Recently, when my father had a cancerous lump removed and decided to follow-up with chemo and radiation treatments, my mother was understandably frantic – for herself, of course, because they’ve been together almost 60 years and are rarely separated, but mostly for him. She thought long and hard about what she could do to make the whole ordeal go more easily for him. Her conclusion? In a leap of logic that might be peculiar to my family, she decided she would buy him an iPhone.
When she called me up and announced this, I understood her reasoning in a flash. My dad never met an electronic gadget he didn’t love and want to have. He is willing to go through endless rounds of setting-up and tinkering to get a new toy to work. He has always liked music and video and has recently come to enjoy e-book reading. She couldn’t see how to help him with the physical side of his treatments. But she could, at least, try to help with the mental game: providing him with distractions for the whole hurry-up-and-wait cycle of appointments and waiting rooms and the inevitable illness and weakness that would follow.
Unfortunately, I had to say, “Wait! Don’t do that!”. Buying an iPhone would have forced her to completely replace her cell phone service or, gag, pay for two completely separate cell phone accounts. AT&T is still the only service provider for iPhones and my parents don’t currently use AT&T. And even if she had already had AT&T service, moving on to a smartphone, and the ‘data plan’ required to power it, would have added significant dollars every month to her phone bill. The modest initial price for the gadget hides large back-end fees.
But, liking her basic concept, we quickly sorted through her alternatives. She had, fortunately, just been researching netbooks (relatively new, diminutive, ultra-portable laptops), for her next novel, so she was familiar with that technology. They offer many of the features she’d had in mind: pretty portable, great for all the multi-media distractions. But they still seemed a bit large and ungainly for the doctor’s office.
Then I suggested she consider the iPod Touch which has all the computing power and multimedia features of the iPhone, just no phone, camera, or follow-on fees (though, you can spend an indefinite amount of money buying content and apps for it if you don’t find what you want among the free offerings.) An iPad would also have filled the bill but is quite a bit pricier and just enough bigger that we thought it would be harder to carry around.
She settled pretty quickly on the Touch, ignoring my advice not to buy anything till she found out if the doctor’s office had wi-fi available or not. (There’s a limit to my mother’s patience when she gets a great idea.) And it has turned out to be a great choice. I still don’t know about that wi-fi but, while my dad was going to treatments, he just downloaded what he was interested in, beforehand at home, and then tuned out the crowds in the waiting rooms with episodes of Law and Order and broadcasts of Martini in the Morning. Since he quit treatments and has been trying to recuperate, being able to surf the web and watch/listen from his recliner, rather than having to sit up at his computer, has been a big deal.
So, my message is: Please, don’t give someone else an iPhone or any other smartphone. And don’t, for heaven’s sake, let anyone give you one. They are extraordinary devices. But getting one as a gift is like getting a ‘free’ puppy or kitten – low up front cost involving a long-term commitment and many entirely predictable fees down the road. When you are ready for one of these computers-that-can-also-serve-as-your-phone – when you’ve figured out at least a handful of non-phone uses that will justify the data plan you’ll have to pay for (see breaking news below) – go pick one out for yourself. At that point, you can have fun with it, will probably love it, and will be able to feel as if you are getting your money’s worth.
Breaking news: Along with this week’s official announcement of the long awaited iPhone 4g, AT&T announced a change in pricing for the required data plans. (See here for the official news release or here for a digest/analysis.) If you’re a heavy user of the various multimedia streaming features, this probably means a price increase in your near future — it’s no longer all you can eat for one price. But if you are a moderate user, it may well be that the data plan is suddenly half the price it was yesterday. Good news for many current and prospective users.