Saturday, April 29, 2006

Cell Phone Technology

In December or so, I bought a new cell phone. The cell phones I'd had prior to this were pretty crappy - my first ever cell phone, sometime in the late '90s, was what was then called a bag phone (I think bag phones now are entirely different). I bought it after being followed on a lonely rural highway at night, and the bag phone was designed to get a signal in areas in which it might otherwise be difficult to get a signal. But they were serious phones, phones like your parents used to have, phones with a handset attached to a large and heavy base. And they were impossible to use while driving.

I graduated pretty quickly to a candy-bar shaped phone, as it didn't make much sense to me to be driving off the road while using my phone to call for help. That phone was small enough and the technology was such that I had to yell in order for the other person to hear me, as the part of the phone one speaks into was somewhere in the middle of my cheek if I held the phone to my ear. (As a student pointed out to me, talking loudly on cell phones in public is largely a function of age, as those of us who tend to do this remember the days when talking loudly was the only way it was possible to talk on a cell phone.)

I eventually decided I was paying way too much and not using the phone enough to justify it, so I cancelled service and got rid of the phone. But then, after moving to the prairie, where the possibility of driving off the road in a snowstorm and getting stuck in a drift, unnoticed, for days, is not unlikely (in the trunks of our cars, we keep emergency rations and those silver blankets Mt. Everest climbing teams use), I decided to get another cell phone. This, too, was a candy bar phone (Nokia) - still analog, by the way; we're talking all analog, here - and it was big enough to be annoying. And it was a Tracfone.

Tracfone is a great way to save money if you don't use your phone much. You pay for minutes, and you use them as you go, and you have to buy new minutes every two months or you lose your service - unless you pay an extra fee to ensure that your service continues if you don't keep adding minutes. It's basically an early version of Virgin or T-Mobile or whatever the heck those plans are that are marketed to teens. It worked fine until one day when my partner went to use his phone and discovered that it didn't work and that his number had been given to someone else.

Here's where Tracfone becomes a problem. In order to keep costs to the customer low, their customer service is all offsite (judging from the accents, it's in India or Pakistan). And so the poor customer service employees are not trained to handle complicated problems like what to do if a customer's phone stops working and his number gets reassigned to a Verizon customer. So anytime we had problems that were more complicated than needing to add minutes or buy a phone accessory, we were in trouble (and sadly, we had more than one major problem).

So finally, I decided to investigate other options, and I ended up in the digital age (with a camera phone, even! Samsung PM-A740, if you're interested.) with a reputable service.

And I cannot figure out the damn thing. I can make phone calls, I can answer phone calls, I can read text messages, but I have the greatest difficulty doing anything more advanced than that.

For example, I just spent the last thirty minutes or so trying to figure out how to download my new ringtone. I bought it online and got a text message with instructions to "click on the link."

How the hell does one click on a link on a phone?!

I tried all the keys, in vain. Nowhere in the "options" menu did it say anything about "download" or "select" or anything that sounded remotely like what I was looking for. I even downloaded an advanced user's guide for my phone. The problem is, the questions I had were more advanced than the basic instructions and more basic than the advanced instructions. And the index said nothing about how to click on a link in a text message.

I'm honestly not sure what I did to get it to work, other than eventually clicking "Go" (which I'm sure I did earlier without achieving the desired result). For a while I was just going through the same sequence of screens over and over again, thinking to myself, "maybe it'll work this time..."

In the end, I managed to set my ringtone to sound when there is an incoming call from a number that lists the caller's I.D. Something else is apparently going to happen when a call comes from a number that doesn't, but I don't know what. I couldn't get the phone to tell me what that ring would sound like. For all I know, if I get such a call, the phone won't ring at all but will do back flips.

(Just for shits and giggles, anyone else remember when it was spelled "cel"? Or did I just have a sales rep who couldn't spell?)

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