- The Tech Night Owl — Cutting-Edge Tech Commentary - https://www.technightowl.com -

The iPhone 3G to the Rescue

So Cox Communications, one of the major cable, Internet and telephone providers in the Phoenix area, is upgrading its network to handle greater capacity, and to offer subscribers more high definition TV channels. Right now, the satellite TV services are ahead in that area, but not for long.

Well, the other day, Cox customers customers received postcards (yes by snail mail) warning of potential outages over a two-day period, while the work was in progress in their neighborhoods.

Indeed, a few days ahead of the actual upgrade, I got two voicemail messages advising me of when the actual service interruptions might occur. The maximum duration was supposedly two hours, although it was a mite longer in my particular instance.

In any case, when Internet connection went down, I quickly felt the downsides to relying so much on online access to manage my life in recent years. Indeed, one of the reasons I got an iPhone was to be able to keep tabs on email, and make last-minute changes to this site should the need arise in the home office and on the road.

Mrs. Steinberg was grateful not to have me call her constantly, and interrupt her from her chores of the moment, to check my desktop Mac for new messages.

During the outage, I switched off Wi-Fi, so my iPhone 3G would stick to AT&T’s 3G network instead of my Time Machine. The advantage, I suppose, is that battery life is extended somewhat with reduced network activity.

Now I could see just how well an iPhone might replace my Macs should the need arise, at least when it came to my online activities, and the answer is mostly a mixed bag. But I don’t think you should be terribly surprised, because the iPhone has obvious limitations. Some can be fixed with a few new features, some can’t be fixed because of the nature of the beast.

Indeed, packing the guts of a personal computer and a wireless phone in a tiny case is an incredible engineering achievement. It wasn’t so many years ago that the fastest Macs on the planet wouldn’t approach the performance level of your iPhone. As processors get smaller and faster, and consume fewer precious watts, this will only get better.

When it comes to email, I’d call the iPhone a 90% success, at least for my way of working. No, I can’t edit documents on it, other than a WordPress blog, using their special iPhone app. The lack of cut, copy and paste is telling for longer, more complicated communications, but I haven’t suffered all that much from this particular missing feature, though I wish Apple would hurry up and release it.

The lone serious problem is the fact that AT&T’s 3G network is relatively new, and as many of you know, performance is not always as consistent as it should be. From time to time, the two or three bar signal strength display would decline to one, or it would revert to the much slower EDGE network. This variation didn’t seem to depend on the time of day, or weather conditions. Even when the bright, hot Arizona sun was shining through the window, there would be moment-to-moment variations.

Web access is fairly complete, aside from the lack of Flash and Java support. Moreover, navigating through commerce sites with pop-up menus and such isn’t as convenient as I’d like. However, that’s merely meant I could save money and not worry about being unable to complete a transaction.

As to phone service, our primary number goes through the Vonage VoIP network. When that network is down, whether at the source or because of loss of Internet connectivity, the calls are automatically routed to the iPhone. So I didn’t miss any calls either. With the iPhone 3G, in fact, you’re able to handle a call and consult your email at the same time, though not if it reverts to EDGE. The slower network simply doesn’t have the bandwidth to handle both tasks.

Unfortunately, Cox lied about the duration of the outage. They claimed in an automatic voicemail that the interruption would last no longer than two hours over a 48-hour period. However, the first inkling that something was happening appeared as a short Internet service interruption, followed by a pair of two-hour cable TV and Internet disruptions. Their service people feigned ignorance about those voicemails, saying they always intended the outages to last up to ten hours.

While service was unavailable, I felt my Macs were unduly handicapped, but I was actually able to get all of my morning assignments completed on schedule courtesy of the iPhone.

Except for writing this article, of course. Yes, the WordPress iPhone app is neat, fast, and flexible, but I don’t want to try to type 800 or 900 word manuscripts on a touchscreen. Nor do the tiny buttons on a BlackBerry seem any more inviting.

However, this does little episode does seem to reveal the need for some sort of Apple eMate-style device, a diminutive network computer with a larger screen and more conventional style keyboard. Internet access would limited to the cell phone network and Wi-Fi. If it was something that weighed no more than a pound or two, and easily carried in a case far smaller than that required for a conventional note-book computer, you might find the perfect marriage of convenience and miniaturization. And bundling cell phone capability into such a device wouldn’t be a bad idea. Call it a Super iPhone.