Telephones and Computers

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Nat Torkington
Oct. 31, 2004 03:59 PM

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What kind of phone should I buy? Which has the most features? Which has the fewest? Which can connect to my computer? The discussion from alpha geeks like Tim Bray, Jeremy Zawodny, Russell Beattie, and Jon Udell are endless. Let me tell you about my new phone love ...

Well, first let me tell you about my last love. The Nokia 3650 was a sweet phone: good-enough camera, Bluetooth to sync with the computer, GPRS so I could use my Mac to get net access from virtually anywhere, and a nice sharp display. I've passed it on, though, because I have a new love.

Meet the Danger Color Sidekick. Sharp screen, full keyboard, GPRS, e-mail and IM on the device with a better screen size, and I get to use my same T-Mobile plan and its unlimited data for a flat rate. I am a happy man.

But a feature list isn't what makes you happy with a phone. It's the way the device fits into your life. I had thought that I would never be separated from my laptop--I mocked Rael trying to take notes on his HP iPaq in meetings. I'd touch-type great notes, while he would come away with incomprehensible strings of mis-recognized handwriting. I was smug in my superiority--sure, my battery life couldn't rival his, but it was good enough, right?

And so it was, until we decided to try the Blackberry. This let me do email and web, my main uses of the computer on the road, from anywhere. It was strangely addictive. However, the Blackberry user interface was, to put it nicely, ass. Whose genius move was it to put a big fat escape key right beside the scroll wheel? I realize the Blackberry has afficionados. I am not one of them. So I returned it.

And exchanged it for a Danger Color Sidekick. Joshua Schachter, of delicious fame, had a Sidekick and loved it. I was skeptical, though--for some reason I had it in my mind that the Sidekick was a halfwit Blackberry. Oh how wrong I was. What Blackberry got right, the Sidekick gets right. And what the Blackberry blows at, the Sidekick also gets right. The user interface is sweet. The screen is beautiful. The phone is loud. It even has a primitive camera that I've been feeding my Flickr photoset with.

Now I'm more likely to be tapping away at the Sidekick than at my laptop. And, most liberatingly, I can leave my laptop behind. At conferences, I can leave the laptop in the hotel room. The damage my back didn't sustain at Web 2.0 is immense. I can still take notes, albeit not touch-type, on the Sidekick, and the lack of volume forces me to think and take quality notes. And, best of all, the mail is always on. So I won't have a repeat of the horrors of one trip to the Bay Area, which consisted of driving from one GRPS deadzone to another trying to get connectivity so I could download email and see whether a particular meeting was on or not. With the Sidekick, it'll grab email whenever it can, and I'm always as up-to-date as I can be. I can even read bloglines on it!

I've converted my Dad--he gave up his new Motorola ultramini cell and now has a Sidekick too. I do need to give some caveats, though, so you know what you're getting into:

  • Limited hackability. There is a free Java SDK for it, which I have. I haven't played with it enough to know whether it's usable to build real applications with, or what the issues are with distributing the applications you write. All I've heard says that Danger, the makers of the device, are firm believers in the walled-garden and making it hard to add 3rd party software. There were some rumours that this was changing, but I wouldn't base my purchasing decisions on this.

    That said, I haven't noticed. I don't change ring tones, I don't fill my phone with games (although I did enjoy showing people Frodo, the C64 emulator that I ran on my 3650). I haven't honestly felt the lack of extensibility. One of the few apps you can buy for it was a $10 ssh client, so now I can irc and use MySQL from the phone. I'm happy. But if Freedom and Hackability are high priorities for you, this phone might not be your thing.

  • Mediocre camera. It's really a grotty camera, low res and you have to work to get it to take good photos in low light (despite the alleged "flash" which seems to make no discernable difference to anything further than 5cm from the phone). That said, I still use it as a camera. Some camera is better than no camera, as the motto of camera phones goes.

  • T-Mobile only. Don't try to roll over that Cingular service, as T-Mobile is the exclusive parter with Danger in the US. I live in an area fairly well-covered by T-Mobile so I have no complaints. The only problems I had were at Foo Camp, when I discovered that pretty much all of O'Reilly's headquarters is in a T-Mobile dead zone. Oh well, such is life. Don't tell my wife it was a convenient excuse!

If you can live with those three caveats, give the Sidekick a try. It's changed the way I use my computer and my phone, and I'm enjoying it. It's brought email and IM into my pocket, no matter where I go. The always-on life is interesting, and I'm learning tricks to modulate it. For example, I have a setting (suggested by Rael) that doesn't notify me for email or IM, so I can treat it as a dumb phone when I don't want to be distracted. But for the most part it lives on vibrate. It has taken a chunk out of how I use my computer, and as far as I'm concerned, that's fantastic.


Nat Torkington is conference planner for the Open Source Convention, OSCON Europe, and other O'Reilly conferences. He was project manager for Perl 6, is on the board of The Perl Foundation, and is a frequent speaker on open source topics. He cowrote the bestselling Perl Cookbook.

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