i-72eebff1c3030133d3a7ca1bd7d13b7f-Clyde Bentley.jpg
Clyde Bentley

Mark Glaser is away on vacation this week, but we’re happy to have Clyde Bentley filling in as a special guest blogger. Bentley is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Missouri. Bentley helped start the MyMissourian grassroots journalism hub, and teaches students how to incorporate interactivity into their journalism. His research team hosts its own blog, The Cyberbrains . Glaser will return to the blog next Monday.

An AP technology story out of Japan hit home week. It detailed how young folk in Asia are abandoning the PC by the drove.

I’m almost with them. Young Japanese like Masaya Igarashi want gaming toys, music players — and “computers” that fit in their pockets. I’m convinced we are all heading that way.

Twice in the past year I have had a powerful computer riding in my jeans via loaner smartphones from Nokia. But unlike Masaya and friends, I was looking for a portable newsroom rather than a miniature dorm room. And we are nearly there.

I first wrote about what I call pocket journalism for Online Journalism Review last December after spending the fall in London with the N93 smart phone. But I first fell in love with them on a 2006 trip to Seoul, where I found many of my journalist colleagues leaving the laptop behind with supreme confidence.

This fall I had the chance to test Nokia’s new wonder, the N95. To say I was bowled over is an understatement. But there is no getting around the fact that I was also disappointed.i-275b24305830e49daf02f5ffb1d6fde9-phone1.jpg

The techies at the Missouri School of Journalism joke that I can break any piece of equipment they hand me. But that’s often because I go out of my way to try. I believe that one of the roles of a major journalism school is to give both hardware and software tough and realistic tests. I’m not very interested in gadgets designed for consumers. I want to know how they will stand up to a working journalist. That’s why I passed on the iPhone. While it is elegant, simple and cool beyond belief, it is basically a “player” in the genre of a TV set, radio or a printed page.

The new smart phones out of Scandinavia and Asia, however, are full-bore computers. I was amazed at both the N93 and N95. Every time I was about to exclaim “gotcha!,” I was able to dig through the tome-like user manual for an answer. Calling home is just a minor feature of these smartphones. Both had WiFi, the Office suite and access to a good selection of Symbian OS software. And FM radios. And MP3/MP4 players. OK, even GPS navigators and barcode scanners.

I was first attracted to the phones, however, by their cameras. The older N93 is a big honker as phones go, but it has a powerful optical zoom lens for its 3.15 megapixel still and VGA camera. The N95 has a 5 megapixel camera, but only a digital zoom. That makes the resolution about even when you zoom to 20 feet. And you can edit the heck out of the results with the included software.

Pretty slick if you are a tourist, but the addition of one accessory made it a portable office. Think Outside makes a full-size Stowaway keyboard that connected to the phone via Bluetooth and folded into a wallet-sized rectangle that fit into my back pocket. i-f12d4786e26ed33a26e655a04f200ddc-phone2.jpg

The Fragility of Pocket Journalism

I have since waxed poetic about pocket journalism to professionals and academics alike. Both phones produced publishable photos and videos, though the still photos were noticeably better with the N93. In Europe, one can be online anywhere via fast G3 cell links. In the U.S. you can fake it on EDGE. But in both places I could go to a coffee shop, whip out the phone and keyboard and use WiFi to write, edit and file stories, photos and video. Then I could put both in my pockets and walk away without my badge-like briefcase.

That all went well until I ramped up the test in Mizzou’s real-life news operation. Journalism doesn’t play fair. It requires you to work in ungodly conditions, be able to grab a quote or an image in an instant and communicate at the drop of a hat.

I found that to effectively replace a laptop with the current crop of smartphones, a journalist needs the eyes of a 20-year old, the fingertips of an elf and the tenderness of a surgeon. Tiny is tiny, no matter how you look at it. I couldn’t get the knack of quickly switching to audio recorder, photographing a poorly-lit subject on the go and texting the office while walking out of the meeting.

But it was my lack of tenderness that did in the N95. Recalling the many times I’ve scrambled to an accident scene, I dropped the Nokia into my pocket and stumbled down the hill to the fishing hole behind my house. By the time I reached the bottom, the screen on the phone was shattered.

Unprotected large LCD phones don’t stand up well to the front-pocket flex of deep-knee clambering. I nearly cried when I saw what had happened to the N95 – though I was delighted to find it still worked well enough to film the bass I caught.

With all my heart I want a fancy smartphone. The hell of it is that journalists don’t need the wonderfully stylish technology we all write about. We need basic tools that will stand up to regular abuse. I think the N93 would have survived my hike because it is a thick flip phone. But no flat-faced phone should be carried outside of a suit pocket or a purse. Especially if it costs $800 or more.

I’m still confident that, like those Japanese teens, our computing future is pocket-sized. But journalists will need fast, Hummer-tough units accessible to 50-something eyes and fingers. There is not much of a market for that yet. But just as Panasonic finally introduced a laptop that will take a drop from a pressbox table, it is only a matter of time before the smartphone makers will give us a unit that survive Clyde the Breaker.

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