Internet communications involve a vast multitude of tiny but complex transactions all working together in a concerted effort to transmit and receive various kinds of data. We all know this. But at no time has this fact been more evident to me than during my visit to my mother's backwoods home in Maryland, where the AT&T cellular service on my iPhone has ranged from intermittent to nonexistent. From time to time, however, I can get a connection just long enough to fire off an SMS, but using any other service that requires the Edge network is like watching the internet in slow motion. Surfing is a non-option. And sending email takes significantly longer in this slowed-down world of spotty service. But I found it surprising initially that SMS is able to get through where mail cannot. My first impression would be to assume that both would go about at about the same speed — both consist primarily of text data and are fairly lightweight. But email is clearly the more complex transaction, requiring the contacting of and authentication to mail servers and often the exchange of said data over secure channels. I'm not sure how SMS works, but it's something much, much simpler and more direct. And when everything is going in super slow motion these differences become painfully apparent.
This trip was to be the ultimate test of my iPhone's capabilities: could I survive a weekend at my mothers without a laptop, using only the iPhone instead? Would it hold up on the train as an entertainment device for the two-and-a-half hour trip? Would it function adequately as an internet appliance for light surfing and emailing? Would it work as a telephone?
Surprisingly, it worked well enough in every capacity but this last one: I could not use my iPhone as a cell phone at my mother's. I eventually discovered that, when laid flat on its back, the iPhone was able to generally maintain a connection to the AT&T network, so SMS, email and surfing were possible though the latter two were often painfully slow. Still, they were good enough to get me through the weekend. Where the iPhone fell down was as a cell phone. As soon as I'd lift it to my ear (sometimes sooner) it would drop any call I might be attempting.
This is a major disappointment. I was expecting the other functions of the phone to be limited, but I was pretty sure I'd be able to use it as a phone most places in the U.S. It worked plenty well in the Adirondacks. But at my mother's house (the phone seems to get healthy reception a few blocks away) I simply can't use my cell phone anymore. This was never a problem with Sprint. Indeed my folks have used Sprint without issue for years here.
Moving to AT&T was a calculated risk. One that, at least in this case, did not pay off. At this point I can only hope that either the iPhone's reception somehow gets significantly more stable in the vertical position in remote areas, or that AT&T's service eventually broadens to encompass the greater Annapolis area. Until then I'll be stuck on Sprint for the holidays.
So, in conclusion: the iPhone does actually replace my laptop as a portable internet and media device for short trips; unfortunately, it doesn't replace my cell phone. And that just blows.
This post written on my iPhone