December 18, 2009

In praise of the dumbphone

In a few hours, I will finally, belatedly, receive my first smartphone. I’m salivating in anticipation. But I’ve hung onto my cheap, rocksolid LG dumbphone” (ie, it calls, txts, takes photos, and that’s about it) for years, and not felt like I was missing much.

Sure, it’s irritating not to be able to call up a map when I’m walking around, or check my email in an airport. But do I really need to be able to do those things, lest I dissolve into a steaming puddle of screaming goo like Stripe at the end of Gremlins? No.

So it was in that spirit that a few months ago I wrote a short piece for New York magazine reviewing the dumbest of the dumbphones, the Forrest Gump of telecommunication: the Jitterbug. (You know, that cell phone for old people” you see advertised in in Parade magazine inserts.) I used the thing as my primary cell for two whole weeks. My world did not end. In fact, there was plenty to like about it.

Unfortunately, New York killed the review for space issues. So now, on the eve of my willing entry into the app-obsessed, always-on smartphone universe, I present:

In Praise of the Dumbphone.

No apps. No GPS. No web, calendar or camera. The Samsung Jitterbug is the anti-smartphone, which is to say: dumb as a rock. And that’s the point.

Once marketed solely to tech-averse senior citizens, Jitterbug has recently partnered with Verizon and changed its slogan to Simplicity for everyone.” After temporarily ditching my bloated LG phone for the new Jitterbug J, I can attest that you don’t have to love Matlock to appreciate the J’s oversized keypad (great for no-look dialing), stripped-down menus, and clear, quick, direct-to-human customer service. It even supplies a dial tone, which has an undeniable retro appeal.

Add-on services are few but refreshingly utilitarian, like roadside assistance and 24/7 nurse consultation (no joke for uninsured freelancers, or swine-flu paranoiacs). But Jitterbug’s real genius lies in their cheerful willingness to remove almost any feature, even the built-in ones. Don’t want Voice Dialing” cluttering up your menu? Just dial zero and a dedicated operator will remotely delete it. (Try that with AT&T.)

Granted, the J’s bulky, blobby shape won’t turn heads. And with no T9 predictive spelling, text-messaging is crude at best. But there’s an odd freedom in embracing Jitterbug’s limitations. Let your friends Google that restaurant, find that showtime, read that map: when they figure things out, they’ve got your number.

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