Mad, Beautiful Ideas
How Important is the Phone in Smartphone?

Yesterday evening, as a lark I tweeted out the following:

If I was AT&T and I had to make selective QOS decisions, I'd drop iPhone calls first. What are they gonna do? Buy another phone? Doubt it.

Mostly, I was joking. I don't think AT&T should do this. As a long-time AT&T customer (though I've never owned an iPhone), I think the general state of the AT&T network is abysmal. This is a company that desperately needs to invest in infrastructure, but who seems to be going about it in the slowest way possible.

And the generally idea came from an incident during Hurricane Katrina, whereby Something Awful, a web community I was heavily invovled with at the time, was shut down for...well, let me just quote Richard Kyanka, founder of Something Awful.

Something Awful, one of Zipa / DirectNICs most bandwidth-intensive customers, had to be taken offline so their other 8,000 customers could stay up. This is comparable to shooting the morbidly obese 900-pound fat guy taking up space in a nuclear fallout shelter so 20 other people can fit into the area he was consuming. And, judging by the rescue footage of New Orleans, this is a scenario we might very well encounter in the near future.

The Zipa / DirectNIC guys were doing an amazing job, but in the end, SA was simply too big to deal with as their OC-3 lines started dropping off like flies. The story of the saga was posted by Rich shortly after SA was brought back up, including some unfortunate incidents with PayPal, which is, incidentally, while I'll never use PayPal for fundraising. Ever.

The other reason I made the comment was that to this day, I hear iPhone owners complaining about poor service from AT&T in their regions, which largely come from the fact that AT&T simply doesn't have the capacity to deal with the load, especially in busy areas, but I firmly believe that there is something seriously wrong, either with the iPhone radio, antenna, or baseband drivers. In our region, I'd had connection problems with my Android Dev Phone 1 until AT&T installed a second tower nearby. Immediately my connection problems ceased to exist. There are a few places where I can't get a signal, but they're places that are either surrounded by metal or concrete (or both), so it makes sense that they have reception problems.

Several of the iPhone users I know saw things get much better, but they still have complaints, and I don't think they're as simple as continuing to make fun of AT&T's failures as a carrier. The iPhone 4, with it's very nice looking antenna integrated into the case, might do better for reception than the iPhone today, but that remains to be seen in the field.

But it raised an interesting thought for me. I've been on AT&T for several years, and it's been good enough for me. My Android Phone, which is a device designed for T-Mobile's network, didn't pull me away from AT&T largely because I wanted an unlocked handset, with the engineering firmware. Plus, I actively wanted to stay on a GSM network, so non-GSM providers have been deal-breakers for me. I like being free to swap out a SIM card to keep using my service.

However, at this time, I'm really watching the coming Android devices to see where they land, and debating if I should take my Wife and I's business to T-Mobile to get better devices, though today they don't have anything too exciting.

My point is, that while I'm pretty committed to the Android platform, I'm not tied to my cellular provider. iPhone users, at least in the US, don't have that option. So, it leaves me asking, just how important is the 'phone' part of our smartphones?

Why is it an acceptable joke that our phones are good for almost anything...except making calls?

Given that iPhone users are so devoted to their phones, even through constant complaints about poor service, why not further reduce their service quality, if it better serves the rest of the customer base?

Ultimately, smartphones and their ilk change the way we interact with data in an immensely personal way. I think they're a strong step forward to a day of truly personal computing. However, without a strong connection, not only for making calls, but for data. Yes, almost all these phones support Wifi, but the point is to have an always on data connection, and there are definitely huge areas outside of Wifi clouds (or certainly open and available wifi clouds). It's interesting how willing we all are to put up with lousy data service for these devices that are mostly useless without that ongoing connection.