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Where We’re Coming From: Michael Fisher’s Device History

by Michael Fisher on

Readers. Lend me your eyeballs a moment.

You all visit sites like Pocketnow for a variety of reasons. Technology news, editorials, phone reviews; it’s all part of the package sites like ours provide. A great deal of that coverage focuses on smartphones, and a huge percentage -everything but news, really- is opinion. We make a constant effort to minimize the subjective and enhance the objective where possible, but that’s a hard thing to do.

That’s because mobile phones are intensely personal devices. We carry them everywhere. They’re on our person at almost all times. There are waterproof phones, rugged phones, phones built to resist extreme temperatures, and phones with extremely long battery life. All these variants exist for one fundamental reason: to keep the time spent away from our phones to a minimum. Because they’re that critical. These devices are integrated into our lives to a degree of intimacy unmatched by any other consumer product.

That’s why it’s so hard to remain objective at times. Mobile phones are so deeply woven into our lives that they’ve become an extension of us. And over the one- or two-year course of a wireless contract, we get to know them. We become so enamored of their high points -and so frustrated by their shortcomings- that subjective, visceral reactions are inevitable. This is why there are platform fanboys. But it’s also the drive behind some great platform-oriented communities. It also helps spice up phone reviews.

How I feel about a new smartphone is shaped by every device I’ve ever owned. My experiences over the past eight years have molded my expectations and desires, and they affect my perception of new devices. You come here, in part, to read my -and my fellow writers’- impressions of these new phones. Some of you weigh these impressions when making buying decisions.

So doesn’t it make sense that you know where I’m coming from?

I think so. So today, I’m sharing with you a rundown of all the smartphones I’ve ever owned.

I don’t do this to brag or deflect accusations of platform favoritism; the former is already too plentiful on the internet, and the latter is unavoidable when you’re a tech writer. Rather, I’m writing this list to show you what OSes and devices I’ve used, so you hardcore analysts can factor this in when you’re reading a review or editorial I’ve written.

Sound good? Let’s dive in.

2004: RIM Blackberry 7520, Nextel

The one that started it all. Like many of you, my first smartphone was a Blackberry. Unlike many of you, mine was the 7520- one of the rare iDEN-enabled Blackberries built for PTT-centric companies like Nextel. The data rate was a screaming 19.2kbps on a good day, and the extendable antenna made this brick ugly as sin. But this is the device that introduced me to calendar syncing, third-party applications, and the wonder of “full web browsing” on a handheld. And the keyboard was magnificent.

2006: Audiovox/UTStarcom/HTC PPC-6700, Sprint

The browser on my Blackberry didn’t take long to tire of, nor did Nextel’s data speed. I wanted something that would take advantage of Sprint’s then-new EvDO network, something that could log-in to WiFi hotspots. Further, the large array of Windows Mobile applications tickled my fancy. So did the notion of running Windows, which I’d grown up with on a computer the size of a microwave oven, on such a “tiny” device. And with a touch screen, no less! I paid $700 for my PPC-6700 when it launched, even though I was a Sprint employee, proving the old adage that a fool and his money are soon parted. I found the phone to be substandard in almost all respects, but where it truly suffered was voice calling. I don’t think I’ve ever used a worse unit for voice calls. Not that we care about such things anymore.

2006: Palm Treo 700p, Sprint

I remember almost nothing about my time with this device. All I recall is being fed up with the 6700, and wanting a more-responsive smartphone. Palm provided that with the 700p, though PalmOS Garnet was already beginning to show its age even at this point. I appreciated the app selection; over 25,000 titles were available for PalmOS, a huge figure for the time.

2006: Danger Sidekick 3, T-Mobile USA

During a brief bout of insanity, I quit my full-time job at Sprint and tried supporting myself with a freelance voiceover gig- while enrolled in college. Though I was later to succeed at supporting myself through VO, at the time it was an ill-advised decision. Such rash behavior warranted a correspondingly-edgier device, and so I defected to T-Mobile and split my time between the Sidekick 3 and a Motorola KRZR. I adored the SK3’s unique flipout design, on-device app store (a first for me), glowing scroll ball, and unique UI. I hated that it made people think I was some sort of wannabe skater, though, and felt too old for the device even at 24.

2007: Motorola Q, Sprint

Propelled by a profound disappointment in the lack of “real” smartphone features in the Sidekick, I returned to Sprint -as a customer and as an employee- and bought a Motorola Q. The Q had a horrible reputation for defects, but mine served me beautifully. I was at that time fully caught up in the “thin” craze, and the Q’s pocketable design, with such aggressive and sharp lines, appealed to me. I also loved the keyboard, soft-touch paint job, and the scroll wheel, which I’d missed from my Blackberry. I set a personal record for smartphone longevity with the Q, carrying it for over a year without upgrading.

2008: Palm Centro, Sprint

Nothing lasts forever, though. When I was given the opportunity to serve as Palm’s device advocate for my last few months at Sprint -and be one of the first to carry its newest device- I leapt at the chance. The new phone was the Centro, a stripped-down Treo in a smaller, sleeker casing. Palm was blowing these out the door for $99 on contract, a scandalously low price for a smartphone in those days. The Centro was Palm’s bid to buy time while it built its next-generation platform, which would eventually see daylight as webOS on the Palm Pre in 2009. The Centro sold quite well, and I liked mine well enough. The plastic felt cheap from battery cover to stylus, and the keys were absurdly small, but it a was responsive and capable smartphone. The lack of multi-tasking in PalmOS was a minor annoyance, but it was nice to have a touchscreen again.

2008: HTC Mogul/PPC-6800, Sprint

The Mogul was the last device I bought while a Sprint employee. I remember the phone feeling like a “kitchen sink device,” into which HTC had thrown every possible feature. That wasn’t all good, though; the device, while powerful, felt overburdened and clumsy. For example, the Mogul featured both a jog dial and a D-pad like the Motorola Q; unlike the Q, though, neither worked terribly well. The OS constantly lagged, and the device felt truly massive in the hand. Still, I liked it well enough, and its support for full-screen TeleNav did help me find my way around Boston during my first summer here. I never bonded with the phone emotionally, though, and I was growing tired of upgrading all the time. I wanted something that would shake my phone-buying addiction.

2008: Apple iPhone 3G, AT&T

The iPhone 3G corrected everything I’d found wanting on the original iPhone: 3G connectivity and GPS support. The “app store” notion sounded pretty cool too, and the subsidized pricing made the iPhone irresistible. Not only did I want one; I wanted one so I could “cure” my phone-buying addiction. I wanted the iPhone 3G to be the last phone I ever bought- until the next iPhone, of course. Yet despite all these predispositions toward iPhone fanboyism, and despite its smooth performance and wonderful features and iTunes integration, I quickly found myself tiring of the device. Even in 2008, I found the homescreen and UI uninspired. I also quickly grew tired of seeing the iPhone 3G everywhere. I wanted a unique device again, and soon found myself yearning to return to my roots.

2009: Blackberry 8350i, Sprint (Nextel)

I knew this was an ill-advised choice even while clicking “buy,” but I did it anyway. I still had a great many friends and family on Nextel to Direct Connect with, and even though I enjoyed the design of this unique Blackberry Curve variant, RIM’s software felt stale just days after the first power-on. Also, Nextel’s slow data speed was hard enough to deal with in 2004; thanks to iDEN’s lack of an upgrade path, it hadn’t improved at all in the intervening five years. I didn’t like using an archaic piece of hardware, but I also knew I didn’t want to return to the iPhone. Android wasn’t exciting anyone at the time, myself included, and I’d already burned myself out on Windows Mobile. I seemed to have nowhere to turn.

2009: Palm Pre, Sprint

I was absolutely blown away by webOS when Palm announced it in January of 2009, and I followed the buzz with barely-contained excitement in the six months leading up to the Palm Pre‘s release. On launch day, I waited in line at the Sprint store with a slew of other newly-minted Palm fans, waiting for my chance to unbox my very own Pre. When I first laid fingers on webOS, I knew I was in trouble; it was the first time I’d felt such an emotional connection with an operating system, and I pretty much immediately declared myself a “Palm fanboy.”

Of course, we know what happened over the next year: the Pre’s reputation plummeted as hardware issues arose. The marketing was terrible. Sales faltered. Palm missed a cycle, and Sprint didn’t pick up the Pre 2 when it finally came out. Though it had beaten the Motorola Q for longevity in my personal lineup, my Pre was falling apart in my hands. Unwilling to leave Sprint, but unable to keep my Pre functioning, I succumbed to new-device temptation and picked up the new flagship.

2010: HTC Evo 4G, Sprint

It was big. It was spec-heavy. It had a great camera. Its design was pretty hip. It was reliable. The app selection was incredible. It was even unique, with its massive display, WiMax, and kickstand. The Evo 4G was everything a flagship smartphone should be, and more. I even liked HTC Sense.But I didn’t connect with it. It never really spoke to me. No matter how much customization or tweaking I did, the Evo never felt like home. Even my then-girlfriend noticed my weirdness after a few days, saying “you don’t look right without the Pre.” I was in a strange state of tech-rebound, carrying a device that was “better” in every measurable sense, but missing the UI and community I’d come to love.

2011: HP Veer, AT&T

It was the spring of 2011. HP had purchased Palm and announced plans to “double down” on webOS. It was rolling out the first of its new line of webOS 2.0 devices, the Veer. I was tired of my Evo and aching for a return to webOS. Even if it meant leaving Sprint and dealing with a 2.8-inch display, that’s what I was going to do. And I did. And I loved it. Coming back to webOS felt like returning home after a dull and too-long vacation. Even though the device was laggy at times, buggy at others, and the Palm App Catalog still wasn’t nearly as robust as the Android Marketplace, I was glad to be back. Its tiny footprint was a frequent topic of discussion wherever I went, and the battery life was phenomenal. It even paired with my HP TouchPad over Bluetooth. Life was great.

2011: Samsung Focus, AT&T

Then HP shot webOS in the face and everything wasn’t great anymore. With my Veer and TouchPad (and the Pre3 I’d just bought) now running a dead platform, and me about to embark on a road trip, I needed a device whose future I could count on. The Veer would stay active -I couldn’t let go- but I needed a phone on a supported platform to augment it, something with a unique UI and an “underdog” feel. Apparently I’m a sucker for hard-luck cases. The original Samsung Focus delivered all of that. It was the device that introduced me to Windows Phone, a platform that gradually won me over even as I bitterly looked back over my shoulder at the flaming wreckage of webOS. Metro’s beautiful design elements made up for the lack of multitasking in those pre-Mango days, and the battery life was exquisite. I didn’t care much for the hardware, finding the phone light and flimsy, but the screen was incredible. Windows Phone quickly became my second love.

2012: Samsung Galaxy Nexus LTE, Verizon Wireless

Of course, sometimes even love must give way to economics. Having lost my voiceover job, I terminated my AT&T account and made the jump to the more cost-effective Verizon Wireless. As part of the deal, I received more data at a lower monthly cost, and I also returned to Android via the Galaxy Nexus LTE. Ice Cream Sandwich, with its new Holo interface, made the transition an easier one than it would have been had I been forced into Gingerbread; the shades of Matias Duarte’s design in Holo have eased the sting of leaving webOS.

I’ve found the new Android experience to be quite nice, though I do miss the bolder design of Windows Phone’s Metro, and of course I continue to mourn the loss of Palm. That said, it’s nice to be part of such a large userbase, with a similarly massive “homebrew” community working on custom features and ROMs. I wouldn’t have come back to Android so readily were it not for the above-mentioned misfortune, but now that I’m here, I like it pretty well.

So that’s where I’m coming from. That’s the smartphone story that’s made me the user I am today: 14 devices across eight platforms, over the span of eight years. Yes, there were fleeting flirtations with others -including a very rare Symbian-based phone which I still own- but those devices above were my daily drivers. No, I’m not rich, and yes, I could have spent my money elsewhere … but we all have our vices. Smartphones are mine, and I’m not sorry.

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Are phones a vice of yours as well? You’re reading Pocketnow, so … probably. If this article touched a nostalgic fiber somewhere in your smartphone-addled brain, first, click the links to the older phones mentioned above – some of them lead to some pretty sweet old-school reviews.

Then, come back and drop us a line below. Tell us your device highlights: your favorites, least favorites, “ones that got away,” or just drop a list on us. We’re all friends here; let it all out.

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