Mobile Phones Suck

In truth - my phone is actually pretty damn awesome. It's indispensable and I feel naked without it. It's what makes commuting somewhat bearable; I've taken hundreds of photos with its camera and it provides a hedonistic amount of entertainment; it's my alarm clock, my portable internet, and it's never more than 10 feet away.

As a kid I saw an episode of The Jetsons where Elroy was watching TV on his watch. I can't say why, but that really stuck with me. The future is here! All I need now is a jet pack and meal pellets because I carry a super-computer in my pocket and it doesn't even need those dumb aerial antennas.

Fun fact: if held up at gunpoint, I'd hand over my wallet without hesitation but not my phone. How stupid is that?

But wait... if my phone is so great, why do I hate talking on the thing? What makes having a conversation such a terrible experience? Why does it feel so... off?


Sidetone is that small amount of feedback you get on a landline. It's what helps you speak at the right volume. (Yeah, the jackass talking too loudly into his phone next to you probably isn't a bad guy after all. He just doesn't trust that he's being heard.)

The feedback you get from sidetone helps the conversation feel warm and intimate -- like there's a connection between speaker and listener. It feels right but mobile phones don't have it. Why not?

Donald Norman:

Two possible answers come to mind, and my suspicion is that both are correct. One is that modern telephonic engineers have no sense of history, and so they lack all the experience and knowledge that led to the early development of sidetone feedback. The second answer is that sidetone poses more difficult problems in the out-of-doors environment of the mobile phone, where wind noise on the microphone and relatively high-levels of ambient noise pose technical limitations on sidetone.

He's probably right, but he wrote that 7 years ago and the experience still sucks. Why do I still constantly look at my phone to make sure the connection wasn't lost? Why does it still feel like I'm just talking into the air?

"Phone" is from the Greek for "voice", but talking into it is the last thing I want to do. Is it just me or do others avoid talking on their mobile phones?