Friday Aug 01, 2008

Deconstructing My Cell Phone

I suffer from information sprawl in a bad way. Partly this is due to loving paper notes, partly due to the proliferation of devices in tow, partly due to just not having the incentive to consolidate and clean up. My address book is a virtual data center in miniature: a little bit of everything, on every device, with every known format, operating system and application. Yes, there are even some text files that I search with grep. I've managed to combine most sticky notes, back of envelope notes, and electronic formats into a Mac OS address book, but the last frontier in data clean up remained the most formidable: my cell's phone book.

Truth be told, there's a backstory: My wife and I need new cell phones. Mine is so abused that the LCD screen has burn-in of my wallpaper and I've worn the finish off of the hinge areas. We had decided to take advantage of the fact that we have common calendar, address book and email info by getting iPhones, and were even ready to pull the proverbial trigger until my wife asked how I was planning on moving her LG VX8300 phone address book to the iPhone.

7-11 moment: Big gulp. This is the moment when I should have realized that deciding to do this electronically would lead to several hours of playing with device drivers, scripts and freeware, and the smarter answer would have been "I'll retype them manually." But that would have removed the nerdly fun. And it wouldn't have given me the satisfaction of being able to tell my current cellular carrier "No, thanks, I don't want to pay $75 to have you transfer my phone info to another of your phones." The challenge, then: extract phone book and picture data from two phones for less than $75 and before the weekend.

Plug the puppy in. Maybe this is a derivative of spending way too much time pretending to be a sound man, or buying useless cables at Radio Shack, but my first step was to buy the right USB cable to at least see the device from something with a keyboard and an operating system. First (and only) expenditure: USB Data Cable for the LG VX-8300. Under $20 with shipping.

Get the drivers. I'll admit the truth: I do most of this experimentation on an old Windows machine because I can always reload it when (not if) something goes pear-shaped and I roach my test bed. Found the drivers for the LG phone in a number of places ( this is an interesting index of available USB drivers); got the PC to see the phone on the first shot, which is far better than my experience with, say, most HP printers.

Extract the goodies. I downloaded bitpim to browse the phone's internals. Initial install of bitpim produced nothing, so I reverted to watching it fail in command line mode, installing a missing C library DLL and then making sure I had a functional python environment. Total time spent making freeware do my evil bidding: about half an hour. And with much better net net results than Randall Munroe would imply.

Inside of an hour, I had all of the phonebook entries off of my phone (about 170) and my wife's phone (almost 500), converted to CSV files and imported into our respective Mac OS address books. Now I can go back to the originally planned manual edit and cleanup, but I'm vindicated in thinking that I could save a few hours (and tedium-induced errors) with the right kit. There's a deeper, more ponderous issue here: who really owns the data on your cell phone -- you or your carrier? If it's impossible to extract the data and convert it, electronically, into another format, then effectively your carrier owns your phone book. Issues of data ownership are what got Scoble booted from Facebook, and are likely to pop up in increasing numbers as we try to move our personal pointers (and that's what phone numbers and friend information and "links" are, all due respect to entry level programming instructors who say "pointers are like phone numbers") between data realms.


Hal Stern's thoughts on software, services, cloud computing, security, privacy, and data management


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