Until Tuesday (2011-11-01), I am sort of half-cut-off from the Internet. I can browse, I can blog, and I can push commits to my project repos, but I can’t do IRC or mail. This is a heads-up for my GPSD and other collaborators; I’m still here.
How this happened is a case study in 21st-century Internet vicissitudes…
Recently there was a request for advice on a mailing list I frequent, on how to choose an Android phone from the plethora of offerings out there. Here’s what I had to say on the matter:
As a very happy user of the G-1 back when it was the only Android phone available, I was keenly looking forward to what HTC and T-Mobile would do for an encore in the G-2. Especially when T-Mobile promised it would run stock Android with no skin and no unremovable crapware. I was seriously planning a first-day upgrade when the G-2 came out, just to get the higher data speeds.
Great was my disappointment when they shipped a crippled phone. T-Mobile kept the promise not to add crapware, but they disabled tethering and hotspot – two absolute must-haves for me. By the time these features were un-disabled in a firmware update, I’d discarded my plans to upgrade. The Nexus One is still a very nice phone and a pleasure to use.
But, quite by accident, I now have a G-2 for evaluation. No, T-Mobile didn’t send me one; I ran into a friend at the Philadelphia Science Fiction convention who’s replaced his G-2 with an Android tablet and wants to sell the former. So he lent it it to me to try for a while; the theory is, if I like it after a couple of weeks, I’ll give him fair market minus 15% for depreciation and we’ll both be happy.
The surprise is that, rather to my own bemusement, I’m leaning towards giving it back.
I spent some time today rooting and reflashing my old G-1 so it’s jumped from stock Android 1.6 to Android 2.2. CyanogenMod is a truly impressive piece of work, with both snazzy surface polish and a lot of nice little hackerly touches like including a root console in the standard apps panel and easy access to the recovery loader. I really feel like I have control of the device now.
Which is nice, but doesn’t have a lot of practical relevance yet. My main use for the G-1 is as a fallback in case my Nexus One gets lost or stolen. Still, there was some enjoyment in learning that, yes, I can do stuff like reflashing a phone without bricking it, and swapping around SIM cards without perpetrating some egregious blunder that wipes them. Alas, I’m still not very comfortable doing risky things with hardware – I retain some emotional reflexes from thirty years ago, when zorching anything computerlike meant you’d just incurred a five-figure bill and were in deep, deep shit.
I’ve been thinking for some time now that the smartphone has achieved a kind of singularity, becoming a black hole that sucks all portable electronics into itself. PDAs – absorbed. Music players – consumed. Handset GPSes – eaten. Travel-alarm clocks, not to mention ordinary watches – subsumed. Calculators – history. E-readers under serious pressure, and surviving only because e-paper displays have lower battery drain and are a bit larger. Compasses – munched. Pocket flashlights – crunched. Fobs for keyless locks – being scarfed down as we speak, though not gone yet.
This raises an interesting question: what else is natural prey for the smartphones of the future? Given my software interests, one low-hanging fruit that seems obvious to me is marine AIS receivers. If the frequency of any of the RF receiver stages in a phone were tunable, writing an app that would pull AIS data out of the air wouldn’t be very difficult. I’ve written a lot of the required code myself, and I know where to find most of the rest.
But in an entertaining inversion, one device of the future actually works on smartphones now. Because I thought it would be funny, I searched for “tricorder” in the Android market. For those of you who have been living in a hole since 1965, a tricorder is a fictional gadget from the Star Trek universe, an all-purpose sensor package carried by planetary survey parties. I expected a geek joke, a fancy mock-up with mildly impressive visuals and no actual function. I was utterly gobsmacked to discover instead that I had an arguably real tricorder in my hand.
The over-the-air update for Android 2.2, aka FroYo, landed on my Nexus One this morning.
The WiFi hotspot feature works perfectly when tested with my ThinkPad X61 running Linux.
I am liberated. No more per-diem WiFi charges in hotels. No more cursing as I discover that the airport hotspots are all pay-for-play. Internet on my laptop in the shotgun seat of the car!
This feature will be a must for road warriors everywhere. And the iPhone 4 doesn’t have it. The screams of denial from the Apple fanboys as that absence costs Apple another hunk of market share that it will never get back should be most entertaining.
UPDATE: Have verified that USB tethering just works, too. Plug it in and go!
It’s been an eventful week here at Eric Conspiracy Secret Labs, what with robot submarines busting out all over and a “Disruptive Innovation Award” from the Tribeca Film Festival (!) landing on my somewhat bemused head (possible topic of a later post). And I’m writing from Penguicon, where in about an hour I’m going to be starring in an event billed as “Jam Session with ESR – Ask Him Anything!” Whoever scheduled this for 9AM on the morning after Saturday night at a convention needs to be found and seriously hurt, but I figure anyone with enough willpower to show up at that unGoddessly hour of the morning deserves the best of me.
Which is all, in this case, a lead-in to observing that I’ve now been using a Google Nexus One under field and travel stress for about a week. The differences from the G-1 I had been carrying are, I think, suggestive about how Android-based smartphones are evolving and their competitive posture against the iPhone, Symbian, and Windows Mobile.
I never bought the hype that laptops were going to obsolesce the conventional desktop PC, nor do I buy today’s version of the hype about netbooks. The reason I didn’t is simple: display and keyboard ergonomics. I use and like a Lenovo X61 Thinkpad happily when traveling, but for steady day-to-day work nothing beats having a big ol’ keyboard and a display with lots of pixels. I have a Samsung 1100DF, 2048×1536, and it may be a huge end-of-lifed boat anchor but I won’t give it up for a flatscreen with lower resolution and less screen real estate.
But now I’m going to reverse myself and predict that smartphones — not today’s smartphones, but their descendants three to five years out, will displace the PC. Here’s what I think my computing experience is going to look like, oh, about 2014: