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Joel on Software

Amazing X-Ray Glasses from Sprint!

by Joel Spolsky
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Over the last six months, Sprint has been trying to get bloggers (like me) to write about their new Power Vision Network by sending us free phones and letting us download music and movies and use the phones for free.

That’s rather nice of them, but honestly, I have a really strong aversion to writing about things just because some PR person wanted me to. Basically, there’s no better way to make me not want to write about something than to ask me to write about it. I accepted the free phone because, gosh, well, it’s a free phone, but I decided that I simply wouldn’t write about it no matter how much I liked it.

As it turns out, I had the opposite problem. The phone they sent me, an LG Fusic, is really quite awful, and the service, Power Vision, is tremendously misconceived and full of dumb features that don’t work right and cost way too much. So I’m going to review the dang phone anyway, even though if anybody from Sprint is paying attention they’re going to lose their lunch and some executive bonehead over there is going to go nuts and I sincerely hope that this doesn’t put an end to the entire free-phones-for-bloggers boondoggle, because I’d hate to get beaten up at Etech next year by all the other bloggers who would hate me for spoiling all the fun.

Now, on to the review. I was pretty excited to try out this phone because I’ve been longing for one that could double as a decent MP3 player. Most days, I get to work via a combination of subway and walking, which takes about half an hour, and listening to podcasts makes the commute much more pleasant. So I’ve been carrying a phone (a Motorola RAZR) and an iPod (Nano) with me everywhere. Merging the two into one device would be great.

When it finally arrived, the physical appearance of the phone was rather disappointing. If you’ve been spoiled by Motorola’s latest phones, or the seamless, screwless, elegant iPod, the LG Fusic will strike you as butt-ugly. Where a Motorola RAZR has a solid case made out of almost sensual matte-black steel that just feels great, the LG Fusic is made out of the cheapest kind of gray plastic, the same material you find on a $3 toy. Where Motorola goes to great lengths to hide the screws, and minimize bumps and seams, the LG Fusic has dozens of ugly protuberances, gaps, holes, screws, seams, etc. Worst of all, the LG Fusic has no less than three of those evil, flimsy, rubbery plug-caps that are connected to the phone by the thinnest of filaments. You know, those stupid rubber plugs that you have to pull away to plug anything into the phone, and then they just dangle there like chicken wattles (when they’re not getting in the way of the thing you’re trying to plug in) for a couple of weeks until they finally tear off. The phone is almost twice as thick as a RAZR. It comes with a break-offable front plate which can be used to change the accent color of the very front of the phone. Your choices are Barbie Pink, Barbie Green, Barbie Blue, and Black which would be the only stylish choice, if only it didn’t clash so badly with the rest of the phone. (Believe me, it is hard to make black clash with anything, but LG did it.) Overall this phone seriously looks like a Fisher Price toy, not a top-of-the-line cell phone.

OK, maybe you’re not so vain that appearances are a big deal. I tried to get over it. I really did. I promise I won’t talk about the style thing any more.

I opened the clamshell and turned on the phone.

The screen lit up instantly! Wow, something about this phone is nice.

Oh, wait a minute. What’s going on there?

The main screen shifts between pictures of Mount Fuji, the Eiffel Tower, etc. That’s charming. But what’s that bus?

There’s a cheezy little black and white child’s drawing of a bus bouncing up and down in front of the cheezy tourist pictures. Again with the Fisher Price Toy theme. The first thing I try to do is find a better screen saver. Everything looks like some kid’s 6th grade BASIC graphics project. Oooh, look, colored squares flying around. Terrible clip art of a “DJ”. One of the screen savers is called “Funny.” You get a silhouette of a lizard climbing around on a pink background. Bwa ha ha! That is funny. TO TWO YEAR OLDS.

OK, ok, I promised I’d stop talking about style. On to UI design.

The main menu was really, really confusing.

The first thing you see when you click on the Menu button is that you missed some alerts:

Although, it turns out, you didn’t, that's just the name of the menu item that comes up first.

You can’t see all the icons at once because someone had the bright idea of using a weird 3-D perspective, and the currently selected icon comes zooming out in front, covering up some of the other icons. All the unselected icons are shown in silhouette, so at first they just look like a background. It took me quite a while to figure out just what the menu was and how to find things I wanted from the main menu.

But don’t worry… there are random bits of sparkle that fly around on the screen. That’s the important part. The random bits of sparkle, again, a 6th grader’s BASIC graphics project.

Now, on to the whole reason I wanted this phone: the MP3 player.

There’s no desktop integration, no ITunes integration, no feature for subscribing to Podcasts, nothing like that. When you plug the phone into your computer using the supplied USB cable, it thinks you want to use the phone as a modem. Yes, one day I might want to do that, that’s true, but for now I just wanted to get MP3s onto the thing. Somehow, somewhere, I managed to stumble on a menu that made the phone act like a USB hard drive. Tada! The phone pops up on my computer looking like a hard drive. And then there was already a MUSIC folder there, and I could drag MP3 files in. Yay! I downloaded TWiT episode 69 manually and headed off to the subway to listen to it.

Wait… I need headphones. Ahh, here they are. Wait a minute. The headphone cord is only about 8 inches long. Am I supposed to hold the phone up to my chin to listen to music?

Oh, I see, there are two cords. You have to plug the headphone cord into the microphone cord and plug that into the phone. Now it’s long enough. OK, it’s awkward, but I can live with that.

To listen to the MP3s you’ve downloaded:

  1. Hit the MENU button
  2. Find the ON DEMAND menu item (I demand to hear MP3s!)
  3. Nope, that’s not what you wanted
  4. Hit BACK
  5. Nothing happens (darn!)
  6. OK, try END
  7. Do you want to exit this application?
  8. YES is already highlighted. Click OK.
  9. Huh? The application didn’t exit.
  10. Click END again.
  11. YES is already highlighted… oh… wait a minute! Maybe NO is highlighted? There’s no way to tell the difference. There are two choices, one is white and one is blue, it’s hard to see which is highlighted.
  12. Fool around with the cursor keys until you’re pretty sure that YES is highlighted. This is confusing, because the two-item menu wraps around, so the up button moves down and the down button moves up, or vice versa.
  13. Remove the battery and put it in again. That should get you back to the main menu.
  14. Media player? Is that what you want?
  15. Yeah, there’s something in here called Music…
  16. It has about 50 options. What do they mean? SIRIUS hits? MUSIC CHOICE? SIRIUS MUSIC? Some of them are listed as My Channels and some are listed as Available Channels. Which is which? The UI here is really getting confusing.
  17. OK, none of those options lets you listen to MP3s. It turns out there’s something called MUSIC on the Main Menu.
  18. Ahh, that brings up the happy “booting Java” screen which is so heartwarming. Thank you Sun Microsystems for bringing programming language advertisements into consumer electronics.
  19. The Java applet has two tabs, “Store” and “Player.” Try buying a song. It’s $5 for 3 songs. That’s a ripoff, Sprint. Apple already established that the fair price for one song is $0.99.
  20. OK, I just want to listen to Leo Laporte, dammit. Maybe the Player tab?
  21. Gotta choose between “All My Music” and “Create Playlist…”.
  22. W00t! THERE’S TWiT!
  23. Click on it, and listen to TWiT.

All right. TWiT is more than an hour long, and I only listened to half of the episode by the time I got home. Luckily, there’s a handy PAUSE button on the outside of the clamshell. Unluckily, it doesn’t work. Pressing it once informs you that the buttons are locked, and you have to press and hold the pause button to unlock. So you do that, and the key guard goes off, and you press the pause button again, and nothing happens, so you press it again, and finally you’ve paused the music.

In the meantime, if, say, hypothetically, you were pausing because you live in a country where the police brutalize people, and a policeman was brutalizing you, and you wanted to stop the music so you could try to figure out what the policeman wanted and perhaps there was some way if you could just hear him that you could get him to stop beating you with a riot bat, you’re already DEAD by the time you figure out how to make the pause button actually pause.

While the MP3 player is paused, the backlight on the external display just won’t go off. So inadvertently, the phone almost completely runs down its battery overnight staying in “Pause” mode.

Why not turn the phone off overnight? Well, because then I’d have to listen to the first half of TWiT all over again. Can’t you fast forward? No. Doesn’t it remember where you’re up to like an iPod? No. Pause is your only hope.

The next morning, with a single bar of battery juice left, I got into the subway and resumed listening to the podcast, and I’m a wise guy, so I decided to see what the battery looked like, and of course, the phone lost power, oops, lost my place in the Podcast.

Put back the battery. Turn on the phone. Go into the MP3 player again. There’s no signal, and, guess what? You can’t get into to the MP3 player unless you can establish a network connection to the Sprint Music Store. Even to play your own MP3s!

OK, so this is an MP3 player that doesn’t really work on the subway and won’t work on a plane, the two places I’m most likely to listen to MP3s. Not very appealing.

A little bit more exploring and I discovered that there’s another entirely separate MP3 player on this device. It’s hard to find. You have to go to Tools, then Memory Card, then to the Music folder, and another MP3 player starts up which you can use to listen to your MP3s. For this player, you don’t have to be on the network, so it works in the subway, but—get this—the minute you close the clamshell, the music stops! I am literally not making this up. There are two bad MP3 players on this device, neither one of which remembers where you’re up to, neither one of which can be used on the subway with the phone folded in my pocket, neither one of which has a fast-forward feature.

I have literally never seen such a useless MP3 player.

OK, onward. Yes, you can watch movies on this phone. For example, for $5.95 a month, you can get something called mFLIX. Until you pay the money, there’s no way to find out what mFLIX is or what it is you’re getting for your $5.95. I’ll tell you what you get: a bunch of garbage film-student videos that nobody would ever vote up on YouTube, in a tiny blurry window that reminds you of QuickTime 1.0 (“look! It’s on a computer but it’s moving!”).

That was disappointing. I thought this thing was supposed to have full length movies somewhere. Ah yes, how about “MSpot Movies?” It says I’m going to get “Full-length Hollywood movies.” Only $6.95 a month. Yes. Buy buy buy. (Thankfully Uncle Sprint is paying for this). Oh look… you can preview before you commit to spending! Clicking Preview brings up a page that says PREVIEW with a “Done” button. That’s it.

OK, maybe they don’t want me to preview. Fine. After you click Buy, you’re thrown back to a main menu somewhere and then you have to remember what the hell you bought and go find it again. Annoying UI, again.

OK, MSpot Movies. A menu comes up with a bunch of folders:

  • Animaland
  • Classic Cartoons
  • Freestyle Motorcross
  • Nightmare In Blood
  • The Projectionist
  • Heart of a Champion
  • One Love

I don’t understand. Are these movie titles? Not movie titles I’ve ever heard of. Yep, it’s true. What you get for $7/month is about 10 movies that seem to be in the public domain. Literally nothing worth watching, least of all on a smudgy 1 5/8” (diagonal), pixelated screen. I did, actually, as a part of my sacred duty as a reviewer, try to watch a whole movie. I could only stand about the first 1/3rd of it, and the battery was dying, and the phone was getting too hot to hold. I cannot imagine anybody finding any value in MSpot Movies. If Sprint makes any money off of them, it’s probably by mistake. This service is literally as much of a scam as those X-Ray glasses they used to advertise in comic books to steal a few bucks from some little kids.

The only kind of content you might really want to watch on this device is the stuff you find on YouTube, or video podcasts like The Show with zefrank. But that’s not what Sprint gives you. Instead they give you $7/month, ripoff, non-previewable scammy garbage.

A long time ago, I was working on MSN 1.0, and there was a long line of content providers working to make deals with Microsoft to put their content on the Microsoft Network, but in those days, it wasn’t clear exactly who should be paying who, so hardly any deals got made. In the meantime, the whole Web thing happened, where anybody could provide content without signing a deal with a Microsoft executive, and there was tons of content, and some of it was garbage, yes, but some of it was good, and we found the good stuff, and it floated to the top, and all was well, but Sprint doesn’t get this. They relish their ability to serve as the gatekeeper to what they hope will become a new medium, because the gatekeeper gets to charge tolls. And it’s 2006, and I almost can’t believe I’m writing this, because way back in 2000 I wrote almost exactly the same thing about WAP, and how cell phone companies keep failing to insert themselves as toll collectors because they’re so darn clueless about how the Internet works, and about the value of many-to-many networks instead of broadcast networks.

And now suddenly someone at Sprint read some book by Scoble and then they read Malcolm Gladwell’s theories of tipping points in the airport and Hey Presto! Maybe we can make this work by finding the tipping point people! You know, the bloggers! And all the bloggers get free cell phones, and Sprint gets tons of publicity, but frankly all the publicity in the world is not going to help them foist on us a product that is utterly pathetic. The phones they send us are so lame there is literally no area you can go into without being disappointed and shocked at just how shoddy everything is and how much it costs and what a rip off scam they’re trying to run here with the music that costs too much and the movies that you don’t want to watch on the screen that makes them unwatchable and you just KNOW that if you call to cancel the extra $7/month, their customer service department is going to give you the phone menu runaround and then put you on hold for an hour and then you’ll get some cancellation specialist with an incomprehensible accent who will spend 15 minutes trying to talk you out of canceling the useless service until you just give up and let them have the goddamned $7 a month. No amount of pampering bloggers and calling them Ambassadors is going to get around the fact that you’re sending us plastic junk phones that look like bath toys. (Hey, does it float?) All the “tipping point” theories in the world won’t protect Sprint from the basic truth that the LG Fusic user interface could basically serve as an almost complete textbook for a semester-long course in user interface design, teaching students of usability exactly what NOT to do.

Wait a minute.

Wait just one minute.

Maybe I completely missed the point.

Maybe this phone is for four year olds!

It all makes sense now!

The nonsensical menus don’t matter—four year olds can’t read! The toy-like appearance—duh! The ripoff movies—who cares, as long as the kids press BUY by mistake and the parents keep paying the bills!

Now I get it.

So really the only stupid thing that Sprint did is to send this phone to a bunch of know-it-all, hipster-wannabe, pretentious early-adopter engadget-reading 41-year-old bloggers, with our pretentious black iPods and our sleek gun metal RAZRs and our MacBook Pros and our so-called “Podcast” listening habits, watching zefrank tell potty jokes about The Decider.

No no no no no. This phone is for 4 year olds, albeit spoiled 4 year olds with rich parents. They’ll love the colors, the plastic, the impossible UI, they can watch the one 1936 movie that inadvertently fell into the public domain in class when the teacher is getting boring, and they sure as heck aren’t going on a subway with that thing.

Ohhhhhhhhh kay.

I gave the phone to a friend’s 4-year-old.

NEVER MIND!


Have you been wondering about Distributed Version Control? It has been a huge productivity boon for us, so I wrote Hg Init, a Mercurial tutorial—check it out!

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The Phone Screen



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