I recently wrote about how horrified I am that people believe smartphones can enhance computer security. Not content to just refute that claim, I went on to state that I do not find smartphones compelling in general. Many people I encounter simply can’t accept this position. To save time in the future, I’m going to explain myself here. I will enumerate all of the reasons that I can think of that a smartphone might be appealing to me and yet why they ultimately fail to inspire me.

Coffle Chain
First of all, let us sane people all agree that if your job needs to be able to reach you while you’re using the toilet, that it is a bad job. I have a relatively good job. Second, the whole topic should be moot because whatever device an employer truly requires me to carry would be provided to me by my employer. That hasn’t happened to me yet which is a sign of how seriously my employer needs to contact me when I should not be contacted.

L’Heure Exacte
What a blunder Apple committed with that wristwatch stuff. Nobody wears a watch! People almost don’t even understand the concept. For professional reasons (server logs, ntpd administration, etc) I take knowing the accurate time very seriously. With sub-second accuracy, please. That is why I do wear a watch. My watch is solar powered and receives the NIST shortwave time beacon. Telling time is a good reason for a smartphone, but for me a smartphone is not good enough for telling time.

Eine Kleine Scheiß Musik Though I’ve long since cured myself, I underwent consumer brainwashing at the time of the Sony Walkman. To orient the young people, let’s just say that it was as big as the iPhone, literally and figuratively. With it, you could listen to cassette tapes anywhere! Wooo! Sounds kind of silly today, doesn’t it? Ahem. Yes it does. Most portable listening devices suffer from one of two problems. First are the bad ear buds that are dangerous to your hearing. (Seriously, if you listen to portable music, throw them away and buy some noise blocking ones. Do it now.) Second is the annoyance of other people’s music. It used to be that this was confined to close quarters, say riding the bus, and you’d hear music leaking out of someone’s aforementioned bad headphones necessarily turned up too loudly. Today the situation is substantially worse. With smartphones people don’t bother with headphones. Why suffer the hassle of that when you can also generously share your brilliant taste in fine music with everybody in a 50m radius? Of course your musical selections are so compelling that mangling the tone through tinny micro speakers won’t be a problem at all. That all too true story happened to me just yesterday when I was trying to read (a paper book) in the park. A similar feature of smartphones that I do not require is to let everyone in the theater know how important and popular I am.

ГЛОНАСС Navigation
Without a smartphone, I’ll get lost, right? No, usually not. I’m quite a confident navigator even in the absence of electricity. I actually have an ancient car GPS from the days when that was a thing and it still works fine. It’s in my car and I use it once every couple of years. It even runs Linux; I had an easier time customizing it than my Android phone.

Is satellite navigation on smartphones even ready? You may laugh and say, of course it is! But when I first checked into this back when GPS on phones seemed to be a thing, it turned out to be dependent on the availability of the cell phone service to download the satellite ephemeris data. I don’t know if that limitation still holds (which is unnerving because I’ve tried to find out) but when REI wants you to believe there are good reasons for purchasing a standalone GPS receiver, they say stuff like, "GPS units are not limited by your cell phone provider’s coverage area." Since I am well known to frequently visit the serious middle of nowhere, this is not a meaningless technicality. When my life depends on getting it right, I still use paper maps.

Victorian Cosplay Telephony
Even for making 19th century telephone calls smartphones are dreadful. The quality is a joke. Compare quality with sitting at a computer and using Hangouts or Skype. Or, for that matter, any ordinary telephone call ever made between 1930 and 1990 facilitated by the guys who brought us Unix. Since 90% of my phone calls are to asshat customer "service" situations which are too stupid to understand that email is a natural asynchronous medium, 90% of my call time is spent on hold. But even this is not improved with smartphones. "I’m sorry. I did not recognize. That input. Please enter. Your social security number. And. Your birthday in ISO8601 format to the rhythm of the William Tell Overture. Again." So you move the phone away from your face to do this and the phone is black. You shake it and shake it and whimper a bit at it. You can’t touch its black screen or the call will terminate. The display finally comes on and it basically is telling you that you’re involved in a telephone call. Gee thanks! You work passionately to evoke a usable antique telephone keypad from the wretched software while preserving the delicate connection into which you’ve invested half an hour on hold. And just when it comes up and just when you start humming the Lone Ranger tune, you hear a voice from another dimension, "I’m sorry. I did not recognize……" Using smartphones as telephones will only be viable when they are cheap enough to smash with a hammer every time this occurs. Sadly I predict this will happen before terrible smartphone (and customer service) interfaces go away.

UPDATE 2019-03-19

"Robo-calls — tied for most annoying type of phone call with every other type of phone call!"

He also highlights projections reckoning that "…half of all mobile calls will be scams…" Fun!

La Chispa
My son and an alarming number of otherwise sensible adults who should know better have tried to sell me on mobile phones because they make such handy flashlights. I wish I were kidding but you know this is true. You know what else makes a good flashlight? A flashlight. When this is the killer app, I know something is wrong. Imagine if Microsoft had made their blue screen of death a white screen of death and called it a desk lamp.

As a strong proponent of autonomous cars, whenever I need to remind myself or others how important this topic is, I turn to Russian dashcam videos. As these are quite inspirational, I’ve been thinking of getting a dashcam and/or helmetcam, but can a smartphone serve the purpose? I remain unconvinced. Still, a smartphone’s greatest potential lies in bearing witness to the grand stupidity that is other drivers, who are by far my largest problem in life. On first principles it would seem that a dedicated photography system would be smarter. Economies of scale make that difficult to easily assess. All of the dashcams I’ve researched seemed shady and unreliable, just like smartphones.

UPDATE 2017-03-12:

Turns out that some shady imported dashcams work great! Here is my new one in action.

Safety (Mine)
People point out that I could need to call someone in the case of an accident or emergency. Believe me, that’s on my mind. My odds of winding up dismembered under a Chevy Tahoe are orders of magnitude greater than those of normal people. Of course I’ve given this a lot of thought and even still, I just can’t feel that this risk is ameliorated enough by a mobile phone to outweigh the annoyances and costs. After all, the driver of the Tahoe will not only have a mobile phone, but will actually have it fully operational at the moment the emergency is created. That prediction does not have low odds. To suggest that I carry a mobile phone when I’m cycling is reasonable and intelligent but I still can’t be bothered. Hell, I can’t be bothered to replace missing handlebar tape but let’s not miss the point. I suggest to you that wearing a full face helmet when travelling by automobile is even more reasonable and intelligent, but you’re not even going to contemplate doing that. It’s undeniable that doing so would improve safety, yet we make implicit decisions all the time about safety involving low risk odds. Most people do not need to consciously think, "Hmm, should I spend the day in the backyard digging a nuclear fallout shelter?" Of course not. Despite undeniably improving safety, such a project is likely to be a pointless waste of time. That is how I feel about the hassle of mobile phones. I’m usually a fan of pessimistic planning (if I had a back yard and a shovel…hmmm). I would be much more likely to carry a phone for emergency use if the service was billed $1 a month and $50/min if you actually use it. If it also had a hand crank to power it, then I’d definitely have one in my car.

Safety (Yours)
The other side of this coin that people suggest to me is something like, what if your child/wife has an emergency at school/work? My answer is more practical than emotional — what the heck am I going to be able to do about it? If it’s not serious, well, Q.E.D.; if it is serious, call 911, not me! If there is such an emergency that can’t wait until I get home, would you say safety has been improved because I can take a call or text while driving home? Please don’t answer that because the answer is categorically no. The sad fact is that your world is less safe because of mobile phones and my world is much, much less safe because of them. I was extremely lucky to walk away from this mobile phone "experience".

carcrash1.jpg carcrash2.jpg

My car was politely sitting completely still on the freeway stuck in heavy traffic when it was thrown like a toy into the tailgate of a truck by a Chrysler 300 (note the distinctive grill print). All because some idiot had to read a text or make a call. The mental attention I need to defend myself from literal death by smartphones when I’m travelling by bicycle is more exhausting than the pedalling. Safety is harder for me to take seriously when considering mobile phones. (Reminds me of another issue.) Although it’s not in the same category as death, not getting to execute my planned amortization of that car pretty much exceeded my mobile communications budget for many years to come.

The Truth
Just like that other issue the reason to have a smartphone is not safety. It’s because you just like them. Smartphones are not the wildly invasive epidemic for any of the reasons I’ve listed. No. The fact is that when most people lovingly stroke their precious they are doing nothing more than normal stupid internet stuff. But I get it. I got it. I mean I got it long before the smartphone zombies did. I was seriously playing smartphone style casual games on a personal computer in the 1970s. Yes, I understand the appeal. Because those of us who used computers in those dark days faced such a negative caustic reaction from normal people, especially female normal people, I had to essentially trade away all prospects for a girlfriend. You thought today’s cell phone plans were expensive! I get it. Computers are amazing. Addictive. Empowering. A lifelong joy in my life.

I think the modern smartphone zombies are really discovering the computer itself more than the portability. Like I did 37 years ago. Normal people today carry around a stupid irritating computer. I dedicated my life to making computers not be stupid. I get it. It seems to me that 99% of what people do with their smartphones, I can do with an old junky desktop computer. And I do. And the other 1%?

Here’s the thing, since 1980, I’ve been sitting at a computer as much as possible, essentially all day, every day. Only a fool would seriously think I really need to be able to use a computer more often. I turn on my computer right when I get up and turn it off right before bed. I sit at it for astonishingly long unhealthy stretches. If I can tear myself away to work on not being so one dimensional, which I proudly have, the last thing I need is another computer to look at. When I’m on my bike, in my car, in the grocery store, walking across campus, hiking the back country, socializing, in bed, or sitting on the toilet, do I really need to still be using a computer? Are all the other times of my life not enough? I live next door to a library that I visit several times a week. Does anyone really think I need a smartphone when I take a break from my computer work to go to the library? I do see people in the library all the time, surrounded by books, staring at their phones. To me that is a huge irony. An unnecessary one.

UPDATE 2017-06-29:

UPDATE 2017-08-28:

I love this paper about telemarketer honeypots. Brilliant. However note, "Just in the US alone there were over 5 million complaints about unwanted or fraudulent calls in 2016."

UPDATE 2017-10-17:

I’m not the only one who has noticed that phones are trying very hard to kill me. Smartphones Are Killing Americans, But Nobody’s Counting.

UPDATE 2017-11-06:


UPDATE 2018-07-09:

It’s obvious where my lack of enthusiasm comes from when you think about it differently. Here is Joy Of Tech literally illustrating the nature or the problem in a way that makes it easy to see why, "No, I’m really not interested."


UPDATE 2018-08-19:

Personally I still don’t need/want a mobile phone, but sometimes your employer gives you one. I acquired one yesterday therefor and am reading the fine print in the manual.

To reduce exposure to RF [Radio Frequency] energy, use a hands-free accessory or other similar option to keep this device away from your head and body. Carry this device at least 15mm away from your body to ensure exposure levels remain at or below the as-tested levels.

Do they mean a "hands-free accessory" like a Bluetooth headset with its own RF safety issues? Heck, they might as well have painted it with lead-based paint! Oh wait, here’s one of those vague California Prop65 Cancer and Reproductive Harm warnings. Maybe they did!

UPDATE 2021-09-14

Why are telephones so bad at using the world wide web? Don’t agree? This is what my responsive design preview in Firefox says Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s web page looks like on a telephone.


If a telephone can’t show me this web page, I’m going to have to assume it really is not ready for showing me web pages. This bugs me because I use Apache’s mod_autoindex on my web site (e.g. here) and it produces perfectly pure, simple, clean, minimal HTML which phones render illegible.