What tomorrow's phones really need: smarter Wi-Fi

Mobile broadband is still pricey and has its limits. So why don't phones do a better job at switching to Wi-Fi?

Stacey Higginbotham at GigaOM nails one of the major divides in the mobile scene today: the distance between what carriers want us to think about their mobile web offerings (“Watch live sports while you’re on the train!”) and the kinds of caps and pricing they have to offer (“We’re talking at least $50 for you to watch two Netflix movies per month on your phone”). Higginbotham suggests that phone makers and carriers need to make Wi-Fi a lot easier to hook up and switch over to when it comes time to do some heavy downloading, video streaming, and other data-intensive activities. I couldn’t agree more.

Here are the problems with how modern phones connect to Wi-Fi, as I see them:

It’s not always apparent Wi-Fi is available

I’ve been given the phones of quite a few new Android phone owners, and almost every time, I end up turning on their Wi-Fi for the first time, and showing them how they can pick a network, connect to it, and save the password for later use. Some Android phones start up with Wi-Fi enabled, some don’t, and even when Wi-Fi is on and letting users know that “Wi-Fi networks are available,” many smartphone buyers have been sold on the idea that their phone can connect to the web wherever they are, no matter what.

On iPhones, it’s almost the reverse problem--a pop-up “Wi-Fi is available” notification that existed until the most recent version was so annoying that most owners disabled it. But why, in any case, would phone owners avoid connecting to a network that was faster and more reliable? That leads to my next gripe:

It’s a pain to enter Wi-Fi passwords

We’ve all been told to make our home Wi-Fi passwords very secure, and most broadband cable installers now place impossible-to-remember passwords on Wi-Fi routers by default. So it’s usually a memorable pain to hook up all the laptops and streaming devices and other gadgets in a house with the home router. Adding a phone, and your spouse’s phone, and your friends’ phones when they’re over is something you won’t be eager to do. Add in your office, a few coffee shops and stores that have clever Wi-Fi codes, and the fatigue of trying to use Wi-Fi is palpable.

But Wi-Fi is just a lot more reliable for the kinds of things that phone carriers advertise: watching streaming video and music, downloading big games whenever the urge strikes, and using connectivity apps like Skype. Wi-Fi almost always saves battery life compared to 3G/4G connections, and saves customers from striking near their bandwidth caps. You’d think carriers would love the idea of customers giving their networks a break and demand better Wi-Fi access in smartphones, but what they really want is customers paying more for bigger data caps.

There are apps that try to automate the Wi-Fi password process, and, theoretically, Google should sync your Wi-Fi passwords between all your Android devices. But what’s really needed is a Dropbox-like service for Wi-Fi: an app that runs on every platform, Windows/Mac/Linux and iOS/Android/Windows/BlackBerry, that automatically connects you to Wi-Fi networks you know on any device you’re carrying.

Wi-Fi can be annoying when there’s a weak connection

This is the more complicated, engineering-based solution to at least one downfall of Wi-Fi: it’s a pain in the rear when it doesn’t switch off cleanly. When you connect to a Wi-Fi signal at home or in a public space, all is well. But as you walk or ride away from that space, your phone will often keep a connection active, or at least report a connection, for a long time and distance after you leave. So as it tries to check for new messages, pull up the directions you need, or do anything on the web, it tries to do it through Wi-Fi, and it comes up short, because you’re no longer in a usable range. Sometimes this is due to the Wi-Fi spot having a wide-reaching but weak signal; sometimes it’s just your phone taking a long time to realize its connection is dead.

Whatever is to blame, it drives me nuts, and it makes me switch off Wi-Fi as I’m leaving certain places. It’s emblematic of the little things that could be improved to make Wi-Fi a natural part of the smartphone experience, and which could help carriers and customers reach some sane middle ground on pricing and usage.

Image by Victor Hertz (available as a print).

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