Thursday, 19 September 2013

Smartphone says no

I'm no longer a smartphone virgin, having inherited an unwanted Android handset recently. It was a basic model with a tiddly touchscreen, so I wasn't expecting it to be much use, but I was prepared to have a play. I don't have any pressing need to use the mobile Internet, so I got an appropriately tiddly data plan - less "all you can eat data" than "mid-morning data snack."

So I needed to turn off the mobile Internet connection when I wasn't using it, to avoid exceeding my modest data allowance and to enjoy a reasonable battery life (mobile Internet is, apparently, a power-hungry hog).

I couldn't figure out how to do this by just playing with the phone menus, so I Googled it. I read that applications running in the background may be accessing the Internet at any time and that I probably need root access on the device to get control of this. Otherwise, there's an app for it. Apndroid, for example:
Prevents unwanted data charges for limited data plans.Allows you to manage mobile data settings to prolong battery life.Puts you in control of your Internet usage.
Other apps are available.

Which got me thinking. Why do you need root access, or a retrofitted app to control when your phone connects to the Internet? It must be technically possible to make Internet access switch off/on-able, as demonstrated by the existence of an app that does just that (not to mention forum advice for people who'd actually know what to do with their root access). If you're smart enough to design a smartphone, you're smart enough to anticipate that many users might legitimately want or need to control this function. So why no "off switch" in the standard settings menu?

Maybe Android phones have gone all HAL 9000 and they just don't want to be disconnected? I tend towards the more prosaic explanation that the designers, at best, couldn't be bothered to make it easy to take charge of your mobile Internet usage or, at worst, actively wanted to make it difficult for users to stay in control of their devices.

When it comes to mobile phones, it's easy to work out that such problems are probably due to poor design, or to a poor fit between the designers' agenda and the wants and needs of users, rather than to a tendency towards wilful disobedience being part of the inescapable nature of smartphones. When it comes to economic, political and social norms, people aren't quite so quick to spot that these are also constructs, designed by fallible humans with differing agendas, not autonomous entities beyond human control:
In reality, the “free market” is a bunch of rules about (1) what can be owned and traded (the genome? slaves? nuclear materials? babies? votes?); (2) on what terms (equal access to the internet? the right to organize unions? corporate monopolies? the length of patent protections? ); (3) under what conditions (poisonous drugs? unsafe foods? deceptive Ponzi schemes? uninsured derivatives? dangerous workplaces?) (4) what’s private and what’s public (police? roads? clean air and clean water? healthcare? good schools? parks and playgrounds?); (5) how to pay for what (taxes, user fees, individual pricing?). And so on.
These rules don’t exist in nature; they are human creations.

In other words, 'we can't do that because [free market, whatever]' is just a fancy version of 'computer says no.'

Anyway, back to the problem of keeping your mobe switched on or off, which isn't limited to smartphones sneakily hooking up to the Internet. Recently, I was at an event where mobiles should have been turned off. I thought I'd switched mine off. Then a phone with a ringtone like mine started ringing. I sheepishly checked in my pocket. It turned out that mine wasn't the offending phone, but I realised that mine could have easily turned itself on in my pocket with an accidental button press (it has done that before), so I took the battery out to be on the safe side.

The problem, in this case, is definitely suboptimal design, rather than a hidden agenda and I reckon the solution is the good old clamshell phone. Power button on one internal face, fold it up to carry in your pocket or handbag and your "on" switch is protected from accidental presses. Also saves your vulnerable screen from scratches and other damage - what's not to like? Like the makers of Star Trek, I've seen the future and it flips open.