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Going Mobile


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
June 13, 2005

June is cell phone month. Actually, May was, that was when I converted, but I needed a month to digest the implications. This column will deal with the technology side of cells (they must have a better nickname than that) and the next column with the social side. That column will segue nicely into my next Financial Engineering News piece, what is essentially a review of an artsy sci-fi movie that has something to do financial engineering. I figured that it's summer and everyone, especially the irate folks who did not realize that we don't really live in a risk-neutral world, needs a break (not to mention that magazines that think leptokurtotic distributions are cool stuff do not make especially good summer reading). Anyway, I've got plans to infuriate lots more people once Labor Day is behind us.

This commentary does NOT constitute a recommendation to buy or sell any cellular-related company. Certainly, the initial buzz for the industry has long come and gone and despite a rash of mergers, cell phones are an intensely competitive business. They are also very much a fashion industry and fashions are something to be avoided unless you really know what you are doing. Nokia's falling just a bit behind the fashion curve a while back cost it dearly independent of any other considerations. Cell phones are not that interesting in and of themselves, but because of their potential as a delivery vehicle for future technology.

My reasons for having nothing more than an emergency cell phone all these years were mostly technological. The times that I could have used one during the 1990s were times when I was so deep inside buildings that their signals could not reach me. Also, due to the concerted efforts of my fellow townsfolk to keep cell towers out of their backyards, my home signal is marginal at best.

These days I spend as little time as possible inside buildings and the capabilities of some cell phones have improved enough to provide me with adequate home reception. (The emergency cell phone never registered more than a single bar and my new phone only gets three bars when I channel Ramtha from Atlantis. Note to Googlers searching for Ramtha: Look elsewhere and get a life.) Fortunately, the late Mohawk Mall, now a conglomeration of big-box stores and strip malls known as Mohawk Commons, is home to numerous cell phone vendors, including two Cingular stores directly across from one another. One was an AT&T store and I guess that they are stuck with the lease. It is close enough to my home that it has similar reception issues.

I did the usual pre-purchase research for my phone—surfed the web and interrogated my students—and it was clear that in this neck of the woods Verizon was the only real choice. This intelligence was confirmed by the fact that the Verizon Wireless store had such long lines that it required a greeter, while the other stores were empty.

Phones were more complicated than carriers. I have the problem of liking gadgets but not wanting to haul a phone of any heft around with me, ruling out Blackberrys, PDAs, etc. My initial choice was an LG cameraphone, but while it has a reputation for being a good camera, when I tried calling anyone from the Verizon store, they couldn't hear me. I settled on a Motorola V710 despite my concerns of what Six Sigma might have done to the phone. It won purely on the grounds of doing the best job with a weak signal. Other than that and its ability to serve as a reasonable, if bulky, MP3 player, I don't think that the Six Sigma people should be too proud of it. It has lots of features, but they don't even hit the Two Sigma level, which is pretty sad considering that you get One-and-a-half-Sigma just for existing.

For those of my younger readers, there once was this great product known as an "address book." The phone company, then called New York Telephone before it changed its name, first to NYNEX, then Bell Atlantic, and finally to Verizon, gave them out for free to encourage people to make phone calls. (I have an old, used one in my attic and will sell it on eBay once it is worth thousands of dollars as a collector's item.) Back then, Six Sigma was uninvented and the phone company was regulated and could afford to hire smart people (they added to the rate base), and so this "address book" was innovative because it not only held addresses, but also phone numbers with a field for the newly-discovered area code. My Moto has no "address book," just "Contacts." "Contacts" has the ability to sync with Outlook (software and cable not included with phone), which is nice, except that it basically only transfers names and phone numbers. Addresses, notes ("ticklish except when really drunk"), and such are not imported. The best thing about the software is that one can edit the "Contacts" entries without having to use the phone's keyboard, something I have no intention of learning how to do other than to "dial" numbers when absolutely necessary.

The software and cable, however, are useless for getting at the phone's optional Transflash memory, which is where the MP3s go and the phone pathetic manual does not tell you that. At least my computer comes with slots for all the major types of flash memory, so it is only somewhat tedious and annoying to pop the memory into an adaptor and transfer things.

Besides MP3s, the memory can store pictures, including those taken by the phone's Two-Sigma camera. Having a camera with me is nice even if the quality is pitiful. Below is a picture of Mr. and Mrs. Reamer that I took at Union College's Reamer Campus Center. The point of this picture was to be that the portrait artist seemed to have a bit of R. Crumb in him. (Given that the portrait was not signed, it could even have been drawn by R. Crumb himself while on a particularly bad acid trip.) This subtlety of contemporary portraiture, however, does not survive transit through the V710's imaging system, which includes generous noise and merciless compression. Still, if one knows how to utilize the medium properly (and have the right PhotoShop plug-in), bad cameras do have the potential to create a new kind of postmodern folk art. MoMA here I come. (The picture is completely unedited—it resisted my minimal efforts to spruce it up and it is kind of charming that way.)

They don't make portraits like they used to

While cell phones are no longer like the brick that Gordon Gekko used to phone Bud Fox from the beach, they are not little either. Phones with lots of functionality are absurdly big, even the LG cameraphone is unwieldy. My Moto is at least manageable, but even the small ones are too big.

I quickly found that size (and weight) matters when it comes to cell phones. During the ongoing Northeast heat wave I'll taken to wearing my North Face hiking shorts. They are made of some kind of miracle microfiber that makes them both indestructible and feather light. So light, in fact that my phone is too heavy for them. (I am reluctant to describe the possible problems that can arise when one's phone is several times heavier that one's shorts.) I visited Target and found that there are actually men's shorts designed with cell phone pockets. I bought a pair and now feel hopelessly plebian.

The phone has been working well, though it does appear that calls don't always go through. The neatest feature is voice dialing, which is good, but nowhere near flawless. Because voice dialing works using the hooked-on-phonics approach to English, you have to mispronounce many foreign names in order for the phone to understand them. I am surprised that the French have not petitioned the World Court to have these banned from their country or reprogrammed on entry.

Technology-wise, cell phones have the potential to rule the world. Reasonably functional portable telephony is a true killer app and it is easy to tack lots of stuff onto a phone. Bill Gates has seen this for some time, but cell phones still seem unduly primitive. Walt Mossberg recently had a WSJ column where he lambasted the carriers for impeding technology. My V710 is a case in point as my inability to easily move files back and forth from it is just one of many ways that Verizon had Motorola "cripple" it. (A class-action suit on this issue is pending.) Wired telephony did not take off until the FCC forced AT&T to open up the phone system and wireless needs a similar kick in the pants. There should be a basic set of protocols to interface to the wireless network and that's it. The phones are already hackable (especially the V710, not that I would ever do that), so why not let the marketplace do its thing with them.

The natural path of cell phone evolution leads them first to become wearable (though Maxwell Smart's ahead-of-its-time shoephone is not a good model) and then to become an actual part of their users (this idea dates back at least as far as the movie, The President's Analyst). Except for the voice recognition, the Moto's user interface is horrific for users not accustomed or able to use tiny keys and a tiny screen that essentially vanishes in sunlight. (Nice irony here, there is better reception outside, but you cannot see the screen.) Displays built into glasses and virtual keyboards, technologies that exist today, might help some, but full-fledged implants seem to be the only real solution.

Since cell phones are a big step on the road to a world of cyborgs, I'll deal with far more interesting social aspects of cell phones next time.

Copyright 2005 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to