May 10, 2004

Multi-Use Cell Phones Causing Multiple Problems

Sometimes, integration isn't such a good thing. That's a bit of a departure from the times I've emphasized that integration is a key productivity pursuit. Well, as much of a gadget lover and power user that I am, I just haven't had much interest in having a cell phone with an integrated camera. Why? For one, most current camera phones are barely cameras by today's high-tech standards (very low resolution, no flash, pitifully small memory, etc.). I prefer just having a separate pocket-sized and higher quality digital camera, and I'm not alone -- a number of camera cell phone owners have reported the thrill wears off fairly quickly and the photo quality isn't all that hot. Naturally, the drawback with separate devices is that you have to carry more than one. You also lose the instant ability to e-mail the pics unless your cell phone also uses a compatible flash memory card and supports e-mailing photos -- a feature which most non-camera call phones lack unless they have a built-in camera. See the problem?

Second, and more importantly, it's a good way to lose your cell phone and/or your privacy in a number of public places. Engadget posted about an eWeek article, "The Hassle of Built-In Cameras", which does a good job of summing up the issues. There are plenty of public and government locations where camera phones are banned and even confiscated. A little over a week ago, I went to the advance local movie premiere of "Laws of Attraction" and the tickets clearly stated that all video recording devices were prohibited, including camera cell phones. Since most of these devices feature an integrated camera, you can't simply pop it off. Instead, you have to throw the baby out with the bath water in leaving it behind. I put my non-camera cell phone on vibrate mode for a good compromise in the theater. That way I wouldn't bother anyone during the show with annoying ring tones and could easily walk out into the hallway to talk if an emergency arose.

The ability to remove devices is why I still love my trusty Handspring PDA -- it is a consummate technological chameleon. Handspring was definitely onto something important with their Springboard modular approach, and my many modules regularly continue to be of great use. The problem was that it just didn't catch on due to its size, modules' relative expense, and that people thought they wanted everything built-in, including cameras. Well, a number of camera cell phone users have had them confiscated or were told that they can't use them where standard cell phones are allowed. Thus the pendulum is beginning to swing back the other way as I thought it might, especially after reports of camera phone voyeurs popped up shortly after they arrived on the scene.

Another major issue is privacy. Engadget also posted about this serious privacy intrusion at a Pennsylvania high school, where a teacher and assistant vice principal tried to play Starsky and Hutch with a student's cell phone instead of calling in the real police or the parents. A key part of the facts relate not to an integrated camera, but to a text message present in the cell phone -- which the school personnel claimed could have one interpretation of a drug reference by slang use of a common word. Needless to say, the student's parents were not amused and contemplated legal action is mentioned. If filed, this is going to be an interesting test case in trying to balance the relative interests, especially since the Morning Call article mentions that "Pennsylvania is the only state with a constitution that protects privacy rights." Also consider that the more integrated something is, the higher the security and privacy risks become, because there is more information available on the device.

For some time I've been eyeing up the Treo 600 as my next possible PDA upgrade, but the integrated camera is actually holding me back rather than enticing me. Because I can't carry it in a number of places where I'd have a regular cell phone, the low-res camera becomes a liability, not an asset. I'd rather have the camera be an SDIO (Secure Digital I/O) card attachment than fully integrated, and preferably be at least 1.3 to 2.0 megapixels to be of any real use. That way I can leave it behind when prudent or necessary. Apparently others must have made the same comments, since Engadget mentions in the post that "PalmOne is already supposed to be coming out with cameraless version of the Treo 600." TreoCentral also mentions a non-camera Sprint Treo 600 should have been available by April, but I haven't had an opportunity to see if it's been released yet. As there's been several rumors of the Treo 610 being the next minor upgrade model, I'm now waiting to hear reliable information regarding its camera status to see if I can get the best of both worlds.

Don't get me wrong. Mobile digital photography and text messaging are incredibly useful technologies in their own right, and should definitely be used appropriately. I particularly love PDA smartphones due to the fact that we finally have the ability to have one address book -- the cell phone and PDA share the same one internally, and it's relatively easy to sync it up with one's favorite contact manager or groupware software, such as Outlook, on the PC. While smartphone PDA-based web browsing isn't the same experience as PC-based browsing, I've found it to be quite handy.

With that said, having a little too much crammed together into one device occasionally becomes a larger inconvenience -- rather than the ultimate convenience we were expecting. Another downside is that when one loses the integrated device for whatever reason (confiscation, theft, leaving it behind to prevent either of the former), one also loses all of the functionality in one shot. Which leads me to this strange situation where I find these integrated devices attractive and compelling (especially for the integrated address book and wireless access), and yet in some ways more troublesome than having the "standard" standalone devices. The trick is in selecting one which will provide you with more productivity and other gains overall, while keeping in mind that some key or critical uses may be prohibited at an inopportune time and/or place.

I believe we're going to see more instances of camera cell phone prohibitions, and I've already come across news articles reporting that various companies are developing technologies to remotely and automatically disable certain kinds of portable devices within a given area.

To each his or her own, but here is a place where I'd like to see more choice in the market. As camera phones gain higher resolution, functionality, and uses over the next few years, it's going to be very interesting to see how businesses, schools, government agencies, and the users themselves will address these issues.

[Update 5.24.04: The National Law Journal has a very good article discussing the specific problems that cell phones pose in court, ranging from contempt incarcerations to bailiffs dropping phones out of five-story windows.]

Topic(s):   Mobile Tech & Gadgets  |  Privacy & Security
Posted by Jeff Beard