Smartphone Devolving: How I Unplugged & Reengaged

Hang On, Are You Crazy? You Don’t Own A Smartphone?

It’s true. I will no longer be taking part in the coming Singularity.

Several weeks ago, I gave up my Android Samsung Galaxy S3 and found myself needing a new phone. The lovely folks at my telecom provider deemed me unworthy of an upgrade, and I needed a new phone really quickly, so I simply asked them: “What’s the cheapest phone I can get?” As it turned out, my one and only option (other than a $300 termination fee) was to buy a Samsung Gusto featurephone for $150. That’s one hundred and fifty dollars. We now live in a world where the phone with the least functionality and no removable SIM card costs about as much as one week of a net minimum wage salary.

(For those playing along at home, YES, going from a smartphone to a featurephone is in fact considered an “upgrade”. Luckily I was able to get a $45 discount after grousing on the phone for 45 minutes – never let them tell you they can’t give you discounts, always ask!)

DEVO envisions smartphone evolution Kurzweil style. ULTIMATE GLASSHOLES??
DEVO envisions smartphone evolution Kurzweil style. ULTIMATE GLASSHOLES??

Anyways, all that aside, I’m clearly bucking all the trends by abandoning the smartphone life. Here are some choice tidbits from a recent mobile device infographic:

  • By the end of 2013, there will be more mobile devices on Earth than people; more than 2 billion mobile devices will ship globally this year.
  • Over 1.2 billion people access the web from their mobile devices.
  • 28.85% of all emails are opened on mobile phones.
  • 44% of cell phone users have slept with their cell phone by their side so that they didn’t miss a notification.
  • 36% of shoppers search for other store locations on their phones while shopping in store.

But I really did give this decision a lot of thought. The thing is, I do still own a mobile device; I have an iPad mini wifi (and I breathlessly wait every day for the next jailbreak version) that I bought earlier in the year at a nice discount. And this brings me to the first, and most significant reason for “devolving”…

Reason 1: Duplication Of Tablet Functionality

I sat down and enumerated all the things I actually did every day on my smartphone. It turned out that I could do just about all of these things and often even do them better on a tablet or laptop, and these were the biggest factor in my decision to stop using a smartphone:

1. Read email

This was what I did the most on the smartphone; every time it rang or buzzed or displayed a notification alert, I checked it. And I checked it ALL THE TIME. But the thing about email is, it is about 85% garbage (which I have really learned lately from using the Gmail Category Inbox, most of my emails aren’t worth reading). I also found myself always checking work email on off hours, which, honestly, is not how anyone wants to live their life. To the point though, email is absolutely something that is a better and easier experience on a tablet, so that was taken off the table as a consideration.

2. Monitor social networks

If I’m being honest, this is probably the thing I really did most on my smartphone; the screen was almost always displaying a timeline, either Facebook or Twitter. Having already deleted my Facebook account, I really only checked Twitter. I follow tons and tons of people and frequently get a lot of @ mentions and replies; I had even turned on mobile notifications for a few folks, and this all added up to a buttload of notifications on a near constant basis. But, again, there were better experiences available on the tablet for social networks.

Interestingly, status updates for both Twitter and The Facebook are built into the featurephone, even though it takes a few button presses to get there. Since I have unlimited texting, I set up tweet forwarding to SMS, so I’m sending and receiving tweets all the time anyways – no phone smartness necessary.


3. Check in on Foursquare

This is something I do miss a bit, as I was fairly compulsive about checking in to places. I can still do it on tablet, but as I only have an iPad wifi edition, and I don’t take my iPad everywhere, it doesn’t really do the job. But I don’t particularly want to have an iPad with a cell network connection now… I’m starting to like the constraint on my Internet connectivity while I’m mobile. More on this at the end of the post.

4. Locate my position on a map

Another obvious application – GPS, phone network, touchscreen, these work great with a mobile device… and they work better on a tablet. I can even use location awareness on the featurephone, which honestly doesn’t even seem much like a featurephone given that it can do a lot of other stuff.

5. Find other locations and get directions to them on a map

Same as above. It’s very convenient to be able to estimate travel times and to search Google Maps or Foursquare for the next place to go in the area. Local and mobile go together like peanut butter and jelly. There’s a ton of growth left in this space, I’m excited to see where it goes; but I still think it’ll go better on tablets than it will on smartphones.

6. Take photos and post them online

This is the thing I really need a new solution for. The main problem for me has been that smartphone cameras JUST PLAIN SUCK. You can’t really use them in low light – not being able to control aperture, shutter speed, or exposure means you’re not using much of a camera. So having a smartphone didn’t actually give me what I wanted anyways: a real camera that will just let me upload photos directly online; thankfully we’re finally seeing a bunch of wifi “smart cameras” hit the market. (I wonder how long it’ll take before our cameras start getting cracked / rooted?)

Reason 2: Cheaper Phone Service

So now after all that, we come to the second reason – cash money. The base charge for cell service for a featurephone is somewhere around $35; for your typical smartphone with a reasonable data plan, it’s upwards of $110 or so. Of course with all the other hidden fees and taxes and tariffs and every other ridiculous charge the telecom people can think of to charge you, you end up paying another $30 a month no matter what… but I’ll still save between $800 – $1000 a year. That’s a pretty obvious point and doesn’t need a lot of elucidation.

Reason 3: Government Surveillance


I’ll assume that you’re completely aware that the National Security Agency is recording every single electronic signal you produce and consume; some people alive today have had their entire lives – phone calls, texts, emails, EVERYTHING – recorded by the NSA. The FBI can activate the microphones on your smartphones and computers, and can turn on any cameras without the little light coming on to tell you they’re recording. Some parties with the resources of a nation-state have created computer viruses that spread between computers using speakers & microphones, no Internet necessary; it’s theorized that high frequency sound is used to make computer viruses airborne even between computers not plugged in to a network and between computers with different operating systems. I wish I could bold and underline that last statement three or four times because it totally blows my fucking mind.

(Yes, I am the guy who has taped cardboard over the camera holes on my devices.)

Maybe it is a bit paranoid to be concerned about governments monitoring me. Is it also paranoid to be worried about Apple or Google or Facebook or any of a thousand different giant multi-national corporations rooting every computer I own to collect data on me or otherwise figure out if I have broken any of the provisions of their ridiculous End User License Agreements?

The smarter my phone is, the easier it’ll be for governments and multi-nationals to spy on me. I kind of like being able to take the battery out of my phone to make sure that it’s actually turned off (even though it might still be possible to record me and buffer it for sending later when I plug the battery back in). That’s something, isn’t it?

So How Has It Been Going?

I have to say that my day-to-day life has really changed for the better. I don’t feel like a Cro-Magnon. Every time I show my featurephone to people, I usually get “oohs” and “aahs” or some other form of encouragement or applause. Interesting how people simultaneously claim to love their smartphones, yet also hate their dependency on them!

I feel that I’m now more aware and conscious of my surroundings. And I mean REALLY aware and conscious – I feel the passage of time more, I feel more alert, I notice things that I’m pretty sure other people aren’t noticing. It also seems like I’m watching other people around me a lot more… and they all seem to be looking down at their mobile devices. If I really, truly need to have computing power, I can always take the iPad with me and get WiFi access anywhere in the city (Starbucks is EVERYWHERE). I love not being a slave to notifications; but at the same time, I can still get important information via SMS and Twitter.

On a related note: I recently spent about $100 buying and tricking out a RaspberryPi. I now have a highly mobile open hardware computer with a camera, and I can also plug any kind of custom electronics I want into it. Combined with a wireless keyboard, a mouse, a wifi adapter, a powered USB hub and a Mophie juice pack, I have a free and open computing platform that I can code on that is practically wearable computing. I’ve even got it running a VNC server so I can use my iPad mini as its touchscreen display.

Think about this for a second: There is no such thing as a free / libre smartphone. We can install different operating systems on computers, but phone service providers are making it more and more impossible to use “their” phone (the phone YOU OWN and should be free to do whatever you want with) on another provider’s service. Smartphones are not phones, they are artificially limited and restricted mobile computers. They should be as free and open as every other computer can be. I should be able to write programs on my mobile computer!! Also of note: I cannot remove the SIM card from my Samsung Gusto featurephone – it has none. Meaning I CANNOT move it to another provider; I am once again trapped in the anti-consumerist fascist economy cage.

I bought the RaspberryPi because it’s a mobile computing platform that doesn’t tie me down to a hardware provider or force me into a corporate owned garden with any hardware and/or software (app store) walls. I’m not limited to any particular operating system. Because the software and hardware are all free and open to scrutiny, it’s a little more likely that there aren’t any crazy backdoors built into it that governments or malicious corporations can access. I’m actually pretty excited for the Kano project, which has totally blown out its Kickstarter goal.

I plan to keep on keeping on with my featurephone – what do you think? Can you live without your smartphone? Have you really thought about what you do with it, or tracked your actual usage of it? Maybe it’s worth a look!

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