Doctor, can I please have internet access?

Tony Williams
6 January, 2009
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I’m a chronic asthmatic.

I tell you this not to evoke sympathy but to explain why I found myself stuck in John Hunter Hospital over Christmas with a computer but no internet access. Early on the 23rd I was carted off wheezing and groaning, closely followed by my partner carrying a few books, notepad and pen, iPhone, iPod and headphones, DVDs, a few assorted cables and my little black MacBook; otherwise known as ‘basic survival equipment’.

When you find yourself in a public hospital, and with asthma you don’t want a private one, the biggest problem you have is noise and boredom. Since they will charge you money to use their tiny television with the useless cheap earbud (and a non-standard socket so your expensive, comfortable quality headphones can’t be used) you are better off with a stack of DVDs and a computer to play them on. Not to mention  the computer can play games, allow you a little hacking on your latest code, even tinker with the design of your website if you have a copy on your laptop.

The one thing it can’t do is connect you to the internet. If you are prepared to hassle a little you can get a phone by your bed and with a little more hassling make calls on it, but for reasons known only to Telstra and Hunter New England Health it won’t support a dial up modem. I have no idea what arcane tricks they are doing to that phone line but nothing would get the modem to work. I suspect something in the system to support the billing. Of course the network port next to your bed won’t provide a connection as the laptop is unknown to the DHCP server and so remains without an IP address.

Luckily I have my iPhone and Optus, who have yet to realise they might want good reception to their target market at the University of Newcastle, have given good mobile phone coverage to John Hunter Hospital where the signs telling you not to use your mobile phone are universally ignored. Just in case you are wondering, the last survey of medical equipment and mobiles I saw (only this week) said that less than 2% were affected by mobile phone signals, almost never to a medically significant level and only when the phone was being used less than a metre from the device. All the affected devices were more than a few years old though, so incredibly likely in an Australian public hospital.

So the only internet access I had was my iPhone. Since I haven’t jailbroken it I don’t have ‘tethering’ to use it as modem for my Mac. All of a sudden I was forced to use a web browser unadorned with all my usual frills. I’m a Firefox user and I have a number of add-ons installed; Better GMail, Delicious, It’s All Text, Ubiquity and Greasemonkey are the most vital – particularly Greasemonkey. All, of course, disappear in Mobile Safari.

It was certainly not a terrible experience, much better than using a browser on any other phone I’ve tried. At the moment I’m addicted to playing Travian, a browser based massively mutiplayer real time strategy game and I was surprised how easy it was to play on the iPhone. (Check it out, you can play it for free or buy “gold” for a slight advantage. Great fun, it allows me to act like a real barbarian pillaging everyone in my area of the world to fuel my growth.) 

Since I had a Mac with me I could use AirSharing to get files from the Mac to the iPhone, but there is no way to send a file via email, or at least none I could find. I can’t open files in the web browser either. I ended up having to type an entire article for another website into the GMail web interface. Fortunately that meant I could use the landscape keyboard and GMail autosaved my email into Drafts for me.

So after that experience I’ve got a few requests for Apple. First, and foremost, could we tether our Macs? I don’t often need to connect a Mac while on the road but when I do it is usually critical. Next, could we have a tiny application that allows us to use the landscape keyboard and hold the text on a clipboard till we need it in another application. Copy and paste would be even nicer but I’d settle for just a clipboard and an editor for it. There is a useful little app called “EasyWriter” that allows you to use the wider keyboard and then send the text to “Mail” but I’d like it in such places as Evernote. Improvements to Mobile Safari such as a way to open a file in the browser would be good.

While I’m wishing, will someone write a nice toy language for the iPhone. Just the turtle graphics part of Logo would do, I enjoyed sitting with my Palm and hacking away at that immensely, I even have a nice Logo on the Mac that gets a workout every so often. There is E-Laboratory which allows you to program a simulated microprocessor board which is somewhat fun but I’m afraid the time is past where I’m happy in assembler; C programming is about as low as I ever want to go nowadays.

In the meantime I’m off to my local Optus store to see if they can bundle a pay as you go mobile broadband card onto my current iPhone contract. I expect the next time you hear from me my wallet will be considerably lighter, but I’m not getting stuck without internet access again.

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