Chapter 3 – My Weekend with a Smartphone

In 1999 I got a free ride to the famous Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal. I spent my evenings watching my girlfriend of the time perform, and most of my days at the Bell Mobility store on St. Catherine’s Street. Why? Because I had upgraded my phone yet again — this time to a so-called “smartphone” — and the damn thing didn’t work at all.

There was certainly nothing wrong with the hardware. It was my second Nokia, the 6185, in a business grey housing instead of whimsical blue. It also used a fancy new digital cellular network called PCS. In practical terms this meant that the screen (now LCD instead of LED) was now exponentially more useful because the phone supported call display. Yay, progress! Unfortunately a service bundle offered by my carrier ruined everything. I should have known that Bell couldn’t possibly deliver what they promised, a quantum leap forward in mobile technology that would put the power of the Internet in my hands, wherever I happened to be. It was — brace yourself… email on my mobile phone.

It was supposed to work like this: I’d log in to my Bell account on a desktop computer, and enter details for the email address I wanted to connect to my phone. I’m pretty sure the service only supported a single email address but remember, this was bleeding edge technology for the time. BlackBerry had launched their very first email device earlier in the year but I had never heard of it… Anyway, once the connection was set up my email would be forwarded in real time to my mobile phone. Even better, I could email replies — again, in real time. This was all made possible by some obscure mobile telephony standard from Europe called SMS, but I cared not for such trivial details… Email on my phone! How cool is that?!!

On the morning of my departure for Montreal I dutifully logged in to Bell Mobility’s website and entered the details of my Sympatico email address. Sympatico was the home Internet service offered by Bell Canada — come to think of it, I think Bell’s mobile email service only worked with a Sympatico account. Go figure. Back to the story… With everything set up I powered down my computer for the weekend and my girlfriend and I headed down to Union Station to catch our train, where I would surely use the next six hours in a productivity coup — sending and receiving emails like a boss and generally being the envy of everyone else on-board.

Instead, I spent the afternoon-long journey looking at a blank screen.

At the Bell in Montreal there was much furrowing of brows and scratching of heads. The staff were obliged to offer support, but I got the distinct feeling that this bleeding-edge technology was as new for them as it was for me. To their credit they finally got it working — intermittently, at least — and then the promise of email on the go was met with the unfortunate reality of a small screen that could, at best, display six lines of text. Worse, because of the 160-character limit of this SMS technology even a short email had to be broken up into five or six separate messages. It took the first two or three just to spit out the sender and subject!

Immediately upon my return to Toronto I proceeded immediately to the store where I’d purchased my “smartphone”, slammed it down on the counter and demanded an immediate refund. The experience was so frustrating that it moved me to write my first-ever blog post on the Internet, wherein I vowed to never again be wooed by the empty promise of new technology. In a blog post. On the Internet. I was doomed.