2

Being Mobile

Yesterday I bought a T-Mobile G1 – the “Googlephone”.

I haven’t had much time to play with it yet, but it seems like a great piece of technology.The broadband access to email and maps, the user-interface, and the general build quality are very good. I hear it also does phone calls. I hope to have more to say about it later.

But there’s a story here.

Some time in early 1998 I read the following on David Bennahum’s (now long-defunct) Meme mailing list:

8:30 am, mid-April, standing on the platform of Track 3, waiting for the Times Square shuttle to take me to Grand Central Station. About six hundred people are queued up, clustered in blobs along memorized spots where we know the subway doors will open. Most are just standing. Some are reading the morning papers. I’m downloading email through a metal ventilation shaft in the ceiling. I point my wireless modem like a diving rod toward the breeze coming down from the street above. I can see people’s feet criss-crossing the grate. If wind can get down here this way, I figure packets of data can too.   (Link)

He was describing his experience of mobile, wireless internet connectivity using Palm Pilot with an attached (bulky) Novatel Minstrel modem. This image stuck in my mind. I had had net access since the late eighties as a student, and limited access at work (I’m a developer) since about 1993, but always tethered to a desk. This mobile internet idea was cool. I decided that I had to get some of this.

In late 1998 I bought my first mobile computing device – a Philips Velo 500. This was pretty curring-edge at the time: about as big as a thick paperback, it ran Windows CE 2, had a monochrome LCD display with a green backlight, and a “chicklet” keyboard. Crucially, it also had a built-in 19.2kb/s modem, and built-in browser and email client. I had great fun plugging it into phone lines and showing people “look… email… web…!”. It wasn’t all that impressive, though, and it was too big and heavy to fit into a pocket.I didn’t yet have a mobile phone, and the Velo wouldn’t have connected to it anyway. All in all, not really what I’d imagined.

In late 1999 I bought a Palm Vx. This was a significant improvement. Even with its tiny 33.6kb/s modem clipped on it would fit comfortably in a jacket pocket. I bought some third-party brower and email software. Then I got a mobile phone with an IRDA modem, and suddenly I could sit in Starbucks downloading my email like a proper alpha geek. For a couple of years that was my primary personal email system. It was slow, though – GSM data runs at about 9kb/s. Also, making sure that the phone stayed in line of sight with the Vx was awkward. But it worked.

By 2004 I had acquired an HP 4150 PDA and a GPRS phone. This was more like it! The 4150 had a colour screen with decent resolution and the Bluetooth/GPRS connection was quite fast. It was annoying that that I had to fiddle with both devices to turn bluetooth on before accessing the net, the data charges were pretty steep, and I now had two devices to carry around. The main problem, though, was that Windows CE was just plain awful to use. Hmm. Still not right.

So now I have this G1. It has a high-resolution screen, okay keyboard, always-on broadband, and its fairly small. Its my fourth personal generation of mobile internet device, and it finally seems that it might be what I wanted back in 1998 – although I didn’t know what that was at the time. We’ll see.

(I still have the velo and the Vx.)