SEPTEMBER 17, 2003

By Christopher Kenton

Things That Go Beep In the Night

My phone has more buttons and features than Luke Skywalker's cockpit console. Trouble is, I think Darth Vader led the design team

It's 2 a.m., and I want to tell you why I hate Motorola. I should be circumspect, since I've had the privilege of serving Motorola as a consultant, and the company was an exceptional client. But I've been staring at the ceiling now for more than an hour, my sleep destroyed by a thoughtful feature on my cell phone called the Low Battery alarm.

In the normal course of events, when I arrive home in the evening, I plug my cell phone into its charger, which sits on the kitchen counter not too far from the coffeemaker and the key rack. In the morning before I leave, I make my coffee, grab my keys and phone, and go on with my life. The phone is happy. I'm happy. The world is a happy place.

SILLY DADDY. Every so often something disrupts this routine, however. Sometimes I forget to take my phone out of my pocket. Sometimes my two-year-old finds the phone and, after exhausting the imaginative possibilities of make-believe conversation, abandons it under a couch or behind the desk. And there the phone sits, slowly trickling out of energy.

Like many smart devices, my phone has an alarm to tell me when the battery is low. I suspect this drains a lot of the remaining energy from the battery in order to fulfill its prophecy more quickly, but normally I might consider it a useful feature. Right now, however, at 2am, I've discovered that the usability engineers at Motorola designed this feature not as an alert, but as a behavior-modification tool. Make the punishment for forgetting to plug in the phone painful enough, and I won't do it again.

Everyone has had the experience of incorporating external stimulus into the story of their dreams. The sound of a baby crying might be transformed into the sound of a jazz singer at a club. The sound of the alarm clock might become a fire engine racing to a burning building. Motorola's alarm, however, cannot be wrapped into any storyline. The moment I hear it, no matter how deeply I might be sleeping, I'm immediately aggravated and awake. It has the same two tones as a doorbell, but instead of that cheerful resonance and sustain -- a sound full of promise -- it sounds sharp and impatient. The phone is annoyed.

NIGHTMARE NOISES. If I could just get up and turn it off I could do so half asleep and drift back into my dreams. And I wouldn't be writing this column. But the Motorola alarm only rings once every 4 minutes, and I have no idea where the phone is hiding.

The first alarm, di-do, is enough to put me on notice that my blissful night of sleep is about to be wrecked by the death throes of a telephone. Four minutes later, di-do, I'm awake enough to realize I'm in hell. You see, I live in a canyon where cellular signals don't carry. Without reception, I can't call my phone to make it ring and guide me to its rescue from the hamper or the toy box. I have only the alarm as a homing device, and four minutes to wait between every sounding.

Di-do. I'm sitting on the edge of the bed. Cursing the phone. Watching the clock. Trying to remember in the fog of sleep where I last saw the phone. It's no use. Four more minutes to wait for the next clue.

Di-do. I'm stopped in midstride, straining to listen down the hall. It's somewhere in the other part of the house. I can't go stomping around turning on lights because I'll wake up my son, and after six glasses of water, a changed diaper and a new selection of stuffed-animals, he won't fall back asleep.

ORCHESTRA IN MY POCKET. I tiptoe into the dining room hating my phone with every fiber of my being. I'm imagining violence. I've never had a phone I hated so much. My last two phones were comparatively simple Star-Tacs. Just a 2-line LED screen and a key pad. They excelled at the kinds of things you expect phones to do. They didn't claim to be smart, they just obeyed simple commands.

My new phone has a full-color video display so I can shop online and view bad 1.5-inch pictures from cell-phone cameras. I can play games on my phone and send text messages. I can program voice activation so that when I say "Dave" it calls "Linda" instead. I can set the ringer to play a different 10-piece orchestral leitmotif for each of my personalized callers. All of which ensures that the battery will go into its dying gasps exactly 18 hours after I take the phone off the cradle in the morning, 2 hours after I go to bed.

Di-do. Oh no. The office. It could be anywhere. Under a pile of papers on the desk or behind a stack of books. The last time this happened I finally discovered the cell phone hidden in the paper tray of the printer. I suspect my son gets a lot more satisfaction from the phone than I do, which is why I'm so annoyed with Motorola. They confused market segments and put the wrong features in my phone, and now I'm paying the price.

WILL TO LIVE. For the past 7 years, I've consistently bought the phone for the Successful Suit. I don't really have to shop for features; I can easily recognize it by its sleek case in black or silver, and its price point at about $200. It tells me that I'm worldly, tech savvy, all business, and it never lets me down. This year, although nicely tailored in the expected sweep of modern lines, my phone came with the heart and soul of the Gaming Geek. It's all lights and sirens inside, with 15 different ways to plug into the Infosphere, but paltry features to support an actual phone call. I got what teenagers buy for $39 in a $200 case. And it doesn't respect me.

Di-do. I found it! It's under the desk and open on it's side, the useless video screen casting a soft glow on the floor while draining the life from the phone. Of all the myriad features on the phone, I wonder why, if it's really so smart, it can't tell that it's been sitting open and unused for hours and turn itself off. And I wonder why, in the vast maze of menus and settings that I can navigate on the phone like a Web site, I can't find the Let It Die For All I Care option.

As I'm drifting back to sleep I start composing an angry letter in my head to the engineering and marketing staffs at Motorola about bait-and-switch market segmentation and humane standards for usability. But one thought brings me back from the edge of sleep.

I'm four months into a two-year contract.