Nostalgic Upgrade: A Look at Phones From My Past

So here we are, entering the fall of another year. This is the time, traditionally, when we prepare our brains to be assaulted by hundreds of ads for electronics (as well as less important stuff) that will be available at low, low prices in just a few months, in time for the holiday shopping season.

There will be specials on iPhones, Centros, Oceans, and other high-end cellphones that will, with time, become mid-range. That is the color of it, the way that it works. What is shiny and new and bright today may, no, will become the stuff of landfills and junk drawers tomorrow. What is sad is the emotionless way in which this happens, top-of-the-line technology that is loved and cherished for but a few months, a couple years at the most, is discarded as if it meant nothing.

So I’m suggesting that you, the reader, join me, the writer, as I look back at some of the hardware I’ve owned and thrown aside for the next big thing. I feel guilty for my sins, let this be my crucible. Today, we’re going to revisit my cellphones.

As a geek, I was (or, should say, am) an early adopter. In 1997, the second age of cellphones had just begun. The first age, the analog age of StarTACs and mighty bricks, was waning, and the new rage were these smaller digital, or “PCS” cellular telephones. Their batteries last longer, they’re far more portable, and they had advanced features like phonebooks and the ability to receive text messages. I had to have one.

Fortunately, I was at the time working for an electronics retailer. As such, I got a stupendous equipment discount. At the time, many carriers were giving away phones for one penny (as some of you over 28 might recall), but I didn’t want a brickish Nokia, I wanted the slickest phone in the store. But I didn’t want to get stuck with sub-par service, so I figured I’d start there.

At the time, the store was selling phones from four different providers: AT&T Wireless (later Cingular, now AT&T), GTE (now Verizon), VoiceTouch (now T-Mobile), and Sprint (now Sprint). There were two types of technology, like today: CDMA (Sprint and GTE), and TDMA (VoiceTouch, AT&T). I wasn’t up on the difference, so I attended one of the electoral training sessions at the local corporate office. I learned that the technologies were separate but, basically, equal.

What I also learned is that, because I attended this training, I was now “cross trained” to sell in the cellphone department. As I, like my colleagues, was commission, the idea of an extra revenue stream was attractive. What I also learned was that AT&T gave certified salespeople a very special deal on service: $10 a month for 1000, still generous by today’s standards, but an absolute steal in 1997. My choice of carriers was made.

The slickest phone AT&T carried at the time was a Ericsson, the D-618. It was a slender (for the time) flip phone, though the flip was inactive (meaning it was just a piece of plastic; opening the phone did nothing but expose the keypad). The selling point was that Ericsson offered a slim battery that made the phone pocketable, as well as a new, “nub”-type antenna. I was in love.

And it wasn’t just a physical attraction. The phone behaved wonderfully. In fact, it was likely the least problematic phone I’ve ever owned. Granted, it was likely the simplest phone, so there was less to go wrong, but I love the fact that it was responsive and easy to use.

I used that phone for about two years. It eventually started falling apart. In confession here, I wasn’t the best owner. It followed me around the nation on trips, a tour with my band, a bad break-up, and many happy-hour mishaps. Eventually the molding that held the antenna in place cracked just a little too much, and would not keep the antenna in place. Electrical tape was the answer, as always, but it was becoming clear that the phone’s days as my daily dialer were close to done.

But this is the point of the story: instead of feeling nostalgic, or even sad, I was actually excited by the prospect of a new phone. It had been two years, and it’s no secret the cellphone market evolves quickly. There were new, smaller phones out there. I was fairly happy with the Ericsson interface, so that’s what I searched for. On eBay, I found a model called the GF 788. It was a tad wider across the face that the 618, but it was much shorter, had an attached nub antenna, was half the weight (or so it felt) and had a longer battery life to boot! I ended up winning an auction for just under $200, a steal.

The new phone arrived a few days later. I called AT&T customer service and they had me up and running in moments. I’d already transcribed all of my phonebook off the old phone, but it was still painstaking to add them all to the new handset. I checked the old phone one last time to see if it was dialing out, but it wasn’t: My number was ported to the new phone. I took it out and showed it off.

Truth be told, I can’t remember if I ever saw the 618 after that. I have no idea what happened to it or where it went. For all I know it’s in a crate in my storage unit, or in an old box in my closet. Thinking back now, it was a loyal sidearm that didn’t deserve the way it was discharged.

But at the time, I wasn’t thinking about the cracked-up 618. No, I had the smallest cellphone of anyone I knew, and I made sure they all knew it. Some people were honestly impressed, not knowing that phones could get that small (CrunchGear, and even Gizmodo hadn’t been invented yet).

There’s a lesson in this next part, though I’m not exactly clear on what it might be: The phone had problems. It was glitchy, had a mind of its own at times, and would turn itself off on a whim. That doesn’t work for me, so it had to go. I used the phone for about three months before I was turned on to yet another Ericsson, but this one was special.

I have been going for smaller and smaller phones, as I am of the mind that wearing your phone on your belt makes you a douche. And I am right about that, so it wasn’t an option. Thus the smaller phone fetish. But that was before I found the Ericsson A1227 that had just been released by AT&T. The newest Ericsson was larger than my current handset, and wasn’t a flip, something I wasn’t into. But it had a wireless Web browser. Sure, the wireless Web was in its infancy, but as stated before, I’m an early adopter. I headed down to my local AT&T Wireless store and checked it out. I liked that it felt solid in my hands (it had a good “handfeel”, as my friend Ingo would say). I liked that it was loud, had volume buttons on the side, and hierarchical menus, something I hadn’t seen before.

I would gladly sport the $20 extra for unlimited Web access, and I soon found that I used it more than I thought I would. I tracked my Mariners’ scores, IMed with my friends, and found ATM machines when I actually had money. All the hallmarks of the promised future were there, but none of my friends got it. That was their problem.

I actually had two different A1227s. After accidentally putting my original through the wash, I picked up another off eBay that had an updated firmware, and included something else new: two-way text messaging. Holy cow, it seemed cool! Sadly, none of my friends had textable phones yet, so I was alone. This would be a theme in later life.

The phone served me well for a couple of years (both versions), but things were changing. We were well into the 2G world of cellphones, but we were approaching the perfect storm that would become known as 2.5G, and you know I had to have it.

On a trip to Circuit City with my at-the-time girlfriend to get her a new Palm m505, I stopped by the cellphone department to browse. While there, in spite of being in the store with my live-in girlfriend, I fell in love. It was a new Ericsson phone that had just been released to AT&T, and had somehow gotten under my radar. It was the t68. This phone was the new hotness. It was running on AT&T’s new GSM network, and had a color screen! It was tiny, very tiny for the day, offered faster data, and had Bluetooth. Oh, man, I’d been following this Bluetooth stuff. I could re-up my contract and get the phone for just under $150. I had to have it.

The girlfriend, though, wouldn’t hear any of it. We were behind on a couple of bills, and those take priority. We could pay those this month. Then, when I was paid again next month, I could have it.

I didn’t like this. Sure, her reasoning was sound, but I’m not the type to give in to my lust often, so when I fell I must, I must. And, being me, I worked it out. I sweet talked my AT&T rep into giving me the phone, then just adding the retail price onto my next bill. I win! It was mine, and it was awesome.

Sure, I had no other devices that used Bluetooth, but I had this, and that was good.

Shortly after my purchase, Ericsson merged its cellphone operations with Sony’s, birthing Sony-Ericsson as we know it today. One of the first things SE did was re-release a slightly updated version of the t68 called the t68i. Basically the same phone, but with firmware upgraded to support an attachable digital camera.

Wait, what!?

I had saved up $100 to buy the camera (which cost $149), when AT&T launched the t610. The t610 was basically a taller, uglier version of the t68, but with a built-in digital camera. Revolutionary. Remember, this was a few years ago. What was great is that I could add it to my plan for $100. Easy decision.

By now it was 2004, and AT&T had been folded into Cingular, which I was not happy about. I was a very happy AT&T customer, having had its service for 8 years at this point. Change was bad.

Then the CEO of my day job, in his wisdom, decreed that we’d be getting a company phone plan, as a way that we could all communicate better. We were a small company, but this was welcome news. We selected T-Mobile, and got a very good deal on a group plan. Most of my co-workers received Blackberries. I’m not a fan of these devices at all, so I opted for a Motorla V300, as T-Mobile didn’t offer any Sony-Ericsson phones. It wasn’t a great phone, but it did what I needed, and allowed for DUN over Bluetooth for my Powerbook.

I felt a little guilty about my new cellphone choice for the first time ever. Not just because I was abandoning devices I’d loved just weeks before, but rather a whole family of devices. The guilt was nerdy, to be sure, but it was there.

In short order I received an unlocked Palm Treo 650 from a friend. Using my SIM card, I made it my default phone. A lot of you might malign the Treos, but they are solid phones. And while it’s definitely aged, the Garnet OS isn’t bad at all. There are so many apps and games for it now that you can really make it do anything you want it to, cheaply and easily.

That was about a year and a half ago. More recently, I’ve been using the Helio Ocean, as my Treo was stolen (long story). While I’ve got love for what Palm’s doing, there’s no GSM Centro, yet. When there is, I’ll be stoked. Until then, the Ocean fills all my needs, and then some.

I feel bad for losing the Treo. While it was beat-the-hell-up, it was a gift from a friend, so the guilt is doubled. Hopefully I’ll be picking up another soon, as the Treo is what a smartphone should be.

But I look back at the progression of phones I’ve used, and if I were to line them up, it would look something like those Evolution-of-Man charts, and it makes me wonder a little about what I’ll be using in a year.

The point is, we spend so much time looking forward, that sometimes we forget to appreciate what we had. I know not everybody feels this way; most people I know hate their old cellphones, and hate their current ones. But I’m a believer in the old axiom that you get what you pay for, and I’m never taking a one-penny cellphone again.