Phone Rant

Saturday, 26 September 2020

My first phone was a Nokia 3310. It had a monochrome LCD display and a keypad with physical buttons. It was a very popular phone.

My second phone was a Nokia 3200. It had a terrible camera, a colour display, and a keypad with physical buttons.

A photograph of someone else's Nokia 3200 -- a candy bar shaped cell phone.
Someone else’s Nokia 3200
A Nokia 3200, with its case off, showing the front and back face plates.
A Nokia 3200, with its case off, showing the front and back face plates.

A super cool thing about that phone was that the case was a see-through plastic, so you could change how the shell looked by replacing whatever was underneath. There were a number of pre-made face-plates you could use, but you could also make your own using a physical tool that came with the phone.

Teenage me enjoyed that.

The Keypad & T9

With both phones, the main keypad had a normal twelve button dialpad; ten for numbers and two for special buttons. Keys 2 through 9 each mapped to three or four letters and I think 0 mapped to a space.

One way to write with the keypad was to type letters in individually, hitting the same number repeatedly to cycle through the letters that each key would map to. So 7 on the keypad maps to p, q, r and s. Hitting 7 four times would get an s.

Alternatively, the phones had a predictive text feature called T9. For each letter in a word, you hit the button once for the group containing the letter you want. As you type, the phone guesses what word you want based on what matched the groups you used. Occasionally, after typing in all the letters, it still didn’t show the word you wanted. But, you could hit some special key to cycle through matching words until you found it.

Below is an illustration of the predictive text feature featured in some Nokia documentation somewhere.

A sequence of button inputs and the resulting predicted word.

I think, over time, it might “remember” what words you tended to use and would prefer those. But, users also would learn how many times they’d need to cycle to get to the desired word. Typically, you didn’t have to cycle at all or maybe once or twice for smaller words.

I’m pretty sure there was some sort of auto-complete feature too that worked similar to how it does in modern smart phones.

Once you became familiar with it, this feature and the physical keyboard made it possible to type text fairly quickly into your phone often without needing to even really look at it.

It was kinda cool.

My Smartphone

I’ve had two smartphones in total. Both are second-hand. My current was first released in 2014.1

1

One reason this works out for me is that, while the phone manufacturer has stopped releasing updates for phone’s Android-based operating system, random people on the internet take it upon themselves to create and distribute operating system images for this phone that are based on newer versions of Android.

There’s a conversation that could be had about how that interacts with planned obsolescences and the environmental cost of manufacturing and discarding smartphones.

My phone has a quad-core CPU, some kind of GPU, and 2 GB of RAM. But it doesn’t feel like it sometimes.

I generally try to keep thing some degree of “simple”2 where I can. Everyone has a different idea of what this means. For me, one thing is that I try not to run/use JavaScript on the web when I don’t need to.

2

But since people think of simplicity in different ways. People sometimes come to dumb conclusions and do dumb things in that pursuit. Maybe I’m dumb too.

But sometimes, it seems like I have no idea how computers work and how fast they can go. Slack’s input latency on my laptop is visibly uncomfortable, even compared to other JavaScript “apps”. My laptop is two years old and has an i7; but that shouldn’t matter. Computers from the previous century were capable of handling text input from a user and displaying it back to them.

If I visit any article on medium.com on my phone, the phone is completely unresponsive for about eight seconds before it gets my input to close the tab and returns to normal. What is the point of that?

I don’t think I’m missing out on much by not visiting that website – and it’s a fairly privileged problem to have in the first place – but I certainly think that this sort of thing, including performance issues with slack, affect my/our intuitions of what to expect out of computers & what neat things we can do with them.

That’s a bad distortion to have.

T9 is a different kind of tool than those that make up the modern web. Software that turns a twelve-key dial-pad into an efficient text input device that my mom can use is a fundamentally different (and more valuable) kind of invention than a website that messes with how your browser scrolls on the page.

Scribbled in half-eaten crayon on Saturday, 26 September 2020

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