By Peter Varhol
I recently got a Blackberry. It wasn t so much that I felt that I needed a smartphone; rather, it was curiosity that I might be missing out on something. Despite my role as a technologist and technology journalist, I rarely adopt the leading edge of new technologies. I ve never considered that my use of any technology makes a statement about me, as so many of those with iPhones and now Android phones seem to do. Rather, I carefully consider if a technology is useful for a set of activities that is important and relevant to me, and if its cost delivers enough value to justify the expenditure.
I bent that rule with the Blackberry. The cost was certainly an important factor, but I had ulterior motives. Just about everyone I know has a smartphone today, and I wanted to understand the appeal. Also, it seems more and more likely that this was the wave of the future; dumb phones are likely to be less and less common over time.
Cost is a bit more difficult to assess, as the cost is an ongoing voice and data subscription in addition to the base cost of the phone. The discounted price of the phone is much less relevant than the carrying cost of those subscriptions. In my case, it was $50 a month for the minimum acceptable calling plan, plus an additional $30 for the minimum data plan. Along with the taxes, fees, and taxes on fees, that adds up to be just about $100 a month. Can it really be worth it?
A couple months later, that is still a relevant question. There is a certain amount of convenience in being able to see and respond to email just about anywhere, but that s also a significant downside. Unless it is a matter of extreme importance for you to have email all the time, you may find yourself wasting more time looking at your screen every time the phone buzzes. I suppose there s some external cachet to interrupting your life to glance at your email, but I can do without it.
Still, there are some emails that are worthwhile receiving and acting upon without finding a wireless hotspot and getting online. Can they wait? Probably, they always have in the past. But for time-critical tasks, it can make work both more efficient and less stressful.
The web browser is far more interesting; it s like having a dictionary, encyclopedia, newspaper, and reference manual attached to your hip. The screen isn t necessarily the easiest for reading Web sites, but when you want to know something fast, you can t beat a smartphone.
There are alternatives to the Blackberry, but most have their individual issues. To be sure, I never considered an iPhone, not because I m not intrigued, but because I didn t care to switch wireless carriers to obtain one. I ve been with my existing carrier for almost 15 years, and am very pleased with its plans and coverage. Apple deigns to promote exclusivity, but I m not biting on that one. Some interesting things are going on with smartphone designs today, but until Apple decides to be egalitarian (don t hold your breath), it s not a choice for me.
Most organizations still believe that their engineering staff needs moderate-performance computers, design and analysis software, and very little else. I won t argue that a smartphone is an essential tool for an engineering professional, because it really depends on the circumstances. However, if an engineer is out of the office a fair amount and his or her expertise must be shared among others on the team, a smartphone will be a valuable tool. Otherwise, it may be an expensive toy.
Contributing Editor Peter Varhol has been involved with software development and systems management for many years. Send comments about this column to DE-Editors@deskeng.com.