goes I'll switch out to the other.

    Battery life is in my honest opinion pretty gosh darn good... I can generally go about a week between plug ins even with some use.

    I am a programmer, but have always thought consumers love of cell phones idiotic. If I did not need one for emergencies I would not even have a dumb phone.

    If it gets stolen, no big loss monetarily nor information wise. I do not keep anything of any importance, even contact lists, in it.

    Heh, when I had to get my current phone, the guys at T-Mobile were apologetic in informing me that they though the phone must have trashed the information, they were astounded when I told them I never kept anything, including contacts, on it.
    • You almost read my mind

      The only cell phone I have ever had is a Samsung flip phone on T-Mobile. I got it originally just for emergencies (which hasn't happened yet). It costs me about $10 a year. That's mainly because I don't do much traveling. I'm expecting that to change perhaps as soon as next week. But I don't think I will need a smartphone even then. I'll take my laptop (more powerful than any desktop I've ever had). I have GPS in my car for road trips and I have never felt the need to communicate while flying. Maybe I'm just a minimalistic person. The irony is that I'm originally a techie and now an IT executive.

      I wonder if the smartphone is just the latest incarnation of a status symbol, which was also true of the dumb cell phone a few years ago.