I had what felt like a religious experience last week. And it had nothing to do with computers. I got a new portable cellular telephone. First, my disclosure: I am a computer guy, so I don't know anything about telephones. Indeed, I have the sneaking suspicion that this cellular phone thing has been going along merrily and everybody was just keeping it a secret from me.
I haven't been able to think about anything else, even the World Wide Web, since I got this new phone. It started in early December when I attended a secret meeting of 17 chief executives of computer companies. (None of the important companies was there and it was only secret so we could limit attendance and charge more money.) I noticed during the meeting that nearly half the executives were using portable phones they kept in their pockets. (My phone stayed in my briefcase in my room. The battery life was short and the recharger was too bulky. In other words, it was a pain.) Ever the intrepid reporter, I started asking those who had a phone what brand and model it was. All but one turned out to be a Motorola MicroTac Elite. And every one of the people who owned one of these said the same thing: they weren't sure what made it different, but they just used it and didn't have to think about it. That is the ultimate accolade when it comes to technology products. They just used it!
New and expensive
I spent the next two weeks doing a little bit of research and discovered that these are relatively new Motorola phones and are expensive, more than $900 for the basic configuration. (They are not the newest; Motorola introduced another phone the week before last that is half the size and designed to slip into your shirt pocket, but I had just bought the one I have. You just can't keep up with this phone business - as soon as you buy one product, it's obsolete! Nothing like the computer industry.) You can get a lithium ion battery for the phone. It doesn't last any longer than the nickel-metal-hydride battery, but you don't have to manage it. That means you don't have to worry about how much you discharged it before you can recharge it. And the battery lasts forever: 30 hours on standby. That means you can safely leave the phone on to receive calls all day long without worrying that it will expire on you. And it has enough talk time - more than three hours - that most of us can safely use it without worrying about using up the battery. Then you just have to remember to park the phone in its charger overnight. Even if you forget, it lasts long enough on its battery that you can probably use it for two days without recharging.
Right there, you've got the whole reason so many of those executives had bought the phone: size, weight, and battery profile. But it doesn't stop there. (I should be on television late at night: Yes, folks, this phone slices! It dices! It splices!) My new phone has an answering machine in it! Portable phones have introduced a new social problem: what do you do when you are interacting with a real human being and the phone rings? I've had people stop in mid conversation while visiting me in my office to answer their portable phone. I'm too polite to say anything, but can you believe that? My phone - which you can set to ring by vibrating so that no-one else knows it's ringing - answers the call itself and takes a message.
It even has a feature where callers can punch in their phone numbers. Then you can return the call simply by pressing the SND button. (The buttons are big enough now that I don't understand why they don't put the E back in SEND.) With this phone, there's almost no reason to use any other telephone. The home phone. The office phone. The car phone. I can use one telephone and one telephone number that's always with me and available (even while it's in the charger overnight). It handles socially awkward situations gracefully. I can use it with my computer, so my computer has access to the telephone system where normally it doesn't. Imagine if everybody had such a personal telephone: it might change some of the dynamics of everyday life.
Stewart Alsop is a leading US-based industry commentator. You can contact him at email@example.com or join his forum on InfoWorld Electric at www.infoworld.com