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Why is my cell phone so much more powerful and easy to use than my desktop phone?

Posted by pbrittan on July 31, 2003 at 8:39 AM PDT

I have a big black phone with lots of buttons on my desk. I have a very small silver phone that I carry around with me all the times. I use each of these phones on a daily basis. Although they perform the same basic function (allow me to call other people and to receive calls), and they cost roughly the same, they are quite different in a number of ways.

Some of those differences make sense to me. For instance, I enjoy the comfort of the large form factor of my desktop phone. And of course my cell phone is tiny for easy portability. My desktop phone has some features that I don’t usually miss on my cell phone – multiple lines (my cell phone does have call waiting, but frankly I hate that), conference calling, intercom, and transferring calls – because I use my office phone for purposes that require those features and I use my cell phone for purposes that don’t generally require them.

However, there are some differences that make no sense to me. Specifically, my cell phone has a ton of great, easy-to-use features that my desktop phone does not have and that I wish it did. Beyond the obvious one that I can take my cell phone with me, these include a nice readable display and a totally useful built-in phone book (which actually should be server-based), it's compatible with any cheap ear piece (my desktop phone requires a $300 adaptor, unfathomably), I can see missed calls and recent calls (outgoing and incoming), it has voice-activated phone book and menus, caller-ID by default, ringer mute… The list goes on. It even has a bunch of cool features that I don’t use, such as Web browsing, email, games, and a built-in FM radio!

Now, maybe my desktop phone has a lot of these features, but if so, they sure aren’t obvious to me. And if I can’t use them, they might as well not exist. I am reminded of a Bjarne Stroustrup quote:

I have always wished that my computer would be as easy to use as my telephone. My wish has come true. I no longer know how to use my telephone.

I hope someone can explain to me why these gross differences exist. The only credible explanation I have heard so far (from my colleague Lou Franco) is that there is much more competition among cell phone makers and wireless service providers (who subsidize phone purchases) than there are among line phone makers and wired telephone service providers who, despite deregulation, represent near-monopolies. This competition has apparently led to a tremendous pace of innovation in the cell phone space.

So if my cell phone is so great, why don’t I just throw away my desktop phone? The main reason is signal quality. The difference in signal quality between my cell phone and my line phone is still great enough that I am unwilling to give up my line phone and in fact, I will prefer my line phone if both are available to me at any give point.

But, that signal quality difference is disappearing. Cell phones are getting better all the time. I hear that 3G will eliminate the difference. As that gap closes, I will be free to chuck my desktop phone, or, more likely, desktop phones will be forced to start innovating again to try to keep me from doing that. Already cell phone usage is surpassing residential landline usage .

There may be an analogy here for the software world. A number of people have said that Internet Explorer has been stunted in its innovation curve by the fact that it is a monopoly. During its fierce competition with Netscape, IE improved rapidly and became the better product, hands-down. But now that the browser war is over, Microsoft has no incentive to push IE's bounds: almost everyone already uses it and no one pays for it.

So what happens when an alternative becomes compelling enough for large numbers of people to use it rather than IE? John Patrick argues that Opera has achieved that. Joel Spolsky says that Mozilla Firebird is the one.

Line phones are still used, despite all the great features of cell phones because they have a ‘killer feature’ – signal quality. Does IE possess such a killer feature that will keep Opera and Mozilla at bay? Is it integration with the OS? And if so, then just as 3G promises to eliminate the signal quality difference, can IE’s killer feature be overcome?

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