Saturday, March 7, 2009

Better Than an Astronaut Phone

My husband was the 7th person in line at the AT&T in Reston the day the original iPhones were released. He adored it and turned into the iPhone ambassador to the world. His aunt bought his uncle an iPhone for Christmas on the strength of my husband’s recommendation and I’m sure they were not the only people he swayed because he treated everyone everywhere to the iPhone tour made all the more compelling by his photo album of birds which now resides both on the phone and at


Steve Jobs should have been paying him commission. At one point I got really sick of it. I felt like he was trying to lord his iPhone over me which was jut silly since I just didn’t have the iPhone jones. I bought him his first iPod and it had been a bone of contention ever since because he wore it constantly and I had to yell whenever I wanted to talk with him. It was my gift and my fault so I had no one to be annoyed with besides myself and Steve Jobs for creating this product he appeared at times to love more than me.   Because of my anti-Ipod feelings in part, I made a deliberate decision not to wait for the iPhone. Also I was desperately searching for a way to get more organized (a constant struggle for me the ADD poster child.)  So  after missing a doctor’s appointment yet again and paying for it yet again, I decided that June to purchase a Cingular Smart Phone 8525 with all the bells and whistles even though the iPhone’s much anticipated release was imminent.  I needed a way to make lists on the fly and wanted Bluetooth and a keyboard and windows applications which while possible to work on with the phone ended up being too tedious in reality for me (did I mention I’m the ADD poster child?). I also wanted 3G which the original iPhone didn’t have so I didn’t wait.


When he got the iPhone I really couldn’t see the big deal. I am not a music person and maybe if I had been an iPod person already, I would have been jealous. Eventually the fabulous new discoveries about the toy that happened on a weekly basis started to  annoy me so much that every time he touted his iPhone’s virtues I said in my best Stepford Wife voice, “Yes dear. The iPhone is the coolest phone in the world. Its even cooler than an astronaut phone.” At first I’m not sure he understood that I was making fun of him. He tried to tell me it wasn’t cooler than an astronaut phones  and then he said astronaut didn’t have phones which is true but they can talk with people on earth from the moon and that is pretty close to a phone while being so beyond what an earthly phone does its not even funny. Anyway finally it dawned on him it was more of a a metaphor since astronauts get many things made for them first before anyone else does and every little boy wants to be an astronaut so anything cooler than an astronaut phone must be the coolest thing EVER. Of course we all know somethings the astronauts get may be cool but in the end aren’t that good. Like Tang. But I digress.  In his glass is half full way he took it as a compliment, which only made the whole thing more irritating.  And while the features were nice and better in some ways than my Smart Phone, I still did not really get what was so special about the glorified iPod besides the pretty screen and the two finger stretch view.


At the same time, I hated my Cingular 8525 from the moment I got it. It was heavy and hard to open and you needed to open it to access the keyboard which meant I was usually always having to to use two hands to do anything. I was always just fumbling around with it. It promised a lot of things including voice dialing but the online materials explaining how to do everything were, in a word “lame”. I could have gone to upteen support sites to figure out work arounds and  maybe if I had 50 hours I would have learned to used the features but I was too busy which was why I got the phone in the first place. Every direction could have at least been in a manual but apparently that was too hard for the people who made it. Occasionally I used it to surf the Internet which it was pretty good at but you had to resize the windows with the stylus and they had to reload which took time. I used it for a phone calls mostly and that was basically it. Even though it was windows compatible right after I got it I found out it was not supported by my government IT even though it was Outlook capable.  So I only got emails on it through the internet email and was not able to use regular push email. The interface for the internet email was a nightmare. You had to go through several steps to open the email and then you had to manipulate the width of several sections of the window to be able to see the messages. The screen was a reasonable size but it turned on and off on a timer and if you wanted to make a call you had to press a button to get the keyboard to show up and that messed up the dialing of the phone. I was also told it would function as modem for my laptop but I never succeeded in downloading whatever was needed to make that work and after about 8 hours, got sick of trying.


When iPhone 3G came out I decided to replace my (not so) Smart phone.  By that time the ITunes App store was in existence and I saw the writing on the wall as far as more and more applications being able to be downloaded. I didn’t know what would be made available above and beyond phone, internet, ipod, and apple email features but clearly there would be many possibilities. Sometime during the year I also had the privilege/curse of being given a Blackberry upon which to obtain my office email. To be honest the Blackberry sits in my laptop bag and I generally refuse to look at it. If I’m home and teleworking I have my laptop for email. If I’m home and not teleworking I feel I shouldn’t have to constantly be responding to the office. They have me 50+ hours a week as it is. There’s no way I would have clean laundry or trained dogs if I was answering the Blackberry push email every time it came on a Saturday or weeknight.


To say the iPhone 3G grew on me is like saying Barack Obama grew on American youth. I loved it the minute I got my paws on it and it had nothing to do with the Apple logo or the sleek case which I promptly covered with a colorful skin.  Here’s a list of reasons I like the phone:

  1. It makes clear calls.
  2. It is just plain easy to surf the internet. Making objects on the screen bigger by stretching with two fingers could not be handier (unless I could just say stretch and the phone would do it). Tipping it switches from landscape to portrait and back again in a flash so I can read most things without needing to stretch them.
  3. Because its thin its lower center of gravity means it slides around less on my dashboard.  It is easy for my small hands to grasp and lighter weight so I don’t get hand stretch fatigue if I hold it for an hour
  4. It knows how to behave. If I’m dialing my office voicemail and have to enter a passcode the phone intuitively puts an icon for the keyboard on the screen and I punch that which then allows me to punch the buttons. On my old phone I had to hit a button to get the keyboard to come up but that put a number in that I then had to erase. Probably this isn’t a good explanation but suffice to say it just works better on my Iphone.
  5. I am probably the only person in the world who doesn’t listen to music on the iPod part of her iPhone but I do have an audible account for when I get stressed out by listening to the news on the radio when driving so I can listen to science related podcasts or recorded books.  The iTunes interface makes downloads pretty simple.
  6. I’m not an app queen but I have several Twitter interfaces which allow me to feel solace at being able to rant at Senator Warner via Twitter to fix the Northern VA infrastructure when I’m stuck for hours on the Washington Beltway. Because of Twittering on my iPhone I’ve gotten a few “rescue calls” from friends.  While not getting me home any faster a friend calling while your stuck in traffic can soothe road rage by being a pleasant distraction and sometimes letting you know no matter how bad it is, it could always be worse. And I don’t feel like an idiot by calling to complain about the traffic. They volunteer to be in contact knowing full well my plight.
  7. I also really appreciate the YouTube application. If I want to hear a song I can call up the YouTube video and listen to it or if I’m really stuck in traffic watch it.  You would also be amazed at how much you can learn by listening to videos. I like hearing dog training videos and sometimes listen to them over and over so I can memorize the steps they use and the words they say and their tones of voice before trying their approach on my own beasts. 
  8. I am much less lost now. Literally. The maps and GPS work well. Mind you iPhone doesn’t shout turn by turn directions like a stand alone GPS navigator but there’s something to be said for not having to listen to the annoying voice every few seconds especially if you have someone else riding with you. Its not that difficult or distracting to glance down at the marker on the maps that move along in the direction you are going. Living in Northern VA and working in suburban MD and DC (a sprawling metropolis if there ever was one) means I have the potential to get lost every time I  do a semi-annual errand like going to the dentist or the jewelry store.  Showing dogs around the Mid-Atlantic presents more than a few opportunities to go to a new fairground or horse show grounds always leaving late, frequently forgetting to bring the directions. I can easily call up addresses over the internet and plug them into my map application and generally arrive on time with a minimum of stress from anywhere. I adore the current location feature. All you have to type is “C” and the first option you get is for creating a directions search is current location. GPS figures out where you are and plots directions from there and tells you were to go from there to get to your intended location. Because of this I don’t need to preprint directions to and from home before I go someplace new.
  9. The app store has infinite potential for turning my purchase into a value added machine. I’ve already mentioned the twitter app. My husband and I both also have a sound machine app which we use to block noise in hotel rooms and in our bedrooms (we have 7 dogs who frequently think they need to get up earlier than we think we need to get up). We also use the alarm clocks (I am fond of waking to church bells). I record lectures on it or notes to myself and email them home so I don’t forget profound ideas that strike me at odd moments.
  10. I love that by pressing the bottom button you leave an application instantly and return to a main screen where you see all the other options laid out before you. This is very different from a windows based system where you have return to a main window and find a programs folder and then find a program and then find a file. It might not seem like much but the less time you spend looking the more time you spend doing. Also having unique square picture icons for each ap really helps with this. The iPhone display doesn’t force you to read tiny little drop downs that say “documents”, “settings”, etc…. Rather you see a nice square with a picture. Twitterific is a bird, Notes is a notepad, my voice recorder is a Microphone. This may be cool but its also so middle age friendly for people whose eyes are starting to go. The icons are recognizable because of their shapes and colors so people won’t need to wip out their reading glasses to see the name of the icon to pick the correct one. 
  11.  You would think that the more apps I get the more crowded things would be but Apple handles this by allowing a flick of the thumb to run you to another screen full of apps. Its like dragging a huge window sideways into the phone frame so you are always looking at between 1 and 16 squares of icons. Maybe I’m not explaining this well but imagine having the ability to see every shoe in your closet because inside there’s a rotating shoe tree which you just spin and it always presents you with a manageable number of shoes at a glance from the doorway. If you don’t see the pair you want, you spin to the next view.  I have a friend who has 100+ apps but she feels this is manageable because whenever she looks at her screen she zips though that page and if she’s not on the right page she flicks it and comes to the next set and so forth. The beauty is you can keep expanding your “shoe tree” with more and more apps and the phone has so much storage most folks will never feel they need a bigger closet.
  12.  I also love that I can tap a phone number in safari and it will dial my phone for me instead of me having to copy and paste or heaven forbid remember the number. This works for email as well.


I have a dear old friend who is a stay at home mom who tries to be responsible with her money. She would like an iPhone but in the current economy she doesn’t feel she can justify it. Everyone has to make their own choices and I am not in any position to know or comment on her finances. But if she can stretch to get one, I sure won’t judge her. I think some people who haven’t tried iPhones may hate them or may yearn for them because they perceive them as cool little gadgets or status symbols. They are pretty, sleek, and very expensive. But in reality it takes using one to realize calling them a phone is like calling the Space Shuttle a airplane. Although it leaves a few things to be desired (like the government IT not supporting it and less than powerful speakers)  the existing apps and things that have been added for very little money from the app store have added so much functionality to it that overall the price seems more than worth it. And as I ad more the average overall price drops.

Maybe I don’t truly need some of the things I use but in the next few years I would most likely have bought a replacement sound machine, a GPS, and a new alarm clock etc just to make my life better. Now I have them all in one device. And the last time I was running late in downtown Baltimore at sunset  and made a wrong turn and was running on empty, I really felt I NEEDED to know where the closest gas station and closest exit was so I could get the heck out of that bad neighborhood. Unlike my frustrating old phone, I have never once have I wanted to hurl my iPhone through my window because it wasn’t doing what I felt it ought to or because it was confusing, tricky or annoying and it has always taken care of me. 

I cannot see the future and I don’t know what if any phone will rise to the top in the great communications arms race but currently it seems to me that Apple is very much ahead with their infrastructure-ITunes and the App store as well as their iPhone interface. 

I can say that that a day is coming when blind people may rely on handheld devices instead of dogs to tell them exactly how many steps to take to the corner.

A day may be coming when you plug a sensor into your roast beef and you get a call or an email on your gaget that tells you when it reaches the right temperature.

There are already wristwatches that can monitor blood sugar. You don’t need a crystal ball to envision a day when diabetic children  may be wearing a device which signals their caregiver’s mobile device to tell them to give an insulin injection to address spiking blood sugar or some juice for too much insulin.  And its not a huge leap from that technology to other devices that will make parenting easier. One of these days a sensor may literally count down the minutes a parent has before a toddler will melt down in the middle of Toys R Us, Church, or Dinner and send a text to mom so she can get home before their darling angel turns into a box o’todder rage.


Experiments are already going on to extinguish drug craving in virtual environments and they are are already getting reminder calls that use unique cell phone ring tones that have been classically conditioned to these extinction sessions so they have the experience of not craving out in the “real world”

Serious Games addressing health issues are of growing interest for teaching medical and health behavior skills because people like to learn through play. 

One of these days your phone may call and tell you to compliment your spouse and it might even know what you ought to say. That alone might be worht it my friend by saving her thousands of income over her lifetime by helping her avoid a costly divorce (not that she's in any danger but close to 50% of marriages end in divorce and marriages in trouble have way fewer positive interactions for each negative interaction. A compliment generator might be just the thing to help Moms/Wives hold it together. 

Its my feeling that the iPhone and other devices like it are currently suffering from a misperception which is that they are phones. iAlot, iEverything, iCan’t live without it. iTSureMakesMyLIfeEasier are just a few names to consider rebranding these devices. As a consumer I can’t wait for the future and as a wife I'm happy my husband and I are now on the same page with respect to our current device of choice. 

If you read this and you are a health behavior researcher please check out for more ideas of ways mobile devices might help people in the future.

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