Of sidearms, wands and lightsabers, part 1

In the modern world of Silicon Valley circa 2010, the smartphone is more important than a cowboy’s six-shooter was a hundred-fifty years ago. Many are the technology workers who would sooner wander out the door in the morning without pants than without their iPhones or Crackberries or Androids.

I’m one of those, I hate to admit. Have been for years – a vastly overpriced Sony Ericsson P800 from a shady Chinese cellphone shop in the Bowery was my first effort, followed a year later by a Nokia 6620 and then by trying to squeeze J2ME versions of Opera Mini and Google Maps onto an unlocked V635 – an effort that went pear-shaped only when I reluctantly gave up my personal phone and let my employer pay for my service – which didn’t include data. And thus did I drift, lost and lonely for a year and a half, until the iPhone, which not only led to my employer providing data service again BUT which featured Wi-Fi as well. Just like that, I had service most anywhere…and the iPhone became THE indispensable device.

I have lately been running up against the limits of what the iPhone can do, though. I don’t think these are common to the iPhone, either, as I see no evidence that a Nexus One or a Droid or a Blackberry Bold would get around them (and I carried the Bold specifically to try to thwart #1 for a while, to no avail). These are in no particular order:

1) TEXT ENTRY. There is simply no good way to handle long-form entry on a device the size of a deck of cards. I know there’s Swype now, and Dragon Dictate, and some people seem to think the slide-out keyboard on the Droid is usable, but I’m here to tell you: there is no good way to churn out a thousand-word blog post without a mostly-full-sized keyboard that you can operate with more than thumbs.

This is where the netbook still hangs on: even a Dell Mini10 has a 92% full-size keyboard that honestly isn’t any worse than using the old 12″ Powerbook G4 (and in fact the Atom N450 probably beats it for speed and definitely for battery life). If the putative ChromeOS devices are indeed keyboarded, this is a good sign. I think much of the iPad’s early success will rise and fall over the viability of its on-screen keyboard and whether people are willing and able to carry a Bluetooth keyboard with it for long-form text (although an iPad and that wee Apple Bluetooth keyboard with no numeric keypad? Might fit nicely into a 10″ laptop sleeve…)

2) STREAMING MEDIA. This is a combination problem: bandwidth AND battery life. Even if you could watch Hulu on the iPhone, you couldn’t do it *well* and I don’t expect that to get any better anytime soon. Even people using Pandora don’t seem to be crazy about it as a go-to music source on the iPhone – plus let’s face it, you’re basically back to transistor radio days with trying to get coverage and not lose your signal. Buffering is the new static. Given the storage cost of keeping video on the phone (especially with these phones that only come with 8 GB SD cards or such), I think this is one where the ultimate benefit is with the larger screen (and thus bigger battery on the back side of said screen) – one particularly interesting bit is whether the iPad will have some sort of improvement in YouTube, Slingbox, etc. support – and whether the long-rumored Hulu app will come to pass. After all, the screen’s nearly big enough for proper 720p HD…

3) CHAT. Again, without a reliable means of text input, IM-type chat is a bit of a pain in the ass – not to mention redundant. After all, when you have SMS *and* the ability to, you know, DIAL THE PHONE…AIM and Y!M and Google Talk become kind of pointless. Now video chat is another matter…but there, as with streaming media, you’re back to considerations of battery and bandwidth. After all, video-calling has been out there on 3G networks in Europe for years…but the uptake just isn’t there. Personally, I’m waiting for Star Wars holographic chat, with the full-body blue-tinged thing happening. Video chat, a la Skype or iChat? Better off with a laptop.

So all in all, your move these days if you need something better than an iPhone is the netbook. You can get a Dell Mini10v for about $250, and for that you get a desktop OS, a full browser with Flash and Java (and thus Hulu or similar), a webcam (and thus support for chat via Skype or maybe even GTalk at some point) a physical keyboard for other than hobbits, and hell, even the prospects of VNC and RDP to get some work done back at base in a pinch. Plus, based on the pricing of the Nexus One, it’s difficult to fathom that Google would release a netbook-type device for much less – in fact, it’s more likely to join Ubuntu, Moblin, Eeebuntu, Sugar, and the other slew of non-Windows alternative netbook operating systems. And hell, you can install the open-source Chromium on your netbook right now if you like.

Long story short: the iPad is still an attractive notion, but in the grand scheme of things, if you already have an iPhone, it may be superfluous. Carrying a device that doesn’t hit all those spots may be a bit much – I have a friend with a Kindle that has infinite battery, a great display, and some rudimentary ability to hit the web from anywhere – but she leaves it at home and uses her iPod Touch (and now, her iPhone) for reading on the road. Based on that, the obvious question is: will you take your netbook (or other Tertiary Connectivity Device) with you or is it for sitting at home on the couch? Where, let’s face it, an iPhone is not the best device for checking IMDB while you watch Leverage.

So instead, let’s get through this in a more practical way: to what extent do I need those things, especially given that I now have a very nice Mac mini at home taking care of the heavy lifting computer-wise and serving as my backup system?

1) TEXT ENTRY. This is the big one. I cannot blog “from anywhere” as it were, nor can I work on things like the NaNoWriMo project. If I go to lunch, or sit on the train or what have you, my content creation is limited to what I can scribble in one of a disturbingly-growing selection of small notebooks. This would be kind of handy, to be honest, because my work laptop is a 15″ MacBook Pro and really isn’t suitable for going anywhere. I certainly would hate to take it with me on vacation (and to be honest, it was only the necessity of my fantasy football draft that led me to take a laptop to the Pacific Northwest. Otherwise, I have gone on almost a month’s worth of travel with zippy laptop in 2009).

2) STREAMING MEDIA. I think this is more theoretical than anything – largely because most of what I listen to on the iPhone now is podcast material. I likely couldn’t use streaming media on a plane, for instance, and I think battery life issues make it impractical to consider otherwise.

3) CHAT. I basically never IM anymore except with my wife and co-workers, during the workday, and mostly on a company-hosted secure IM system. I think it’s probably been 2007 since I was on IM on a routine basis. A combination of SMS, Twitter and Facebook have made IM obsolete for public asynchronous time-wasting. =)

So basically, what I’m looking for in a netbook is something to use for blogging on vacation and reading RSS in front of the TV. Well hell, I’m not about to spend $250 on THAT, let alone $500 for an iPad. So at this point, we’re back to analyzing what may replace this iPhone 3G come September…

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