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September 27, 2006

Goodbye to the Free Phone

Sprint giveth and Sprint taketh away: I got an e-mail from the telephone provider letting me know that they are switching off my free service to their network next Tuesday. After that, if I want to use the superbitchin' cell phone they provided me, I'll have to pay just like every other common troll. I get to keep the phone, though, so the question becomes whether I'll go ahead and get a Sprint plan of some description.

The idea behind giving me a free phone was that I, as one of those "influencers" you hear so much about from those marketers you know, might talk about the various virtues of Sprint, and specifically its Power Vision service, which in addition to offering phone connection also offers things like streaming music and video, Web access and the ability to download all sorts of crap onto your phone. And, indeed, if you are the sort of person who wants his or her cell phone to be more than something you call people on, I feel comfortable recommending the Power Vision service to you; it worked as advertised, and it has all the bells and whistles people who love bells and whistles love. And personally speaking, I found the ability to use the phone as a modem to be pretty damn useful; it saved me a bunch of ridiculous hotel Internet charges over the last few months. So, yes: a good service that I think will make sense for a good number of people.

However, I'm not entirely sure that it's the service for me. As it turns out, I'm not one of the people who uses the cell phone for the bells and whistles. I don't use my cell phone for playing music, because my little music player does a rather better job of that. I have a nice portable camera for taking pictures. I don't use it to stream video because it's not like there's not always a TV blaring somewhere. I don't use it to play games because frankly I'd rather read a book. I don't text message because, duh, I can just call. I'm not a teenager; I don't have to pass notes in class. The two things this service does that are useful for me is make calls and connect to the Internet, and of the two, the only one that's actually essential for me is making calls.

And that's the other problem. I find the cell phone useful when I'm out and about, but the fact is I'm not out and about all that much -- not enough to justify spending, say, $55 a month on a service plan, which is the minimum I would need to pay Sprint for a service that offers both voice and data access. It's not even enough to justify $30/month just for the voice access. Frankly, my needs from a cell phone would be more than adequately covered by something like this -- a $20 cell phone with a pay-as-you-go plan. And I suspect that's the direction I'll be going in terms of my next cell phone. It's not a price issue, it's a utility issue. This is a shame because now I have this cool cell phone I can't use, unless Sprint offers some sort of pay-as-you-go plan, and it really doesn't, as far as I can see. That's a shame.

Here's what I want: Rather than a phone that also happens to have Web capability and the ability to play media files, I want a media player/wireless Web browser that also happens to have phone capability, and preferably a capability that allows me to pay as I go, rather than trying to suck $30 a month out of my pocket for no particularly good reason. That's the gadget and service that I could really use.

Posted by john at September 27, 2006 08:03 AM

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Steve Brady | September 27, 2006 09:26 AM


Therese Norén | September 27, 2006 09:31 AM

I've enjoyed the Qtek/O2 model 1010. Clunky as a phone, decent for browsing the web and playing music, great as a PDA. The 1010 is not sold anymore, but the 2020 is pretty much the same, except with a camera, too.

Steve Buchheit | September 27, 2006 09:33 AM

The first six months are free!

Say, I knew this guy who sold, let's say less than legal goods, he used the same line.

John Scalzi | September 27, 2006 09:36 AM

Steve Brady:

A sidekick is along the right idea. And T-Mobile does offer a pay-as-you go plan.

Of course, at the moment, I would prefer to use the phone I already have, seeing that I already have it and all.

Jon | September 27, 2006 09:50 AM

What I want to know is, why can't the cell companies deal with collect calls? From time to time I have friends who are in circumstances that allow only collect calls to the outside world (OK, they are in prison) but rather than adopt that feature, standard on all wired phones, the cell companies give me the capability to watch teeny movies and play tinny music.

Jon | September 27, 2006 09:52 AM

While it sounds like your phone is much better than the one they gave Joel Spolsky, I see that you liked the Power Vision service, while he absolutely hated it. Assuming you've either heard of Joel or clicked through and read the article, any ideas why this might be so?

John Scalzi | September 27, 2006 10:00 AM


Because we're different people?

All the features worked sufficiently for me. I do think some of the stuff -- games and screensavers and ringtones -- were overpriced, but inasmuch as I wouldn't download them anyway, the prices didn't bother me (my ringtone is the phone on vibrate. Really, I think ringtones are evil, which is another reason I don't mind them being expensive. People should be punished for them).

It may also simply have been things were easier to find on the phone they gave me.

In any event as I noted I used the network mostly for connecting to the Internet, and there it performed pretty well.

Naomi | September 27, 2006 10:23 AM

I want a media player/wireless Web browser that also happens to have phone capability, and preferably a capability that allows me to pay as I go

If someone sends you one of those, let me know. I'm a pay-as-you-go phone user as well -- I picked up my phone on sale at Target for about $20, and it works extremely well for my needs. The only thing I find mildly annoying is interacting with the Virgin AI when I call with a question. Also, they keep sending me text messages, which I find really irritating; there may be a way to get them to cut that out, but I'd probably have to interact with the AI to make that happen.

Anyway, I have my phone set to automatically buy minutes so that the ones I already have never expire. IIRC, I have to buy more minutes every 90 days. I have only rarely had to buy more than that. It works out to less than $10/month, waaaaaaay cheaper than even the cheapest package. My cell phone is for convenience and occasionally safety, and that's it.

Nikudada | September 27, 2006 10:31 AM

John, I think you've overlooked the 'childish' goodness that is text messaging. Its quite nice to send a nice quick message to someone instead of taking the time to actually call them. Granted I hate talking on the phone so that could be my problem but texting saves you the pain of telling the person on the other end that you don't want to talk about how their car smells like old people. With texting a person usually won't add content like that because it would probably take them 20 minutes to type it. Hence they develop the need to get to the point.
I will admit, though, that for the last while all incoming texts have been along the lines of Hey stupid, call me.

Gabriel Malor | September 27, 2006 10:47 AM

Really, I think ringtones are evil, which is another reason I don't mind them being expensive. People should be punished for them.

I strongly agree. I kinda hate those people who go around complaining when other folks are talking on their cells in restaurants or in the subway. They need a punch in the face. It's freakin' awesome that we can talk to a person a thousand miles away while we wait for the thrice-damned waiter to come back with our hamburger WITHOUT ONIONS YOU FOOL!

But I really hate those people who feel the need to sit there and scroll through all their ringtones, browsing for the perfect one for Wednesday. Really, if I had wanted to hear a Muzaked version of Timberlake's "Sexyback" I'd have gone to the trouble myself. (I also would have probably cut my own ears off long ago.)

Jonathan | September 27, 2006 11:05 AM

You have to be careful with those "pay as you go" phones. The ones I've seen, the "credits" you buy time out in a very short time (like two months), which is something they don't really tell you about (not surprisingly). I added my mother-in-law to my cell phone plan for US$10 a month, which gives her free long distance and free calling to our cell phones. Much better deal for her rather than remembering to recharge her phone every couple of months.

Hilary | September 27, 2006 11:16 AM

I spend most of my time at home and…well…no one calls me any way. When I looked for a phone the things I wanted were:
1. Synchronization with outlook. I detest having to enter contacts in cell phone, when I travel I always need the number or address of some obscure person, and it is good way to back up my contacts.
2. The ability to play music files. I don’t do it much but I have enough stuff in my pockets as it is another thing to carry and stuff in my oh so tight jeans is just not required.
3. The camera is nice, not for taking pictures of anything for the long term, I have real cameras for that. I use it to take photos of furniture I want my wife to see or product labels of things I want to remember, or the asshole who dings a car and doesn’t leave a note (I leave a note telling the person to email me and I will send them the offender’s picture and license plate photo.
4. A decent screen both because my eyes are wearing out and pictures of the kids in the wallet get a bit dingy overtime.

Bitch session. As a former engineer I appreciate standards, certain things should be engineered once and then viola no need to agonize over reinventing the wheel. Some where along the way people who design portable electronics have %$&*#(@)! forgotten this. We have battery sizes A, B, C, D, etc. why does every single device use a proprietary battery, they are all the same voltage and not a single common form factor. Industry could not agree on something as important as this after all they might not get paid for all their brilliant and unique work required to agree on a standard size solid rectangle or 2. And don’t get me started on plugs (I only buy devices that use the mini USB plug for their charger).

We keep basking in our ability to innovate, the problem theses days is that there is very little innovation. Most innovation is perturbation ad nauseam, along the lines of the Japanese patent office “but this phone is blue not black and should be granted a patent because it is unique”. That’s my can of worms, anyone care to fish?

Nathan | September 27, 2006 11:18 AM

"You have to be careful with those "pay as you go" phones. The ones I've seen, the "credits" you buy time out in a very short time (like two months)..."

Once you've paid T-Mobile something like $200, (I'm not sure of exact number), they make you a preferred customer and your minutes are good for a year no matter how little you buy at a time.

I go through thousands of minutes when I'm on a job and get by on the equivalent of about $10/month when I'm between gigs. The pre-pay works out best for me.

Hilary | September 27, 2006 11:20 AM

Oops also for those who live in earthquakes zone or other natural disaster areas, text messaging is significantly more robust than voice communications and requires substantially less bandwidth. So having the function available is good emergency planning a pay as you go texting capability makes sense there.

Alex | September 27, 2006 11:47 AM

I find your comments about the phone interesting as they highlight one of the challenges in my business. We build applications for mobiles to deliver content(text, pictures, video, etc..) and getting people, particularly in the US, to use this stuff has been an uphill battle. There are always a number of people willing to try the stuff we do, but generating any sort of mass appeal is difficult. Not only do we have to deal with the technical issues of supporting the many phone types out there, but dealing with the carriers themselves presents an amazing number of headaches.

I think your comments about what you want in a device pretty accurately summarizes the challenges we face as until we can convince people like you that you 'need' our content and a fancy device, we will continue to have difficulty.

Cassie | September 27, 2006 11:53 AM

Hey, John, you made Blogging Ohio.


Ohio science-fiction writer John Scalzi, By the Way, blogs about anything and everything, not just Ohio topics. He posted a damned interesting link this week to a map of our federal government.

COD | September 27, 2006 11:57 AM

If you go with Virgin Mobile, you'll still be on the Sprint network, as VM is just reselling their branded version of Sprint.

I've had VM for a couple of years now with no problems. They ding me for $30 every 90 days or so, which is just about my usage rate, so it works out perfectly. Just make sure you opt out of the promotional text messages, unless you really want to know when Madonna's new album is available.

Zoltania | September 27, 2006 12:18 PM

7-11 has a prepaid phone plan, "Speak Out Wireless," for which you only have to buy $25 worth of time once per year. Very useful if you just want a phone for emergencies and meeting people in airports.

the angry black woman | September 27, 2006 12:32 PM

uh, can I have your cell phone, then?

(btw - if you go with a pay as you go, I *don't* recommend VirginMobile. Their service sucks ass.)

Rob | September 27, 2006 01:20 PM

NET10, available at most of the not-finer stores,

is a good deal.
$.10/minute always, pay as you go. $30 gets you 300 minutes good for 90 days, and text messaging too. you have to buy one of their phones, but they start at $30

Donna | September 27, 2006 01:52 PM

Like other people have noted, Virginmobile, which I also use, has its ups and downs. On the plus side, it really doesn't get much cheaper. You have to add a minimum of $20 worth of time every three months. If you're just looking for emergency calling and stuff like that, it's not a bad option. The problems I have with it are that trying to find a live person in their service department is impossible, so if you have a problem, getting it dealt with can be an even bigger one. And I have had problems with getting a signal in some places, even though they use the Sprint network. I live in a fairly rural state, and once I get about 30 miles north of where I live, the phone's useless. But if you've never had a problem with a Sprint phone in your usual loop, you shouldn't have that issue.

WizarDru | September 27, 2006 02:56 PM

I'm on my second Virgin Mobile phone, and while the coverage could be better, the price probably couldn't be. It has a camera, it can send picture e-mails straight to my blog, and allows me to text my wife on HER virgin phone. I put about $20 on the phone every two-to-three months, which is way cheaper than much more 'feature rich' phones. That money doesn't expire, btw. It just requires more money on the phone...given that the rates are fairly high per minute, you won't be running a high tab on it. For a very casual phone user, it's perfect.

Would I like a phone with more gimgaws? Damn Skippy. Am I willing to pay $40 a month or more to get them? Nope.

Oh and Scalzi, where are you staying that you have to pay so much for internet service? Most places I've been to lately charge either $10 a day or it's free, depending. Methinks you're paying a 'con Nerd Tax. :-)

John Scalzi | September 27, 2006 02:59 PM

$10 a day is what I usually see where I stay, and it's waaaaaay too much, especially considering that if I stayed at the damn Day's Inn, I'd pay less for the room and get free Internet.

Stephen G | September 27, 2006 03:22 PM

Of course, at the moment, I would prefer to use the phone I already have, seeing that I already have it and all.

Aha, I have divined their evil plan! They will not pull the wool over my eyes now!

As for the cost of Internet service in hotels, it follows the Inverted Hotel Parabola Law. You start out paying very little money for a terrible room with filthy sheets and a door lock that's busted. As you pay more money, you get more and more features: a so-so breakfast of cereal and cold muffins, then a decent breakfast of cereal, fruit and muffins, and finally a hot meal. Similarly, you go from no Internet access to a "business room" with a computer that's on the net to free Internet access in your room.

And then you make the mistake of paying too much and boom, you're on the downslope of the parabola. From here on out you will pay more and more money for fewer features. Internet access? Why, that's an extra $10 a day. Breakfast? Sure, you can pay $7 for a bowl of oatmeal.

The exact location of the Inverted Hotel Parabola on the cost-for-amenities graph for each city is left as an exercise for the reader.

MWT | September 27, 2006 03:24 PM

Hmmm. I'm reading along with great interest since I need to switch to a different cell phone plan myself.

At the moment I have a $40/month deal with Cingular, which is the lowest rate for a plan there. The only time I really use the cell phone is when I'm travelling, which isn't that often.

I don't have a home phone at all. I don't use phones that much; why pay an additional $35-40 per month for a land line that I'm also not using, when I can just have a cell phone and not be tied to home?

The only thing I need the phone for is to make calls and store some phone numbers. And to be able to make those calls anywhere in the U.S. (without having to pay extra). I'm open to suggestions. :)

Ginny | September 27, 2006 05:34 PM

I have a Sidekick--the Sidekick 2, I didn't upgrade to the Sidekick 3 because I head horrific reviews of it--apparently it is more delicate that the Sidekick 2 in that if you look at it the wrong way, it's going to break.

My Sidekick 2 actually broke on me--the screen would go completely blank for no apparent reason, I don't drop it or abuse it; I keep it in it's case which travels with me in my "old lady" purse. Usually a hard reset would bring back the screen but the last time, it died a horrible death--nothing would bring it back. So T-Mobile sent me a new one. The new one is sturdy and hasn't given me any trouble, and I thoroughly enjoy being able to delete emails from relatives wherever I am.

Mike Kozlowski | September 27, 2006 08:41 PM

The Sprint PPC-6700 is a pretty decent (if chunky) phone, and it's a superb mobile internet device. QWERTY! EV-DO and WiFi! IMAP!

La Gringa | September 28, 2006 12:01 AM

Yeah, I'm one of those troglodytes who actually only uses a cell phone as a phone. I occasionally text message on it only because i find it nearly impossibly to actually get some of my younger cooler hipper friends to TALK on a phone. I hate text messages. But I am being dragged kicking and screaming.

Apparently my phone from verizon also does the whiz bang music-video-Tv thing. I haven't used it.

However, I do like that I can use the theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark as my ringtone. (Yes, I am a big nerd; we've established this already. Move on.)

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cpt_gloval | April 25, 2007 11:49 AM

Seconded on the PPC-6700. I manage a fleet of them for a small company, and I couldn't be happier. My users do complain about poor battery life, but I suspect that's because they park them on the cell data network in our low-service neck of the woods and just drain it.

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