My Phone Is Smarter Than I Am

A small HarperCollins delegation had gone to Daytona to meet with the NASCAR people down there. Great day-trip: they even took us onto the racetrack! But when we got to the airport, there was a big storm in New York, and our return flight kept getting delayed. That’s what airlines and the FAA do, death by a thousand cuts, pushing back the “scheduled departure” an hour at a time. At each further delay (we finally had to spend the night), my colleagues whipped out their cell phones to update spouses and such, eventually letting me borrow one too. That was the day I said, I gotta get one of those things. And I’m not alone: ever noticed there are far fewer pay phones left in airports?

Even though I joined the party late, it’s getting hard to remember doing without. But unlike most people, I’ve only ever required two duties of my mobile phone: (1) remember everybody’s number, and (2) call ‘em whenever I say. Just the basics. BlackBerry, iPhone, all the razzle-dazzle technologies passed me by. A “dumb” phone was fine by me – and by the way, the ringer ought to sound like a frickin phone, not Britney Spears. Boring? Sue me.

Then something happened. I snapped. Late last year, I suddenly got tired of reading about all these amazing “apps,” and asked my brother John, a big shot at Sprint (ironically, his company is now deep into NASCAR after buying Nextel, then the fairly new sponsor of stock-car racing’s most valued prize), to cure my app impotence by recommending a tricked-out smartphone and signing me up. Good call, bro: I haven’t had this much fun since I hooked up my first modem.

My new phone. Dude, it's awesome!

My new phone – an HTC 4G arglebargle (I admit it, I wasn’t really paying attention, whatever John said was fine with me) – can remember numbers and call folks, duh, but it can also remember emails, even addresses, and give vocal driving directions to any of those frickin addresses, turn by turn! It can scan bar-codes and tell you where you’ll find a better price. (Be discreet if you actually try this in a real store: clerks are getting hip, and they understandably don’t like such indoors window-shopping.) It can add a movie to my Netflix queue before the EBERT review is over. Identify a song if I but hum the tune. Find the closest Mexican restaurant or ATM, anywhere. Give me a five-day forecast for damn near any place I can imagine. Respond to voice commands if I’m just too lazy to tap the screen. And do a lot of other stuff that I’ll probably never, ever need. I took my phone into the room where Linda was enjoying a nice peaceful tub-soak and made it say, “Do you enjoy bathing yourself?” in French. This may be yesterday’s news to all the yutes out there, but the little dickens is multilingual; for all I know, it could have greeted her in Klingon! (Linda’s reaction was far more prosaic, as you may have already guessed: I shan’t be doing that again.)

My bitchin’ new phone runs on Google’s Android operating system. It’s not an iPhone, so there exist some iPhone apps which aren’t available to me – yet. But I haven’t found a single essential app that doesn’t already have an Android counterpart, and it turns out there are more Android devices worldwide than i-operating system devices, so application developers nowadays pretty much have to include us. Just like baby boomers! We went to Hong Kong more than 15 years ago and were astonished at the swarms of businesspeople waiting at every traffic light, each clutching an attaché in one hand and a tiny cell phone in the other. And that was a long time ago. Broadband is probably the one technological area in which America lags behind the rest of the world, but I’m so new to all this that I’m still dazzled, even at our “slower” speeds.

There is a learning curve; you betcha, grampa! My old mobile phones used to work like clamshells (Motorola RAZR, anyone?): they rang, you just flipped up the ear-part and said, “Hello,” as if you were Captain Kirk. You hung up the way he did, by snapping it shut again – I always thought that was beyond cool. Now, this one’s a touch-pad and doesn’t bend in half, not in the slightest, so you must resist the urge. You have to answer an incoming call with your thumb. Takes some getting used to. (Now the ringer sounds like frickin wind chimes, but I’m so digital that I don’t care any more. A telephone sound is suddenly so 20th century!) I have had to train my thumbs to join the wide world of texting, because you can’t use one of these little buggers to its full extent without typing on it. Fair enough. But it has this maddening habit of suggesting words to me, finishing off those I’ve laboriously thumb-typed in ways I never expected – how does “ran” become “ranger”? – and I only discover it once I’ve already hit SEND. In this sole and single case, Mr. Smartyphone is rather simpleminded: you have to go very slowly, and gradually teach it all the words you like to use. Otherwise, you feel like that poor stammering king of England, the phone constantly exasperating you by trying to finish your words before you can, usually incorrectly. Sometimes you do want to kill it. But then it turns into an FM radio or a flashlight, and it’s your cute little puppy again. Did I mention that you can YouTube your ass off? Or read anything you’ve ever bought in the Kindle store?

Little things impress me. The background screen saver gives me a visual interpretation of the weather when I first wake the phone up. It drops hi-def snowflakes and frosts up the corners when it’s snowing, there’s a windshield wiper when it’s raining, digital fog when it’s cloudy. It shows blue skies on a sunny day, the encroaching darkness of twilight, and finally, the Poe-like blue-blackness of night, the barren, star-specked sky illuminated by what can only be the inescapable werewolfian moon. Yes, teacher, you’re right: I could just look out the window and daydream like I used to. But the screen on my new phone is so much cooler. I sat in a Utah movie theater waiting for a Sundance screening and approved some comments, even slowly thumbed out a reply, for another post on this very blog, which I’d always visualized as “residing” here in my New York apartment. Not so. It’s everywhere in cyberspace. For me, that was a profound realization. Damn: even Utah?

Do I sound overly infatuated? I guess it’s because I’m the equivalent of the caveman dropped into modern times. Let me have my fun; it’s harmless. I’m sure I still don’t know half of what this baby can do. But I can’t wait to find out more.


8 Responses to My Phone Is Smarter Than I Am

  1. May I also add that my car is smarter than I am, my home thermostsat is smarter than I am, my high-tech coffee pot is smarter than I am. . .well, you get the picture. I’m pretty dumb.

  2. Fun post. 🙂 I got an iPhone a few months ago and I can totally relate to your infatuation.

  3. Ken Houghton says:

    I’m trailing you by a few days–the extra $360/year plus taxes is steep during times of unemployment–but about to take the job as well, partially because it’s the same $30/month that would be spent getting wireless laptop access–and you can do that with your Evo as well.

    Not to mention that text messaging is included, so next time you can just have the carrier send you notes telling you you’re delayed. And watch that Big Blue Movie on your 4.3″ screen at the same time.

    • Tom Dupree says:

      Once I bought the phone, my monthly wireless bill actually went down. It should amortize itself out, including the phone purchase, in time for the President’s second term.

  4. Tom Dupree says:

    One point I forgot to make is, there’s now an irritating downside. Everybody seems to think only they can see their own backlit screen, even in a darkened theater. As people all over the theater “take a peek” [what could possibly be that important?], they become distracting even in rock shows, let alone at a movie. Yet I’ve seen even “sophisticates” at Sundance, where you’d expect a little more respect, take surreptitious looks. Folks, airbody can see you! Turn the frickin things off!

  5. Ann says:

    Examples of faulty “auto-corrects” (although I think “smart phones” should hereafter be called “smartass phones”)

  6. Tom Dupree says:

    From Daniel Keys Moran via Facebook:

    That’s my phone. Great piece of gear.

    Download a copy of EasyTether. If you’re ever in a place where you have no internet, cable your phone to your notebook, voila, instant internet. It’s the one essential program that doesn’t ship with the phone, so far. (It’s $10 or thereabouts to access https sites — worth it.)

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