Smartphones: Where the computer and telephony cultures clash

Buried in my recently posted saga of why synch can stink was a comment about how, when using Intellisync to wirelessly (over Verizon Wireless' EVDO network) synchronize email, contacts, appointments, etc. between my PC (an IBM Thinkpad T42) and an Audiovox XV6600 PocketPC phone, I was unable to control the frequency of data synchronization.

Buried in my recently posted saga of why synch can stink was a comment about how, when using Intellisync to wirelessly (over Verizon Wireless' EVDO network) synchronize email, contacts, appointments, etc. between my PC (an IBM Thinkpad T42) and an Audiovox XV6600 PocketPC phone, I was unable to control the frequency of data synchronization.  Ideally, you want all events (new e-mails, appointments, contacts, etc.) to show up on your handheld as soon as possible.  So, when would you want them to come less frequently?  Well, when you notice that such minute-to-minute usage of your device's wide area network radio (the EVDO one in my case, not the Bluetooth one) is killing your battery life.  This, in many cases, is one of those ultimate challenge-compromise problems that the world of mobility faces: how to balance the any time-anywhere dream against the limitations of today's battery technology. 

As I noted in that piece, a Verizon Wireless-provisioned XV6600 comes preloaded with Intellisync's mobile synchronization client.  To use that "synchronizer," most people have to connect to an Intellisync server that's run by Verizon Wireless.  According to Intellisync officials, Intellisync servers are extremely flexible in terms of the synchronization preferences that can be made available to end users.  Frequency of synch is one such option, but it's only available to end users if the administrator who's running the server (in this case, Verizon Wireless) wants it to be.  If you're a smartphone end-user like me, you'd probably end up wondering who the hell your wireless carrier is to be deciding how fast your battery gets used up.  OK, that's not what the wireless carrier is actually deciding.  But, that's the decisions main impact on you, the end user.

This element of control over what can and can't be done with a smartphone (and even regular phones for that matter) and who gets to control that decision is ground zero for where the computing and telecommunications worlds clash.   Synchronization frequency is just one very nuanced example of this control. The biggie that drives a lot of mobile warriors insane is upgrading their devices. For example, now that the new improved Windows Mobile 5.0 operating system is out, why can't I do with my smartphone what I've always been able to do with my computer -- upgrade to it? 

For starters (the first frustration), operating system (OS) upgrades for Windows Mobile-based devices aren't available the same way that OS upgrades are available for computers.  Microsoft doesn't make them available at local computer stores or via download from its Web site.  At the very least, you have to wait for the manufacturer of your Windows Mobile device to decide to support the new OS, and then to decide on what basis they'll make it available to you.  But, in the event that the manufacturer of your Windows Mobile-based phone decides to support a new revision of the operating system, you still must wait for your wireless carrier to make the update available to you.  In other words, you're beholden to the wireless carrier's timetable which could be tomorrow, six months from now, or never. 

It's not difficult to imagine how disincented wireless carriers are to do non-critical software uprades (upgrades that users wish they could have but that don't correct some earth shattering problem on the device).  If, for example, you hear about how great a new smartphone operating system is and you really have to have it, the wireless carrier knows that you'll probably buy a new phone if they drag their feet for too long when it comes to upgrading your existing one.  And that's true.  That's what I'd do.  But I'd do it very begrudgingly, feeling as though I was up against "the system."  

There are plenty of other insidious control points that frustrate phone buyers when wireless carriers take advantage of them.  ZDNet has gotten numerous letters over the years that talk about how they bought a phone (not just smartphones) based on the manufacturer's advertised feature set, only to learn that some of the features they were most interested in were disabled by the wireless carrier that sells the phone. For example, despite having capable hardware, a lot of Bluetooth-enabled phones don't support all of the various Bluetooth profiles.  From phone to phone, the impact of these support decisions may vary but examples are how you might not be able to connect a Bluetooth-based stereo headset to them or use them as wireless high speed modems (the way I use the XV6600).

  The stories remind me of a phone I once had that was supposed to have a feature that allowed me to not only manually select which network in the air to connect to, but also what the signal strength thresholds that triggered roaming were.  Why would anyone need such a feature?  I knew where the dead spots for my phone's native network were on my evening commute.  But they weren't dead for one of the networks that my phone could roam to.  So, for those calls that I didn't want to get dropped, I would have selected the non-native network from the get-go if I could have (as I should have).  But since my wireless carrier would have to eat any roaming costs according to my plan, there was no way that carrier was going to put me in control of its balance sheet.

As it turns out, there are bunch of things -- not just their balance sheets -- that wireless carrier don't want you to be in control of.  Going back to the synchronization issue, Verizon Wireless spokesperson Brenda Raney confirmed that, even though Intellisync normally offers the option, end user control of synchronization frequency is disabled.  Leaving it enabled, as Raney explained to me, could impact congestion on Verizon Wireless' data network in unpredictable ways.  For example, when e-mails, contacts, appointments, and notes synchronize as they happen, the traffic from my device is more like a steady trickle rather than an unpredictable flood as it might be if I set the device to synchronize once every hour.  Now imagine if thousands of users were all able to set their devices to synchronize once per hour and did so at the top of the hour (the likelihood that they'd do it for anything but the top or the bottom of the hour is nil).  The resulting hourly floods do not make for predictable networks and carriers (wired or wireless) have a preference for predictable networks. 

In fact, according to Raney, Verizon Wireless has a penchant for reliability and predicitability.  So much so that most of the control that the company asserts over customer devices can be traced back to the need to make sure those devices and the network(s) they connect to don't break down.  Addressing the operating system upgrade issue, Raney said she was pretty sure that Verizon Wireless would be making a Windows Mobile 5.0 upgrade available to users of Audiovox's XV6600 (like me) but, in the same breath, also told me how I wouldn't believe the amount of testing that goes into a new device (or a new operating system for an old device) before it's allowed on Verizon Wireless network.  Not only was she explaining why upgrades take a while to be released by Verizon Wireless, but also why, in the case of Microsoft's Windows Mobile 5.0, it takes a while for any device (new or old) to get on the network.

On the one hand, given that it's a "phone company," and knowing how anal phone companies can be about quality of service (it's true, my various phone services are more reliable than my cable TV, high-speed internet, or electric services), I want to be be understanding of this control freakishness.  I also sometimes feel like we should be thankful for customizability they do allow.  Between the Palm-based, Windows Mobile-based, and Java-based phones I've used over the years (the Java-phones much less so than the others), I've had quite a bit of freedom when it comes to loading them with third party software -- some of which could easily wreak havoc on a wireless network.

But on the other hand, coming from the "computer culture" (something Raney pegged me for), no ISP has told me what operating systems I can and run on the computers I've connected to their networks.  While they may assert some control (for example, blocking port 25 -- the port used by Internet e-mail servers -- to keep from becoming a major source of spam), I've been very much in control of just about everything.  I've even flooded their networks with traffic without so much as a peep from them.  So, if the ISPs able to do it, you can't help but wonder why the wireless carriers can't.   Is it the fragility of their networks that they're worried about or are empowered customers somehow a much bigger threat?