They don't make them like they used to

My wife's iPhone 4 died this week.  I upgraded it to iOS 6 after most of the bugs I experienced were solved to pave the way for an upgrade to an iPhone 5.  The upgrade went well, and it looked as if everything worked until she went for a run.  No music played.  She told me about it, and I thought it must just be something wonky with iTunes Match.  No problem, most iTunes Match issues are easy to fix.  Just turn off Match and turn it back on.  If you want to get really serious, turn off Match, restart the phone and then turn Match on again.

I did both, but Match still didn't work.  It would hang on the iCloud-icon-plus-progress-bar screen for hours before ultimately showing some artists and playlists full of songs but with no titles, artwork or content–just numbers.  A little Googling lead me to a few very busy topics on Apple's support forums with a few solutions that were working for a minority of posters.  I tried them all.  Nothing helped.

We're running a race this weekend, and Jenny likes to run with music.  If Match won't work we can do this the old fashioned way.  I can just sync her music via iTunes. That was a good theory, but in practice iTunes froze every time I connected her iPhone.  Uh oh. There are more options.  All our iOS devices are connected to iCloud, and they're all set to backup.  I checked the Settings app, and a successful iCloud backup happened the night before.  I did a manual backup and then erased the phone via settings.  The phone rebooted and I went through the setup screens–until the phone froze.  Oh boy.

Let's get serious.  I forced the iPhone to turn off, and held the home button and connected a dock cable to go into recovery mode.  I used iTunes to reset the phone.  It worked and the iPhone rebooted.  And froze.  No amount or rebooting or entering recovery mode helped now.  In the words of Mr. McCoy, "He's dead, Jim."

Now I have a problem.  An iPhone 5 will take some time to acquire.  It could take weeks.  There's no way my wife can be sans phone that long.  It's time to visit the AT&T store and see what my options are.  The next morning I was out front, waiting for the doors to open.  I told them my story.  They tested the phone and confirmed it was quite dead.  First order of business, order an iPhone 5.  Their order system said it would ship within 24 hours–which sounded too quick to me.  Even if was true, the iPhone 5 ships from China.  Even with air freight, that's a multi day affair.  I asked about the no contract pricing for the iPhone 4 and 4S.  $350 to $650 depending on memory.  Ouch.

Next the sales person directed me to a $35 GoPhone for prepaid customers.  I imagine my wife trying to text people via T9, but I don't see what my other options are.  I buy one and we activate it.  I notice a few things immediately.

  • It's tiny.  It's thicker than an iPhone, sure. But it was also more narrow and shorter.
  • It's light.  2.68 oz versus 3.95 for the "20% lighter" iPhone 5.
  • It's solid.  The phone is light and plastic.  I would never worry about dropping it.  Not just because it's $35–the light weight and plastic shell means it would not likely gather enough force to do damage.
  • It had a USB port.  This gave me hope that I'd be able to get her contacts on to the phone, even if I had to use a VM.
  • It didn't have Bluetooth.
  • It's confusing to use.  I couldn't unlock it without help.  I could get to the menu or text.  Discoverability was low compared to any touch screen phone.
  • Tactile feedback is good.  On the other hand, once I was shown where things were, my T9 muscle memory came back and I could dial, text, unlock and perform other tasks without thinking or looking at the phone.  From unlock to dialed I could beat any smartphone user with ease.
  • The battery lasts forever.  In the time we used this thing, the battery never showed any drop from full.
  • The reception and call quality are better.  In a basement?  On a low road?  Calls continue and sound good where other phones fail.

Engineering is making tradeoffs.  Smartphone makers have to design a tiny computer and then also add a phone to it.  A feature phone doesn't have to worry about a large screen, fast processor, WiFI antennas, or the other trappings of a smart phone.   This phone could have been smaller, but I suspect that would have made it hard to hold.  Instead, there's just a lot of empty space inside the case.

With no contacts, Jenny had a hard time calling people, or even knowing who was texting her.  She was never the T9 messenger I was either.  If I can load her contacts this will be better.  I connected the phone to our iMac with USB and nothing happened.  A little more Google searching and I discovered that the USB port on this phone is for charging only. The only way to copy contacts is via a SIM card.  Not an option.

You can't throw a rock in our house without hitting an iPod, so I decided to sync her contacts to an iPod she could carry with her.  Ah, but I quickly discovered that iCloud contacts don't sync with iPods unless its an iPod Touch.  There are workarounds, but most of them bring the risk of duplicating contacts. Our only iPod Touches belong to my daughters.  I was starting to feel defeated.

Then Jenny said "what about our old iPhones?"  Hidden in a drawer were our original, aluminum backed iPhones.  I'd saved them because I thought someday they's be as iconic as the original Macintosh.  Hmm.  Interesting.  Would they even work at all?

I picked up the iPhone and I was reminded that the original iPhone was alway my favorite in terms of feel.  It doesn't have the fragile glass back of the 4/4s or the slippery plastic of the 3G/3GS.  The rounded aluminum back is more comfortable in the hand than the hard edges of the 4/4S.  I connected the 4 GB iPhone to a charger and the screen lit up with the battery icon.  I let it charge for a few minutes and then it started up.  Success!  I erased the phone using settings and it failed to reboot.  I tried recovery mode and iTunes brought it back running iOS 3.1.3.

I synced it and then swapped the SIM card with the little GoPhone.  After a reboot it activated and connected to the EDGE network.  It received calls.  It texted.  It browsed the web. Good.  No contacts.  No email.  No apps.  Not so good.

Apps weren't going to happen.  No one is targeting iOS 3 anymore.  Email, well that should work.  iTunes set up the iCloud account as MobileMe–and of course Apple discontinued MobileMe.  Manually setting up an IMAP account fixed that easily enough.  Contacts looked harder.  I could use the same methods that would work on an iPod, but I still ran the risk of duplicating contacts.

But what about Gmail?  iOS 3 supports Gmail and Gmail supports contacts.  I setup a gmail account for Jenny and then added it to the iPhone.  There was no option to enable contacts or calendars.  Hmm.  OK, I remember that Gmail supports Exchange and iOS 3 does too. I deleted the Gmail account and added it back as an Exchange account.  Once it was done I turned off Mail and turned on Contacts.  Now we're talking.

In Contacts on the Mac in turned on Google sync.  Nothing.  It will only grab local contacts.  I know Google will take a CSV for contacts, but Contacts on the Mac will only produce VCF files.  Well, I can convert VCF to CSV.  I did that.  It worked.

Well, almost worked.  Most of the contacts don't have phone numbers.  I could go back and work on the CSV, but what first let me see if Google will take the VCF dump from Contacts.  I deleted all Jenny's contacts from Gmail and then imported the VCF–and this was a total success.

Phone? Check.  Texting on a QWERTY keyboard? check.  Web?  Slow, but check.  Email? Check.  Contacts? Check.  Apps?  Nope.  iMessages? No, but everything but group messages falls back to SMS after a delay.  This will at least work as an acceptable life raft until an iPhone 5 arrives on the doorstep.

What about the original problem: music while running?  An iPod Nano will fill that need really well.  Sometimes we just have to take the long way around, I guess.