Readers of this blog will know that I was recently sent a free cell phone from Sprint to use for 6 months as part of an “ambassadors” program which seems to be both a mechanism to collect feedback about their service, and also promote their new “Power Vision” technology. Basically, the Power Vision network is their new high-speed data network and phones which allows you to watch live and on-demand TV, listen to streaming radio, and download music on-demand. The phone they sent me, the MM-A920, is both a phone and also plays MP3s and streaming content. I am fairly sure they are trying to run a blog payola gig where they give me free stuff with the hopes I’ll write about it, but I decided because I have been gadget obsessed for many years an blogged about my Sprint phones in the past, I didn’t face too much of an ethical quandary about assessing the new phone.
In the world of consumer electronics, I think there’s essentially three categories of applications of new technology. The first is the device rushed to market to be the first with the new technology. Not elegant or easy to use, these devices are for the gadget obsessed and technically minded. The second is a successful application. For the most part it works consistently, and is easy enough to use to develop a wide following. The last is the revolutionary application, so well designed it breaks through into the mass market.
Sprint’s Power Vision Network as I have experienced on the Samsung MM-A920 is definitely in the second category. The technology works, and works well and consistently enough to warrant praise. I can watch TV live or on demand, search for and download high quality music, and access other data services. Yet the complex nature of Sprint’s technology means this product will never rival the mass market enjoyed by truly revolutionary products like Apple’s iPod.
What do I mean?
To start, every Sprint customer has three passwords: their Sprint account web login, their Sprint PCS mail password, and their Vision (data) password. Furthermore, every phone has at least two email addresses: the automatically assigned Sprint PCS mail account, as well as the email address of the device (firstname.lastname@example.org, for example). It is my impression the complexity of the company’s services is due to the unique characteristics of their network. They spent a lot of money early on to build a digital network which means they can offer seamless digital coverage in most urban areas, however because the network is slightly older they have added a number of new systems on top of existing technology to offer new services.
As an example of this patchwork effect, in my phone’s messaging menu I can send an SMS text message, a “Picture Mail,” a voice SMS, an IM, or an email. Although I know these are separated for technical reasons, to the user they mostly function the same way. Thus efforts to fuse them — such as Google’s merging to IM and email into one application — are successful. The same pattern occurs on the multimedia front. My phone contains two places to access music – a music application connected to the “Sprint music store” and also another media application where I can listen to media clips I’ve added to my player. These duplicities in the technology are tolerable to the engineer’s mind, but deal-breakers for the general public.
Complexity aside the phone’s designers have built in too many technical restrictions to the phone for my liking. The phone has Bluetooth, but it cannot be used to send files (like images or music). It has a USB cord, but the cord can only be used to use the phone as a modem, not to back up (or in my case, populate) the address book, synch the calendar, or copy music and images. In order to add music to the MP3 player I have to remove a tiny “transflash” memory chip, insert it into an “adapter” which makes it fit a standard SD card reader, and they connect that to my computer. And although I have plenty of technology laying around, it turns out I don’t have an SD card reader. If you are confused, it is for good reason: I would assume very few people would go thorough such a hassle to listen to music they already have on their computer. The rest will simply stick to their idiot-proof, plug-it-in-and-it-works iPod. That’s why this phone will never be a revolutionary device despite its impressive technical features.
The considerations above aside, the core functions of the phone seem to work quite well. As for the phone audio quality, I think my Treo 650 sounds better, but the quality on this phone I think is pretty standard for a Sprint flip phone. Although I haven’t watched it a whole lot, the streaming video looks to work well, if it a low quality and very small image size on the screen. I noticed both CSPAN, CSPAN2, and the Weather Channel are included in the basic channel package. I thought these could have interesting mobile applications: DC folks could track votes on the hill from anywhere, and people could monitor extreme weather, as long as the cell coverage held up. I have also enjoyed the ability to find and download MP3s directly to my phone, although I have found their music store’s library is much smaller than Apple’s iTunes store. I could only find one song by The Shins and one by The Killers, but those with a taste to mainstream corporate radio music will find quite a bit to keep themselves occupied. I also found the normal $2-$2.50 price for each song quite steep, compared to iTune’s going rate of $.99 per song.
While the phone is fun to play with, I have decided given the choice I would prefer my Treo 650 although the Treo has more limited functionality. Although it contains its own quirks, the Palm OS is much more flexible than Sprint’s rigid software, the although the camera is much lower quality I think it works better, and the device can be used to play music just like the fancy Samsung. Luckily for me there’s talk of a new, Palm-based Treo, that will support Sprint’s fast data network with more of the multimedia bells and whistles.