Sep 132014

The announcement of the new iPhone has sent me wandering down memory lane and has me thinking about how my not-so-long-ago, pre-iPhone mobile life was transformed by the 3G into a family project.

First Laptop

I made the leap to mobile computing in grad school when I bought my first laptop, a Toshiba PC that won me over because, at 10 or 11 pounds, it seemed light enough to carry back and forth to the library when I needed it. I was fooling myself. I live in a city. I walk, I bike, I take the metro. Bringing the machine to the library meant bringing it with me all day, every day, and it was too heavy for that and never left my desk.

Palm Pilot

When the Toshiba died enough that I felt I could replace it without guilt, I got another desktop PC [note]Gratuitous aside: A friend put together the specs for the desktop machine over the course of a long evening in which we drank a bottle of absinthe I’d brought back from Marseille. The evening ended when in the wee hours of the morning, he began calling family and friends and I had the pleasure of listening to him say things like “No, I’m fine….No really, everything’s great. …What do you mean? What time is it there?” Time zones are fun.[/note] and a Palm TX. The Palm was a great machine. I bought a small IR keyboard that folded in half and both it and TX together could fit inside my coat pocket. I bought Documents to Go, figured out how to transfer files back and forth to my computer manually. And this changed how I worked.

Weekdays, I’d wake up at five o’clock, take a shower, grab my backpack and walk down to my favourite cafe where I’d sit at my table (I had a table) and write for a few hours before heading off to get started with the rest of my day. I wrote first drafts of my dissertation proposal, my comprehensive exams, and most of the early parts of my dissertation in that cafe on that TX.

Mac Mini

It was my Palm TX that caused me to stretch my budget and buy my first mac. Writing on the Palm I tended to write in short segments rather than in a single file: a single article might be broken into a dozen or more files that I would organize in directories on my PC and later combine into a Word document. This made sense when I was drafting on the TX but was complicated to manage back on my PC.

Then one day I stumbled across a reference to Scrivener, a then Mac-only program that let you write in non-sequential fragments easily and productively. After a week or so of hesitation, I bought a Mac mini and installed the Scrivener free trial, thinking all the time: I have a few weeks to change my mind and return this computer for a refund. But after the first day, I was sold.

Ironically, the Mac made me stop using the Palm. Scrivener was so good and the process of transferring files from the TX so clumsy that I started drafting at my computer again and the Palm found its way into a box.

Meanwhile the first iPhone came out in the States (but not in Canada) and I got a pancake sized Blackberry with a sidewheel. Using it I got a crash course on the differences between POP, IMAP and Exchange email, but otherwise it was a brief, failed experiment.

First iPhone

The first iPhone to come to Canada was the 3G. I’d imagined it would be a way to replace my Palm, that I’d be able to use it to draft on the run, but it turned out that this wasn’t possible. The 3G wasn’t much more than a tool for jotting down notes and observations. (I used the excellent Write Room from Hog Bay Software for this.) [note]Incidentally, Write Room was one of the programs that, along with Scrivener, made me realize how much of what I loved about the Mac was produced by small developers.[/note] Ultimately though, my 3G was less about work than it was about how my family and I kept in touch.

When the 3G came out international calling was expensive. Texting was something no one I knew did. I’d convinced my brother and my sisters to buy Minis by this time, and so to talk, my family would use iChat to access our old AIM accounts. [note]AIM is apparently still around! Who knew?[/note] As we one-by-one got computer cameras we also began to do group video chats as well.

The 3G added a twist: here were text messages strung together like our AIM chats but we could talk throughout the day without being chained to our computers. It was amazing and revolutionary.

Family Twitter

Unfortunately for me, texting was expensive: text messages to the states cost .75$ each. So “k” and “?” added up quickly to a steep price tag.

Twitter provided a solution. It was new and I wasn’t sure what it was for, but once I got online, I realized that, regardless of it’s intended purpose, my family could turn it into a means of getting around the international text problem.

Family members who had an iPhone grabbed Twitterific and signed up for private Twitter accounts. Those who had feature phones signed up and registered their numbers to receive tweets as texts. We all approved each other as followers. And suddenly we could “iChat” all day by tweeting and our timelines would track the conversation.

The one snag was notifications: they didn’t exist on the 3G. So while everyone without an iPhone got an alert when a new tweet came in (because it arrived as a text message), everyone else had to remember to open the Twitter app. This was a pain, so I dug around and found Boxcar, a notification app that solved that problem for us and that I still keep download in iTunes as a souvenir even though I don’t use it for anything.


Subsequent iPhones made our various work-arounds obsolete. Now we iMessage and FaceTime. It’s all built in and automatic. Once the iPads came out, my grandmother (codename: TechnoGranny) also joined the party, which by then included aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. It’s great and I certainly wouldn’t want to go back to our old system. [note]In my mind, the old system has a definitive end. Soon after our Twitter Circle had gone dormant, I decided to make my Twitter account public. This meant I needed to delete all my previous tweets or they would become public. So I went through them one by one reading my family’s couple-year-long conversation, and as I did, I deleted my part of it tweet by tweet. Even though I had no way at that time to save those tweets or that conversation.

I’d never liked lock-in, but when I was done with these deletions I decided definitively that if I can’t get my stuff out of a service in a usable form, I won’t use the service. (All the family iChats I have going are backed up and stored in an archive I keep.) [/note]

But still, that old system did have the advantage of being ours. My brother, my sisters, my mother and I had built it up together, slowly over time, based on our own experiences. It was complicated but effective, and it suited our needs. I was proud of it, even bragged about it to other people (like I’m doing now) because we were making this new technology work for us and not the other way around. We weren’t trying to be “social”; we were just trying to stay close from far away. And it turns out that that difference was enough to make a gadget into a tool.

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