Why No Smart Phone

For somebody who made most of my living from computer technology, I sometimes come off like a Luddite, but not really. Take for instance my cell phone. I do carry one around, but it's an aging clamshell "stupid" phone, not an Android or iPhone. Why is that? There are several reasons (Unix, Wi-Fi, and RingTones), but first let me tell you why it matters.

My friend and benefactor, knowing about my aging phone, told me that the cellular networks are planning to drop analog service. So I thought I'd start looking around, and he offered me a "free" Android phone he got from his cable TV provider. OK, I tried it. It's not as smart as my clamshell, and certainly lower quality. Quality, the people in that business tell us, is conformance to specifications. The primary specification of a cell phone is that you can make and receive phone calls. I think this one does that. But 90% of the time I look at my working clamshell, it is as a timepiece. At least Android does that. It's not easy access like on the clamshell. Nothing is easy in Android. The clamshell is higher quality service than the Android. Here's why...


I think the biggest reason for the failure of smart phones is Unix: now that Microsoft has discontinued their WindowsMobile phone platform, there are no phones made any more that are not based on the archaic and rickety Unix operating system. Eunuchs, as everybody knows, are people who are missing a vital organ, so they cannot perform. The oldest computer operating system in current production, it is aptly so named. There is no Viagra for operating systems.

Originally developed in Bell Labs (the research arm for then telephone giant AT&T) for internal use, Unix was presented to the public in 1973. This was when AT&T was still a regulated common carrier (monopoly) forbidden to sell products in any other market lest they unfairly cross-subsidize a competitive business from the regulated monopoly (which is a reasonable restriction, given that true competition between public utilities is nonsensical), but AT&T was rightly proud of their product, so they gave it away for free to non-profit academic institutions like universities. The result was that even today, four decades later, Unix is still the only non-toy operating system that students get to see and work with -- so guess what they come out of their schools loving and wanting to use? Unix.

AT&T kept tight control on their product, but the students loved it so much that one or more of them sought to make a work-alike clone not owned and controlled by AT&T. Linus Torvalds was the guy who succeeded, and he named his operating system after himself ("Linus+Unix" = Linux"). Other people jumped on his bandwagon -- after all, because everything is a "file" (it doesn't do hard things like real-time and events), Unix is basically easy to understand -- and Linux became the preferred system of all small computers. Except for real people who want to get real work done, they still use the non-Unix Windows and IBM systems.

In 1973 Unix was an innovation and a great improvement over the haphazard systems everybody else was using, but eleven years later the event-driven MacOS made the file model of Unix obsolete, and another decade later the internet broke the Unix security model. But only Unix was ever given free to universities for students to learn, so the the fresh-outs are still stuck on Unix and never get over it. The Unix file model prevents programmers understanding real-time programming, and it prevents them from making events work properly. A phone needs to do both of these to work correctly, so Unix is the worst possible way to do a phone, especially a smart phone. But that's what all the university graduates since 1973, many of whom are now making executive decisions for cell phone manufacturers, that's all they learned and know, so that's what we are stuck with.

Take any smart phone with a touch screen, or any OSX (Apple's Unix system) -- probably also Linux, but I wouldn't know and don't particularly want to find out -- and try to manipulate the screen data quickly, it drops taps (or mouse clicks, as the case may be). It's the operating system doing that. The MacOS (the original, not OSX) did things right. The people who cared about doing things right are dying off and not being replaced, because the American government has forced that kind of education out of the public schools. But that's another issue. The moribundity of this so-called smart phone is a consequence.


One of the great ideas of smart phones is anywhere-access to the internet. And it (sort of) works, as well as any Unix-based system can work in the broken and patched and broken again and patched again security model that the internet inherted from Unix. But now we have a different problem: cell phones use a radio link. That's OK when the FCC controls and licenses the airwaves to prevent interference, as they do with radio and TV and police and cell phone frequencies, but some years back the electronic vendors persuaded the FCC to deregulate certain bands of the spectrum, basically opening them up to all comers. Citizen's band was the first to go, but CB radios spend most of their time listening, not broadcasting, and the wide-open spaces of the interstate highways reduce the clutter to something manageable, and only truckers really care. Yes, there are a lot of them, but they more or less self-regulate: if the interference makes it too hard to understand what people are saying, you turn the bugger off and play the radio or a CD instead.

Then there are the radio-controlled toys. Again, if the airwaves become overcrowded, then the toy car or airplane stops responding to the remote control and crashes, and that transmitter ceases to be used. BlueTooth is a much shorter wavelength, with a corresponding shorter range; people tend not to use multiple BlueTooth networks within its broadcast range -- except maybe in an office environment, where the metal cubicle walls block the signal.

Wi-Fi, on the other hand, is designed to penetrate the walls of a building, so that the entire home or business can all be on the same network. When they were first talking about the idea, I realized that it doesn't scale up very well, and that as it became more popular the total available bandwidth would start to experience overcrowding and interference and reduced functionality, so I mostly stayed (and continue to stay) away from Wi-Fi. Besides, the security is poor (better now than originally, but still not great), and I didn't particularly want people snooping on my business. Recall a year ago that I needed a VPN router to bypass the broken cable system here and get my email from Kansas, but imagine my surprise when I brought up Win10 for preparing the tools the kids at the summer camp needed, and it found a Wi-Fi host that my VPN router had been (and still is) broadcasting. I could not turn it off, so I gave it a huge and hard-to-guess (and hard to type) password.

The new Android smart phone needs to be on the internet -- the warning I saw when I got it said it needs to be online to start up, but I guess he did that before sending it to me. But I didn't know that. There's no ethernet plug on this device, all it knows is Wi-Fi. The user manual is rather vague, but I accidentally bumped into a half-panel with a Settings gear icon, and sure enough there's a Wi-Fi button there. You'd think they'd make consumer products a little easier to use than needing a PhD in rocket sci-- oh wait, I have PhD in computer science, which should be even better, but no, this is Unix, noobs not welcome. I finally figured out how to turn Wi-Fi on, and there were some three dozen hotspots listed, randomly popping in and out, but not one of them was mine, fifteen inches away. Recall that Ore-gone has this stupid anti-sprawl law that crowds middle- and low-income people into tiny ghettos, and yes, there probably are three dozen separate single-family residences within a half block from here. I thought my router had somehow shut its hotspot off, but no, OSX saw it just fine. There are a couple things OSX actually does usefully, which is why I keep it handy to use once every week or three, when I inescapably need to look at a PrettyDarnFoolish file or access a non-public (encrypted) website, and this was one of them: it knows how to set up its own Wi-Fi hotspot. The Android phone could see that one, but it kept alternating between active and validating. I tried Google, and it consistently said I wasn't connected to the internet, perhaps I should turn "Airplane mode" off (it's already off). The Wi-Fi segment of the radio spectrum is completely saturated here in the low-class ghetto. Tolja so.

I went to the library, which fills half of a city block. There was much less interference, and it got right on. Did I tell you the Unix security model is broken? I experienced some of that trying to download ringtones. Google in this phone is waaay harder to use than Google on my desktop computer, but that's not what you have a phone for... Oh wait, that's the whole point of a "smart" phone!


Wi-Fi is not the show-stopper, the complete lack of recognizable ringtones is the show-stopper, but that cannot be fixed with no Wi-Fi. Everybody who legitimately calls me on the clamshell has a distinctive ring tone, so I have time to get my head into a space where I can talk to them. That was a total failure on the new phone. They have a dozen or so different "tunes" like the clamshell, but every one of them is a random jumble of beeps and boops that all sound the same, not one of the tunes is recognizable.

I went to the library and Googled "classical ring tones" and got lots of hits, mostly from some website with a name like "Zilch" or something like that, and they had a zillion tunes, not one of them a classic tune like Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, or Vivaldi. "Classical" used to mean music that is good enough to survive a hundred years or more, but nobody listens to good music any more, so the word has changed meaning during my lifetime; my sister tells me it now means "elevator music" (something that doesn't set your nerves on edge). I found another site that actually had classical music and downloaded a bunch of huge tune files off the internet, but I couldn't find any really good classical tunes like this clamshell has built in. Then I went to the contacts app to add them to each different person there, but there's no way I could find to do that. Apparently this phone isn't as smart as my aging clamshell, which lets me set a different ringtone for every person in my phone book. That's a non-starter. The clamshell delivers higher quality service than the Android.

After doing nothing with this for a week or so, I realized I had not exhausted the "Video Game Method of Debugging" which lazy vendors force on users for 99% of all technical products, so I Googled how to set ringtones. The user manual could have told me (but it didn't, AFAIK) to use the edit button. Edit button? What edit button? That must be the pencil icon. The Video Game Method of Debugging consists in randomly trying things until something works. The pencil icon worked -- until I got there, and it said "no you can't do that." Standard unix fare. Another undocumented "feature" that Google helped me out of. Now it lets me choose one of their preset non-tunes, but still cannot access the tunes I downloaded. Probably the download site was a lie, they aren't really ringtones, just music files. Maybe those pay-per-view sites have real ringtones, but I don't see any way to verify that they work, nor any money-back if they don't. I don't even see a secure way to pay for them -- I'm not about to put my credit card online, I know how "secure" these systems aren't: recall I have a PhD in this stuff -- and then only to find out I still don't have any usable ringtones. Bottom line: there are still no recognizable ringtones available on this stupid "smart" phone.

I tried setting an alarm. That seems to work, and it has a few decent ringtones -- mostly different segments of the same cello piece, so they don't really count as different -- but it's Bach and nice. None of my downloaded tones were offered as choices. The alarm works, and appears to offer more choices and flexibility than the clamshell. At least it's not a show-stopper, but I'm not about to carry a glass brick solely for its slightly improved alarms.

Bottom line: I Googled my old clamshell phone model, and learned that it was one of the early units to do both analog and digital, so I don't need a new phone. It has a lot of features done unixy wrong (like zeroes which resemble eights, so it's really hard to read the time and phone numbers, but after a while you learn that there's no such time as "18:88" and mostly you are only 8 minutes off one way or the other), but it works, and it doesn't lose button clicks, and I know who's calling without looking, and I can read the time with a quick glance. Android isn't that smart. At least not on this Lowest Grade model.

Tom Pittman
Rev. 2018 April 10