The Bug-Repelling Cordless Telephone

Note: I wrote this a few month ago, even before my article about the terrible GUI I'd previously worked on.

Every engineer has been involved in a project that involves WTF moments. I read a lot of these engineering "war stories" on the Internet from experienced engineers. I always find them entertaining. Most of them involve WTF problem fixes, WTF designing, and WTF management (I feel like I already have my fair share of these stories.), but in my experience the biggest WTF group seems to be marketing.

I try not to mention companies or people by name on my blog. Other sites say at least the company, but most of these sites are telling stories from decades ago. My stories are more recent, so I'd like to keep everything nice and anonymous. Vague details have been artificially fleshed out for anonymity while preserving substance. I swear that I really do think like how I describe the meeting; my brain seems to run a fantasy daemon process that I can't kill -9.

Years ago, I worked for a big-name consumer electronics corporation which I'll call Initech because of the similarities in morale. I worked in a position that I can accurately call "telephone lab bitch." My colleague, now named Brandon, and I were assigned to any crap work that could be though up for the telephone development department. Although we tried to make games out of it, the job was still excruciatingly boring. An hour felt like a full day. One day, a coworker who I'll call Andy came in with a new assignment that he said would involve creativity. Bored out of our skulls, we jumped at the opportunity to get out of a rut.

Andy summarized the situation. The phone division was divided into three departments: business phones, home phones, and fax machines. Although business phones and fax machines were still being sold to commercial customers, home phone sales were down. Everyone has a cell phone; few young people buy a home phone. Initech wanted to find a new sales gimmick to add to a new line of cordless phones to separate it from all the other (cheaper) phones. Being the youngest in the division, Brandon and I were summoned to one of the meetings to give our opinions.

Management had spent a couple of weeks with marketing developing ideas. Andy had these written in his notebook. The idea was that Andy would present each idea one by one and write it on the whiteboard. Brandon and I would say our opinions, and Andy would copy them down. After compiling everything, Andy would give it all to management to make the final decision, and marketing would start putting together an ad campaign. After reaching the second idea, the meeting went about as smoothly as the S. S. Minnow's three-hour tour.

SS Minnow
No one saw the storm brewing.

The first suggestion was for a built-in phone book. Brandon and I waited a little bit for an elaboration that never came. I looked around and noticed one of the managers smiling. Oh! I thought to myself, They're just testing us. I laughed a little. "OK. What about it?"

I got blank stares.

Machiavelli the Prince - Den of Iniquity

Andy stammered. "The idea is to add one to the new phones."

I looked around the room again. Everyone's eyes were on me. Brandon looked around. We traded a look of confusion. Brandon looked over to Andy. "That's already on every phone on the market, including ours. That's even a major section of the QA (quality assurance) checklist."

Andy looked a little surprised. "Oh," he uttered before erasing the idea from the whiteboard.

The manager's face melted from a smirk to a frown. My original though was that he was in on a trick. Now, I guessed that we just destroyed his idea.

Brandon and I looked at each other with panic and despair. This wouldn't end well. This wouldn't end well at all.

Obi Wan - Disturbance in the Force
"I felt a great disturbance in the Force..."

The second suggestion involved Bluetooth. I always thought Bluetooth headsets were a mildly irritating. Working in a phone department required me to test tons of Bluetooth headsets with every Bluetooth-capable phone Initech made.

This job conditioned my response to Bluetooth headsets. I once saw a random person in a movie theater wearing one. The headset brightly pulsed as if it was trying to open a portal to an Azure Hell on the side of the man's head. The next thing I remember, I woke up on a roadside somewhere in Georgia in a car that wasn't mine with a shovel and dirt on my shoes. I can only assume the headset hypnotized me into buying a shovel for it, and the headset lent me a car to fetch said shovel.

"Add Bluetooth capability to the handset," Andy read. My mood instantly dropped from confusion to pissed. I may have snarled; I don't remember. Brandon grinned. While I may have ripped the batteries out of every Bluetooth headset we had when it wasn't in use, Brandon would pair them all to one phone line and call it as I entered the lab. It wasn't his fault. Torture was the only way we knew to pass the time.

"Why!?" I replied with more disgust than warranted.

An Italian sales droid who I'll name Giuseppe for this story put down his clipboard, freeing his hands so he could speak. "We think that would be a marketable feature."

My eyes narrowed as I disabled the CPU throttling daemon in my brain. So this is the way it was going to be. You want to debate me about my own age demographic? Fine, but I'm attacking you with all of the logic I have.

"I thought you were targeting the 18-25 age range," I said, readying my hand over my metaphorical 6-shooter at this duel.

"We are," Giuseppe bluntly replied, squaring his shoulders as his fingers danced over his holster.

Kirby Quick Draw

Everyone looked on in fear and intrigue. A gentle breeze kicked sand up around our feet. Crows cawed in the distance. The old clock tower was about to strike high noon. It was time. One of us better have made his peace with God.


I drew my gunmetal gray pistol. "Have you ever seen anyone on the street wearing a Bluetooth headset that wasn't either in a suit, wearing a fanny pack, or under 40?"

"Maybe they're not 'hip' or 'cool,' but we feel that kids are probably using Bluetooth at home. It's much more convenient than a hand-held phone," Giuseppe retorted, drawing his bullshit brown pistol.

"They don't even talk at all! Everyone texts!" I pointed my gun.

"Only cell phones text," he replied smugly, starting to squeeze the trigger before the barrel was completely horizontal.

Fuck it. I got time. I took aim. "Do you have a kid?"

"Yes." His mannerism became uneasy. His shot was going to go wide.

I pulled the trigger. "Do they use Bluetooth?"


Scanners Head Explosion

I never questioned why I didn't get along with those above me in the corporate hierarchy. I already knew the answer.

I managed to calm myself during the next few ideas. The rest of the ideas kind of fell into two categories. The first category was filled with ideas that were already commonly seen on phones that are already on the market, such as the phone book. The rest were features that no one would ever use. Brandon and I did just give input for compiling anymore, though. Now each point was debated. I don't quite understand why.  Even if they justified their points, that still wouldn't make the phone sell.

But, there was one suggestion that stood out from the rest. The final suggestion was such a WTF to me that it has been etched into my memory for all of time: put bug-repellent in the handset.

Phone Bug Zapper
Whoever created this image may have worked at Initech with me.
(Image source)

"What!?" Brandon and I uttered simultaneously. At this point everyone was pretty frustrated. No one was smiling, so we couldn't look for clues as to who's amazing idea this was. It was a shame, too. I really wanted to know. I still do.

It was at this point that I saw Andy's facial reaction. He couldn't believe any of this crap, either. Andy worked in one of the other two groups, not in home phones. He was relatively young as well, so he was probably drafted to be a neutral arbitrator. He later confirmed this. He was getting mad, too, but we found out that he was mad at us. ("You couldn't just say that one idea was good?")

So this was their last stand. Brandon and I took our places behind the battlement of our fort, brandishing our flag that read "Your ideas suck!" On the other end of the clearing were two market droids and two managers, one of which was Brandon's and my boss, preparing siege weapons. You could see it in their eyes; by the end of this meeting, they will make us believe that putting bug repellent in a cordless phone handset is a great idea.

Defend Your Castle

Not-Giuseppe launched the first volley. "We have a study showing that people in the South like to go outside with their phones, but in early spring there are too many gnats and bugs."

Brandon and I had already missed our bus back home. Being hourly, I didn't really care. Brandon apparently did. Red faced in anger, he attempted to parry the siege by responding, "No."

Silly Brandon, you can't parry a siege. You can only, at most, block it. This response gave our opponents a morale boost. Come over here, guys! I found a crack in their wall! Andy actually bothered to write this one on the whiteboard, a practice he had give up long ago.

They fired a catapult at the crack. "That gives us an opportunity to sell refill cartridges, also!" the not-my-boss manager said with astonishment. They all started to squeal with delight over the thought of making more money.

The shock finally wore off, and inspiration hit me like Zeus's thunderbolt hit the catapult stone mid-flight. "We don't make bug repellent. Where are you getting it from?"

They looked at each other for an answer, attempting to regroup. My boss spoke, heralding to his minions a solution. "We can form a mutual partnership with Raid or one of their competitors."

"Raid!?" the good guys stammered. "I'm not putting Raid on my face," I said incredulously, "and Raid is a bug spray, not bug repellent."

They abandoned all hope of strategy and charged at the fort gate with all of their might. "Then what do you think we should do?"

Brandon and I thought for a minute. With an unsure look on my face I suggested, "We could but a bright white LED in the tip of the antenna to act as a flashlight." Brandon lightly chuckled to himself. I had just brought a whole bunch of LEDs, so everything I owned was starting to glow at night. I was bored a lot.

The four thought for a moment. After a fair bit of time, Andy erased the whiteboard and wrote "Flashlight." The not-my-boss manager's eyes opened wide and looked up. "The would cause RF interference," he said as their last catapult stone launched to clear their path.

"How? The LED is DC." The stone promptly vanished in a puff of logic.

"There's electricity in the antenna. That would disrupt the RF signal," my boss stated condescendingly. He used to be an electrical engineer before he was in management. He crashed through the gate that we had partially opened for him. He stood under the murder hole.

"DC isn't a harmonic of anything." His face showed that he realized he was wrong. I went for the coup de grace so I could go home. "Most of our antennas are hollow plastic, anyway."

I thought this would have ended the conversation. I was wrong. It caused an uproar. Somehow, I had lost credibility. I went to the lab and grabbed the base station I had been working on before the meeting and opened it. Sure enough, the plastic antenna was hollow. The real antenna was a short bit of solid wire sticking off of the PCB.

Defeated, they went for the catch-all anti-reason. "Well, a flashlight is just stupid."

"Another suggestion would be to actually make the phone actually work well."

Everyone was pissed and tired. They said that Brandon and I hadn't been taking this seriously, dismissing us and packing to leave. Brandon and I were equally irritated. We later found out they were trying to convince us because, if they hadn't, they had to spend another month developing new ideas. Sorry, guys.

As for the antenna, don't open your phone, look at the antenna, and assume the brand is the real Initech. Most phone manufacturers are guilty of this. There are so many placebo cases that I fully support this, too. You wouldn't believe the number of people who call to complain about their phone reception. We tell them to adjust their "antenna," and the customer typically thinks the reception is genuinely better. Oftentimes, the customer is outside of the phone's range, and walking toward it to fix the "antenna" fixes the problem.

This isn't true for 900 MHz phones, but it is for many 2.8 GHz phones and all 5.8 GHz phones that I've ever looked at. Initech did buy phones from other brands to do comparison tests, so I know firsthand that many brands do this. It's understandable when you look at the proper length of a quarter-wavelength whip antenna at these frequencies.

Equation 1

Plugging the frequencies into the last equation translates to:

%mytable%|Frequency|Antenna (cm.)|Antenna (in.)||---------|-------------|-------------||900 MHz |8.33 |3.28 ||2.8 GHz |2.68 |1.06 ||5.8 GHz |1.29 |0.51 |

The required length isn't long enough to even reach the antenna from the PCB inside the case on high-frequency models. This also doesn't account for oddly-shaped designed antennas that can be placed directly on the PCB as copper tracings.