Withdrawing from the addictive iPhone

The world's hottest cell phone was a guide, a tool, but mostly a diversion

The iPhone is out of my life. I won't get into the messy details, except to say it wasn't Apple's or AT&T's fault.

I didn't part with the phone by choice, either. But after about a week of living without it, I'm feeling the pain. It's a small itch, but very persistent.

There are features I've really wish I had, such as the Google Maps with location. I'm in Las Vegas this week for CTIA Wireless, the big annual wireless show.

There are events all over the place, and it would have been helpful to know where I was going. Last night I had to ask a waiter how to get to the hotel where my next event was taking place. I hadn't done anything like that since... right before Apple added the location feature to Google Maps. It should have been a simple matter of pulling out my phone, hitting the "find me" button, and searching for the hotel I was looking for.

Another thing I really miss sometimes is the traffic view in Google Maps. Hit one button and it will show you where the traffic jams are, with color-coding (green, yellow, red) for all the major freeways.

Right before starting the car (OK, sometimes while driving), I could actually see where traffic would be heavy. This was something I'd really dreamed about having before I ever got it. I must be a visual thinker, because I've never liked trying to follow a narrative by a traffic reporter on the radio.

There's a lot of hype about the App Store and the thousands of applications there, but though I downloaded more than a dozen, most sat idle on the gorgeous home screen. Apparently, I'm like most people, according to a study by Pinch Media.

Looking at actual usage data from iPhones, they found out that only 1 percent of people who download an application become long-term users of it. For me, Smule's Ocarina was fascinating in concept, but I never bothered to learn to play it. Camera Bag was fun, but it involved using the bare-bones and sometimes balky iPhone camera. The only application that became an addition was a free mahjong solitaire game.

No, my true addiction was the mobile Web. I'm not talking about the useful parts, such as the application that told me when the next bus was coming, though not having that reshapes my day a bit sometimes.

What keeps me reaching for my iPhone like a phantom limb is just the diversion of something new to look at during the innumerable downtimes of my day. I'd incessantly read blogs, check my e-mail, look at my Facebook page, and read something we used to call "newspapers".

Any and all were perfect for waiting for the bus, riding public transportation, or just waiting for another computer - the one on my desk - to get started.

In just over a year, it became instinct, even though the speed and coverage of AT&T's EDGE network were frequently slow to the point of aggravation. Now when I'm waiting, I just ... wait.

For help with these withdrawals, I turned to Roger Kay of Endpoint Technologies Associates, a technology analyst who's been opining on the latest gadgets for years. I was shocked at what he told me.

"I personally have always been very cautious about new technology adoption," Kay said. "I think of off-grid as being important."

It turns out that Kay uses all sorts of new technology, but he just does that to find out what it can do. On his free time, he does other things. So, Kay's no addict. But then he said something that really hit home.

"There's something about being huddled over this little device that bothers me," Kay said.

That was me, all right. Huddled over a tiny device. But certainly not alone.

On the beautifully restored antique streetcars of San Francisco, there are row after row of passengers with their heads down and their faces bathed in the glow of the iPhone -- or the BlackBerry, or Samsung Instinct, or for the really technologically hip, the T-Mobile G1.

Part of what compels all those hunched-over people is that they're both creating and consuming the pool of information into which they're staring. "We're all cells of a collective being," Kay said.

There's a certain science-fiction drama to my current agony if I think of it as being cut off from the lifeblood of a connected society. Still, I'm going to try being unconnected for a while.

I'm using a cheap, antiquated, unlocked phone and reading books - the kind made of paper - in my spare time. At least until something better comes along.

"You can have a new love after the iPhone," Kay said.

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Stephen Lawson

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