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Expect a software update from Apple soon, iPhone users — and a slew of lawsuits to follow. Today it was announced that a hard working team of developers have figured out a way to unlock the iPhone using only software. (Previously a few brave folks learned they could unlock the iPhone with some serious hardware hacking – soldering, scraping, and then more software hacking.)

To date Apple has not tried to stop people hacking its device – either the iPhone or the Apple TV. Apple TV updates have practically embraced the hacks people have come up with and the two iPhone updates that have been released so far still allow hacks, but only work on unhacked devices. (Forcing users to undo all the hacks before updating or suffer through a complete factory restore – i cried a little.)

However past hacks to Apple devices have never broken any of Apple’s revenue streams, or any other company’s revenue stream for that matter. If this one hack continues to work, it will definitely cut AT&T’s revenue, but it will also cut down Apple’s if rumors about them getting a 10% cut of all iPhone data plans is true.

But the issue isn’t that simple. Last year the Librarian of Congress (who, believe it or not has domain over this) said that unlocking GSM phones to work on other carriers is not illegal. So although it’s likely Apple and / or AT&T will try to sue the developers once their identity is discovered, it’s also likely this suit will get thrown out of court.

One interesting thing that was revealed through this process is that the iPhone 1.0.1 update added a hidden settings panel that lets users customize data settings. so unlocked iPhones can be configured to fully work on any network (except for visual voicemail). Could it be Apple is tacitly supporting these efforts, or is this something that was added because of Apple’s rumored multi-carrier agreement in Europe?

A special shout out to Carlo Longino and Craig Froehle for planting the seeds of this post in my brain.

I’m thinking of starting a whole blog simply dedicated to glaring engineering / design mistakes that companies build into their products. But instead, i’ll start a new series of posts here where we can discuss some of the crazy things we encounter when reviewing handsets. Clearly someone chooses to make things this way, but many times it seems the consequences these choices have on users are totally ignored.

For instance, today we’ll take a look at accessory and headset jacks. These days most manufacturers are putting these jacks on the sides of phones. But like our mama said, just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean you should too. On some phones this placement is acceptable. For instance, tiny flip don’t leave any space on the top or bottom for jacks, so they must go on the side. When you connect a headset or a headphone adaptor to these phones, you can either turn the phone sideways in your pocket or you can leave it upright and let the adaptor jut out to the side a bit. The phone is small enough that you can get away with the mild discomfort of either of these solutions. But what about when phone is larger – like, say, a thick slider or a big QWERTY phone? Well then you’ll most likely have to turn the phone sideways in your pocket if you have a headset plugged in. And that, my friends, is very uncomfortable. The list of phones that commit this offense is longer than the list of phones that get it right, and that’s a shame.

If just one person at any of the guilty manufacturers had plugged one headset or set of earphones  in and tried to put the phone back in their pocket, they would have noticed how uncomfortable things would be. They could have made a difference. But instead a team or designers and engineers carefully placed these jacks where they would be cheapest or most convenient, and not where they made sense. And today, when trying to plug my Sennheisers into an offending phone that put a 3.5mm headset jack on the side, all I got was a pocket full of OUCH. I will not call out this phone by name since it is not uniquely guilty of this offense.

I know fixing this is not as simple as just moving a jack – it probably would require re-engineering circuit boards and designing bodies to accommodate the move. But making changes like this show that a company cares about us users, and that they expect us to actually USE the features they list on the box, and not merely just buy their product because said feature was listed. And for all those companies who would say, “well why don’t you just use Bluetooth headphones, Mr. high tech phone reviewer,” I would gladly argue back “Have you ever tried to use those?” Cripes if anything, including my own body comes between any phone and any pair of Bluetooth headphones I’ve tried, they always cut out. it’s so frustrating and such a drain on the battery that i refuse to use them. 

Recently I decided I would try to join the push email generation. The last time I had push mail was when I was a Sidekick 2 user many years ago, and back then only my personal mail was sent to my handset, as I had separate email accounts for business and personal use. But soon GMail slowly convinced everyone to merge all their email addresses into a single account. This was a bad idea.To test push email I decided to forward my email from GMail to a push-enabled account. This was a disaster – I get so much email between work and friends that my pocket was constantly vibrating, and my phone was filling up with emails I couldn’t care less about as so much the email that comes to my work address is notifications or off topic pitches from PR people. So to stem the flood, I went to set up some filters in GMail to tell it who was important enough to push mail from (by forwarding that to my push account). However GMail’s filters are so basic that it would have taken me hours of manually entering email addresses when all I really wanted to say was “if the email address matches one in my contacts list, forward the email.” (I could do this in 3 clicks – THREE CLICKS – from my Mac.) So my re-introduction to push mail left a bad taste in my mouth. I turned off the push account and went back to checking my email account manually whenever I felt like I needed to check in.

Recently, the iPhone has been intriguing me and so I decided to test out its push capabilities. However my previous experience taught me I couldn’t forward everything to my phone and I couldn’t get the filters I wanted in Gmail. So I took the old fashioned approach and moved my work email to its own separate account. I set my personal email account to forward to Yahoo! push account and created a separate account on the phone to check my work email manually. This solved one problem – my pocket wasn’t constantly buzzing – but created another. Because of the awful way you have to switch back and forth between accounts on the iPhone, as soon as I went to see why my pocket was buzzing, the phone would start checking my work account too and it created an even more frustrating loop of checking and rechecking.

I wanted to turn everything off and just go back to SMS. I thought of ways I could send a nice autoresponder to people telling them that if their matter was urgent, they should text me. That is, after all, what text is for – reaching people as soon as possible with a succinct message. I hate that some people use email like text. I do not hover over my email on my phone or on my computer, we have conduits like IM and SMS for instant communication.

So I did the unthinkable. I turned off my work account altogether, leaving only the push account my personal email is forwarded to, and quickly i was in heaven. I only get about 40 personal email messages per day, and 99% of it is something i want to read. So whenever my pocket buzzes, it’s with something that’s going to make my day (though every once in a while it makes my day worse) – whether it’s an SMS or a push email. Instead of my friends using email like IM (they don’t know it’s coming to me instantly) the mails I get on my phone are like pleasant distractions I can deal with whenever – everyone still texts me if they want me immediately.

And so now that I’ve got a good system in place, I’m wondering how to get the appropriate, important, emails to my phone. It’s easy enough to tell GMail to forward mails from my two fellow Phone Scoopers, but what about all my other contacts who usually send me mail I consider important enough for my phone? that might be a long list.

I’ve considered an auto-responder to tell people they can send email to my push account. I’ve considered a different auto-responder telling everyone – whether they send email to my personal or work account to text me if something is important and turning off email altogether. i’ve considered investigating services like enotifyme, that make setting up filters easier than GMail. and I haven’t come up with an answer I like.

Why? Well I hate the autoresponder solution because it flips the responsibility back to the sender. They’ve already made an effort to contact me (albeit by what may be the wrong channel) and I feel it’s inappropriate to put the onus back on them to use the right channel. Although it would train everyone to use the appropriate medium for the situation, i feel like there should be back end systems to handle that so that people only need to remember one way to contact me and the system takes care of the rest.

But setting up today’s filter systems to take make sure the right emails, calls, texts, etc. get to you how and when you want is so cumbersome. It puts an undue onus on the user. It takes too much time and effort, and there’s no learning mode, so all modifications have to be made manually. I want to make it easy for others, but I want to make it easy for myself, as well (of course!).

Unfortunately for now i’ve chosen to forward a select group of people to my push account and have left the rest to sit and wait until I get to a computer to check their messages. Maybe I should add an autoresponder with instructions for those who aren’t pushed, but can’t some things just wait?

I go to a lot of concerts. Generally one or more per month. While some stadiums in and around the metro NYC area (read: the ones in NJ) have beefed up wireless coverage, many venues continue to totally suck with respect to providing solid access.

Last night, for example, I saw Chris Cornell at the Beacon Theater in NYC. (Great show, by the way. Awesome collection of Soundgarden, Audioslave, Temple of the Dog and Chris’s solo stuff.) Standing just outside the doors to the theater, which is an old-school, opera-house type place, I had great coverage on the two phones I had with me. One was Verizon, the other AT&T. I was able to make and receive with both phones no problem-o.

Once I walked inside, though, coverage on my Verizon phone began to waffle between one bar and no bars. The AT&T phone dropped down to 3 bars. During the course of the evening, I attempted to make several calls with my Verizon handset. Fully 50% of the calls failed to go through at all. Those that did, lasted a mere 10 seconds before being disconnected or dropped. Even though the AT&T phone had more signal strength, it fared no better. I tried making several calls with it. Only one connected at all, and was dropped as soon as I got the word “Hello” out of my mouth.

Data services, such as SMS, fared a bit better. There was a slight delay in sending a receiving messages, but they all did eventually get through.

I understand the limitations of cell towers with respect to how many calls can be handled at any given moment. Ditto for the fact that places in NYC are often old buildings with some dense-ass materials blocking signals. But places that regularly host large groups of people (theaters, stadiums, etc.) should work with the cellular operators to make sure that their customers are adequately served while attending events in those venues.  Is it really that expensive/difficult to add capacity? C’mon guys.