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Brief thoughts on big ideas. By Wil, who also writes inhab.it.

I currently have an iPhone 3G.  After two years of daily use it is definitely worse for the wear, with cracks in the plastic casing and dust stuck under the screen.  The battery is also failing, resulting in a standard 2 hours of usage.  For those curious, the cracks occur between the holes in the plastic (for volume rocker, sleep/wake button, sim tray, screws, 30-pin connector, and speakers) and the metal edge to the front of the phone.  These cracks grow over time, and multiply.  

Of course I’ve dropped it.  I list these things as facts rather than as points of failure.  In the past ten years I’ve had a number of phones. Not one survived two years without showing the wear.  This is one of the reasons I take mugshots (via dailymugshot.com), to see if the wear is as visible on my body.  It must be.  The point for the phone though is that two years is a long time to commit to a single object.  It is a lot of hours of use, a lot of strange locations, a lot of potential drops and spills.  There is no other object in my life that spends so much time with me and is so delicate.  And survives.  So a two-year commitment to any single phone seems an odd decision.  But that is the current US cellular climate, and despite my vocal protests and Google’s attempt at direct sales, it will not be changing this week.

I am ready for a new phone.  I enjoy the iPhone, and am not currently enamored of any other maker’s offering, though I watch them all. I had hope for Palm, and believe Android/HTC will tempt me repeatedly, but at the current moment, they do not.  My main desires, for a faster processor, better battery life and nicer display, are all at least partially adressed by iPhone 4.  

What hesitation then?  Well you see it comes to this: I live in San Francisco. I spent an hour or so at the Haight Street Fair yesterday (which may or may not be spelled with an additional ‘e’).  My iPhone 3G spent that time bleeding battery into a “No Service” search.  A futile one, because in addition to the thousands of people who would bring down AT&T’s modest network regardless of the location, there is another problem:  AT&T has no coverage on Haight Street.  This is a well-kept secret, as Haight and Ashbury are relatively high-profile streets in San Francisco, and a mainstay of the tourist circuit.  

How then can AT&T simply abandon the neighborhood?  Your guess is as good as mine.  But the dead zone, as these things are called, extends some 100 yards up and down Haight on either side of Ashbury, and is reliable enough that, when riding a bus down Haight, I can count down to the moment my phone will lose coverage.  This is not the only such spot, but it is an excellent example of why AT&T customers in San Francisco are so unhappy.

"But we have the fastest 3G network," claim the ads.  But your network doesn’t work, I say. Yes, in other cities AT&T remains relatively useful.  In San Francisco, however, it is a wish and a prayer.  In my first three hours back from New York last week I made three calls to three different people from three different locations.  They all failed.  Perhaps this is my hardware, save that the same phone had worked fine in New York scant hours before.  Perhaps it is the network.  

There is one other thing.  In China, to take as an example a location whose carriers and cellular industry I am at least comfortably knowledgable about, this service would not be so maddening.  In China, at the end of the month, I recieved a bill for the number of minutes used and the amount of data transferred.  If AT&T functioned in this manner (or any US carrier, for that matter) such a dead zone would not be as frustrating, because I wouldn’t be paying for service in it.

The US wireless market remains that rare combination of uncompetitive, expensive, and mediocre.  And yet here I live, in San Francisco.  What to do, what to do?

Luckily I have another 24 hours until iPhone 4 pre-orders to make up my mind.