Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Pros and Cons of the Strengths and Weaknesses

It seems that life has its ups and downs, the world has its cycles, every choice its strengths and weaknesses, and every decision its pros and cons. I had been saving for retirement for 40 years, thinking seriously about retirement for 20 years, planning for retirement for 10 years, and anxiously awaiting retirement for 3 or 4 years. Of course, like all else in life, retirement has its positives and its negatives. The first thing they tell your wife at retirement seminars is that “you’ll have twice as much husband and half as much money.”

Oh so true. One of my concerns was that, after retiring from the highly structured and scheduled workplace, I would find myself adrift in the hours, not knowing what to do, and resorting to daytime television to fill my time. Talk about a fate worse than death. Daytime television may be the only thing more boring and mind numbing that full-time employment.

Happily, that has not been my experience so far. I’ve been so busy since retiring either preparing for trips or taking trips, that I’ve actually yearned for work as a time to settle down, relax, and get some things done — like writing these notes. (Just finished my bills — have to keep them on schedule. It was so much easier when work provided just the correct environment and tools to check my bills, check my bank account, download statement, make payments, and all those other things I accomplished between crisis and routine at work.)

Now this particular saga about life after retirement is about cell phones and discounts. Let me digress. Like most things technological, I was an early adopter of cell phones. My first phone was something about the size of a world war II walkie-talkie. It was a nice little job from Motorola that looked like a square-ish princess phone (who remembers the princess phone?) with the keys on the back. It came in a leather binder which contained the phone connected to a battery pack of equal size via a heavy, curly cord. My plan was to install it in Linda’s car so she would have communications on her drive to and from Ft. Collins back before she retired (several years, I might add, before I accomplished the same).

I had the phone mounted on a goose neck attachment bolted to the floor of the Ford Taurus that was her car at that time. The power was the car battery so that was not an issue — unless the car had a dead battery. Then Linda would not have been able to call for help!?!

The cell phone carrier was US West, later renamed upon acquisition Qwest. (This was before the turn of the last century!) I later added a little Motorola flip phone to our Qwest service and carried it along with my Palm Pilot.

Finally, after several years of service, I decided I wanted a smart phone. It seemed silly to have both a cell phone and a personal organizer (PDA — who remembers PDAs?)when they could be combined into a phone that had both plus a lot more. I was very happy with the various Palm Pilots I had owned over the years, so I had my eye on the latest Palm Treo. Unfortunately, Qwest didn’t carry them, but Sprint did.

So I moved over to Sprint. I got a Treo and Linda got a new flip phone manufactured by some southeast asian company. (By then she had retired. See early reference.)

I discovered that many vendors gave IBM employees large discounts. This was especially true of cell phone providers since IBM provided certain employees with cell phones, and the cell phone carriers were anxious to add personal phones to the mix. As an IBMer, I got a 25% discount on all Sprint phone services. So I purchased a 1400 minute family plan for myself and Linda and got the Treo I desired. Later I added Mark to the family plan for an additional $10 (actually $7.50 after the discount), and we were happily and inexpensively teleconferencing, texting, and I was even surfing the web, albeit rather awkwardly on the tiny screen of the Trio. Our total bill was $100 a month — I paid a couple of hundred dollars for the Treo and Linda’s and Mark’s phones were free.

I was relatively happy both with the phone and the carrier. Then along came the iPhone. I was not quick to adopt the iPhone since I was quite happy with the Treo and especially the nice sync between my computer address book application (Lotus Organizer — really a fine program. It was actually — sort of — Apple-ish in its attractive and simple interface) and the Treo. I used a program called Intellisync that synced both my Lotus Notes calendar and my Lotus Organizer address book (who remembers Intellisync?) to my PDA.

Finally, after the second generation of iPhone added apps, I saw the hand writing on the wall: I had to have one. Sadly, like with Qwest before, my current carrier, Sprint, did not have the iPhone. Further, my son had just upgraded to a new phone, not exactly a smart phone, maybe just a reasonably bright phone with keyboard to support his texting habit and games that could be downloaded. So I was stuck with Sprint for two years if I didn’t want to pay a penalty. (Did I mention I’m a devout cheapskate? — that’s how I got into this — large discount with Sprint.)

I actually spent six months considering the quandary. In January '09, at COMDEX, there was an early announcement of a new phone from Palm with WebOS that interested me. This new phone OS had been developed by some ex-iPhone engineers and looked very promising. In addition, it had a Palm OS legacy app so I could keep all my old phone apps — mostly card games like Hearts and Spades and Bridge — and the continued sync of address book, notes, and appointments with Lotus Organizer and Lotus Notes. In addition, I prefer a physical keyboard over the touch screen interface, and the new Palm phone had a nice slide-out keyboard.

Of course, a new iPhone comes out each summer too, so I decided to wait for six months to see what would develop. Finally the WebOS phone was released and reviewed and the new iPhone (3Gs) was out too. After seeing what WebOS had and confirming its promise, but noting the lack of apps, I decided on the iPhone, mainly due to the very large number of apps already available. It turned out to be a very good decision because the WebOS phone never had more than a few hundred apps, Palm went broke, and WebOS was purchased by Hewlett-Packard. We are just now seeing WebOS based tablets from HP entering a market already crowded by the entrance of Microsoft’s latest phone OS.

No, it was a good call going with the iPhone and last year’s iPhone 4 further upped the ante, not to mention the overwhelming success of the iPad which shares the iOS operating system. Although competent competition did appear in the form of the hundred variations of the Google Android OS, and Android developed a large apps catalog too, albeit always a step behind the iPhone offerings in number and quality. However, the Android simply lacked the polish of the Apple design. As an engineer I was very conscious of the difference between the two phones and the spec-man-ship of the Android designs. No, I’ll stick with the iPhone thank you very much. That decision was further validated by the misadventures of Linda’s cousin who inadvisably switched from iPhone to Android to her continued aggravation and chagrin. Her continuing experiences of the short comings of Android phones reassure me of the wisdom of my choice.

When I chose the iPhone, AT&T was the only carrier available. And, as I said earlier, Mark had a new phone that made it expensive to drop Sprint. So I left Linda and Mark on Sprint, and I went over to AT&T to get the iPhone. On Sprint, with the 25% IBM discount, I was paying about $100 for three phones, one with unlimited data service and one with limited data and texting. Linda’s phone is plain vanilla. After dropping the Sprint plan from 3 phones to 2, the bill only dropped to $90 a month. In other words, I was getting my Treo for $10 a month, and that included unlimited (although not highly used due to the limitations of the browser on Palm) data.

And what did it cost me for the iPhone on AT&T? Well, there was an IBM discount of 23% and, at that time, data was unlimited (and still is — this grandfather is grandfathered), so I paid $65. I later added limited texting and today I’m paying a little less than $70 a month.

So, what is the problem? Well, it is Sprint. You’ve heard Verizon brag about having better coverage than AT&T. Well no-one even bothers to compare to Sprint. Their coverage simply sucks. It is actually worse now than it was a few years ago. When we were in Alaska — no Sprint. Oh, downtown Anchorage, downtown Fairbanks, that’s about all. AT&T is pretty well covered in Alaska. Of course, no-one has coverage on the long drives between cities, but the cities are covered. In fact, AT&T has better coverage than Verizon in Alaska. Plus, on the trip back through Canada, I had coverage. After all, AT&T is a true international phone and works in Europe and elsewhere. Verizon can’t do that. I did have to add a plan while in Canada and minutes weren’t free even then and no data, but the phone did work if needed.

Once we got to Montana, Sprint continued to disappoint. Even in Bozeman where Sprint had worked before — no joy. Linda called Sprint and complained. They said they only had one tower in Bozeman — WHAT — ONE TOWER!! And it was having technical difficulties.

So, when we got home, I began exploring other cell phone alternatives. First, we had completed the two year contract on Mark’s new phone and Linda’s phone is ancient. Plus, I’ve been on AT&T for over two years and I’m looking for a new iPhone. Sadly the iPhone 5 isn’t here yet, but I can wait. Plus Verizon (and Sprint as far as that goes) are ahead of AT&T in 4G phones although, sadly, the latest iPhone is only 3G and the iPhone 5 is rumored to not fix that issue — wait for iPhone 6.

Plus, Verizon now has iPhones. So I started checking out alternatives. First concern was keeping my IBM discount. I am a retired IBMer after all, they must have discounts. Well, they do. They get a 25% discount with Sprint!! No retiree discount with AT&T or Verizon. I’m amazed at Sprint. They are the only carrier still offering unlimited (truly, actually, really unlimited) data and they give the discount to retired IBMers. When you are number two (remember Avis), you have to try harder. And, trust me, Sprint is truly NUMBER TWO!

Now I still have my AT&T discount. It appears that, as long as I don’t discontinue AT&T, I can keep the discount. But I wanted to get all three of us back on one plan. That could conceivably save me $60-$70 a month. So I went to the IBM discount web site I had used before. Guess how that works. You have to enter your email address for confirmation. Good old doesn’t work any more. (I retired — remember?) And when I entered my current email the web site said “not supported domain.” So I can’t get the email to authorize the discount since I don’t have an IBM email address any longer. (Wouldn’t it be easy if IBM had let me keep my email there?) ((And isn’t that an easy way for these cell phone companies to confirm you work somewhere — you have to have an email at the company domain.))

Plus, Verizon is expensive. It would be $120 for just Linda and Mark — no discount — plus another $30 for a LIMITED data plan. (Mark wants an iPhone too.) If I switch us all to Verizon, it will cost about as much as I’m paying now on two carriers — maybe more and for LIMITED DATA!

(There are cheaper plans, but we consume a lot of minutes and a fair number of texts. So I’m comparing 1400 shared minute plans. AT&T’s rollover minutes are nice since they smooth out the peaks and valleys of the monthly usage variations and would let me buy a lower monthly minute package since I would be dealing with average usage, not peak.)

What I may have to do is switch Mark and Linda to AT&T. That’s not a bad option. Although Verizon coverage, especially in the scarcely populated western states, is better than AT&T, the coverage on my current plan continues to improve and is international. Plus the iPhone on AT&T has unlimited data (for me anyway) and I get the big discount.  AT&T is adding 4G in the near future and is purchasing T-Mobile who actually has the largest and fasted 4G in the country.

I was offered a chance to remain at work as a consultant. (I had a very high level job, and they could not replace me.) It would have included some perks such as continued email. I chose not to accept that offer because it was time for me to move on to new areas and I didn’t really want to remain in my old job even as a part-time consultant. Too many skeletons in the closet — time for a clean break. Still, it would be nice to have that big discount available to me at Verizon.

(Actually the offer to remain as a consultant was from InfoPrint, a Ricoh company. That is who I worked for the last four years. But InfoPrint gets the same discounts too since they used to be IBM.)

I have to be careful because monthly bills can really add up. I’m already paying for Netflix,, the athletic club, Weight Watchers, and half a dozen other web sites or organizations that ping me every few months. I also subscribe to various magazines, on-line ‘zines, and web sites. Plus I’m looking at Tivo and Hulu as additional subscriptions. I did save a ton of money combining my internet, cable, and land line telephone to one provider, but you can get nickel and dime’d to death with too many monthly subscriptions and utility bills.

So I continue to search for a cell phone family solution. I’m not in a hurry. We’re back in CO and Sprint is working for Linda and Mark, the new iPhone is due out soon, and AT&T continues to improve. The latest PC Magazine cell phone data report showed AT&T with the fastest 3G system in the country (but not as fast as 4G) and showed 4G is still suffering from growing pains. So I will take a “go slow” view here and continue to consider my options, both the pros and cons of each.

The key issues are coverage (reliable coverage) and cost. Beyond that the various cell phone carriers are pretty similar. I assume some are better or worse at billing, support, and other peripheral issues, but those characteristics are less important to me and usually only apparent after the fact.

Coverage is a little complicated since it includes Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) as well as broadband coverage which can be 2G, 3G, and now 4G. Perhaps the biggest issue with a cell phone coverage is simply POTS. That is the coverage you most desire and it is in that area that Verizon does so well in the western states that matter most to me. AT&T also struggles in big cities due to demand, but this problem was primarily triggered by the experience with Sprint in Bozeman, Montana where there was only a single Sprint cell tower for the whole city.

When I make these kinds of technical or engineering (or economic) decisions, I like to use a little technique called “PIN” for “Positive,” “Negative,” and “Interesting.”


Best coverage
Moving quickly into 4G
Free calling to my family on Verizon
Can identify additional “friends” to call free — therefore may not require as many minutes

No IBM discount
Little coverage in Alaska
Verizon iPhone currently lacks some features on AT&T iPhone
Not currently a customer

Never had a Verizon phone and would like to explore coverage
LTE may be best “bridge” to true 4G  (AT&T will have LTE too after merger with T-Mobile)


On plan currently with IBM discount — likely I could add more lines and keep discount
Good coverage in Alaska
Best 3G data coverage and speed
AT&T iPhone has more functions than Verizon iPhone
Roll-over minutes means I might get less total minutes — only have to allow for average use, not peak usage

Poor coverage in Montana and even in parts of Longmont
Weak 4G

Merger with T-Mobile may change 4G situation
Can be used internationally since technology is compatible with European standards


Most Interesting
Really would be very foolish to switch from an iPhone to any other kind of phone. No other smart phone comes close to the Apple experience and quality of the iPhone, not to mention the gigantic apps availability.

And, of course, the new iPhone 5 will be a pleasant upgrade for me (and it is rumored for later this year — Apple missed the usual June/July version update, likely due to the Verizon model released in Feb.) The rumor mill also reports that the iPhone 5 won’t be 4G either, and 4G won’t be available until iPhone 6 in 2012.

So I wait patiently and consider my options — the pros and cons.

Originally written August 14, 2011.

I finally decided on AT&T, moving both Linda and Mark over. Mark got an iPhone and Linda got a nice phone with a slide out keyboard so she can now text. I'm waiting for the iPhone 5, which was just released, and will replace my 3Gs soon. So all is well that ended well. I'm still with AT&T and get a 23% discount. I get unlimited data, but Mark has a limited data plan. We'll see how long my unlimited data lasts.

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