How to Make Your Dumb Phone Smart

Categories: Technology

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As of last autumn, more than half of the people with a mobile phone in this country use a smartphone. By August of next year, smartphone users are expected to make up 80 percent of the market. The writing is on the wall in an extremely legible typeface: Those of you pathetic luddites still trudging your sorry way through life with a non-smartphone, with a goddamn dumb phone, you guys are on the losing side of history, and you're destined for the same scrap heap as your lame, embarrassing phones that you can't even use to read the news or track your stocks or check if the L train is running properly.

That's certainly the message of the gadget-cult evangelists, for whom the planned obsolescence of modern technology is a feature rather than a bug. But not everyone is convinced that the only people who deserve mobile access to information are the ones willing to drop hundreds of dollars on a new iPhone. The developers of the Dumb Store, for example, are working to make dumb phones smart.

The Dumb Store is a project that allows people to access a variety of information usually reserved for those with smartphones using nothing but the voice and text capabilities of a humbler dumb-phone. Text "weather" and your zip code or city and state to 646-666-3536, and the Dumb Store will text back to let you know if you need a sweater or a raincoat. You can also convert currency, read Google News headlines, check the most recent tweets, and, thanks to Is The L Train Fucked, learn whether the L train is fucked, all via text or telephone call.

"With all the stuff we can do in the Internet, why can't we make all these Internet things available to everyone?" says Allison Burtch, a graduate student at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, who developed the Dumb Store along with Ramsey Nasser. "I think that everyone should be able to access information that they need, and that shouldn't be dependent on whether they have a smartphone or limited access to the internet."

There was a time when the rulers of the universe actually provided some of the functionality the Dumb Store is trying to restore. You could text Google for directions or calendar appointments. But the "Don't Be Evil" empire, now in the smartphone business itself, yanked that service earlier this month, provoking plaintive yowls from those who had come to rely on it.

Burtch and Nasser are hoping to replace and expand on the old SMS functionalities Google shuttered, preserving the utility and lifetime of perfectly good phones. "This is kind of a resistance to the planned obsolescence of devices," Burtch says.

The Dumb Store is open to any developer who wants to add a new capability, and already volunteers have added new apps. Burtch says a big one is in the pipeline as well: an app that lets you call in and have your e-mails read to you.

[npinto@villagevoice.com] [@macfathom]

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