Can’t We All Just Enjoy Our Tech?

Hey readers. This article is partly to explain why I haven’t written a lot lately and partly to get up on a soap box and talk about one of the biggest problems facing the tech industry today. Rabid fanboyism. As much as I will try to talk about this without sounding like a fanboy myself, the fact is that it is unavoidable. Since tech giants are trying and succeeding in locking users into their respective walled gardens, it seems unavoidable that people who loved their walled garden experience won’t be rabid about their enjoyment of it. Despite the fact that every single person is different in some way and will thus have different desires and usage patterns with their tech, it seems unreasonable to us that anyone else would choose a different product then we did. However, since we are social creatures, it is difficult to just enjoy our decisions. We have to seek verification with our peers, and when they disagree, we have to convert them. Kind of makes technology sound like religion, eh?

So all that is just to say that this write up will not be free from bias, nor is any write up ever made about any piece of technology ever free from bias. I will admit that I can be fanatical about my love of Windows Phone and I will honestly say that I give Windows 8 and Xbox much more of a chance in my personal life then they might deserve, at times, just because I want my personal choice of a walled garden to succeed. But my reasons for choosing Windows Phone are almost entirely aesthetic with a slight bit of practical. I love the quality of Lumia devices. I love the Nokia’s emphasis towards mobile cameras. I love the innovative way Windows Phone deals with camera apps (Lenses). I really want a smartphone experience that “just works” without me having to constantly tweak and change and edit. I love how fast and fluid Windows Phone 8 is. I loved the customization of Android but hated how much my rapid love of customization would inevitably lead to slow down. Windows Phone gives me a “just right” amount of customization. Nokia Music and Xbox Music are amazing and as a music fan, both these things are incredibly important.

I can go on and on, but unless you are me or are a Windows Phone fan, you don’t care why I like my phone. I understand that Windows Phone is not without faults, but the faults it has I am willing to live with because they are not super high priorities for me and many of them should be fixed in soon to come updates. iOS and Android are not without faults, but those that use the platforms accept the faults because they are not high priorities and they enjoy the benefits. But, like all other things, priorities, likes and dislikes are different for every person. Smartphones are very personal devices. They are constantly nestled in the pocket of our jeans, attached on our arms or clothing via a strap, or stuck between your touch-up makeup and wallet in a purse. They are also our primary way to stay connected to friends and family and sometimes to our careers. Smartphones are intensely personal and this is why every single comment board I’ve ever seen regarding any tech news always degrades into some sort of platform flame war. Like I said before, no article is ever unbiased and when our need for verification is not fulfilled but degraded, we lash out. It’s human nature.

But I just want people to be aware of this aspect of human nature and to try to restrict it. Unfortunately, tech blogs thrive on this kind of flame war. Divisive headlines will always lead to more page views as millions of well-meaning but vindictive readers jump onto the comments board to flame the writer and other commenters. But the writer doesn’t care. They’re laughing all the way to the bank with the ad revenue. I guarantee you that the kind of writer that will purposely post a divisive headline or an obvious biased article will not care one lick what you say about their writing. It is impossible to create an unbiased article, but you should support those that try and stop reading the articles of those that don’t.

The fact is, iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and even Blackberry 10, Firefox OS, Ubuntu Mobile, etc. are all amazing feats of software engineering. The fact that you can grab any of these phones and have a half way decent computing experience is amazing. Since there are expected to be almost 2 billion smartphones sold this year and the market is only growing, I think it’s rather important to have a rather large array of options. And with that many smartphones being sold, there is certainly room for there to be several viable platforms. Even if Android picks up 70% of the smartphone market, that still leaves 600 million smartphones to share and its not exactly like selling a 100 million units of anything is a bad thing. But it is a bad thing if you compare 200 million versus 1.4 billion. And that’s where the problem lies. Reviewers point out a new OS’s lack of maturity and constantly give good graces to the “established” platforms just by virtue of them being around for a few years longer. Buyers don’t buy into new platforms because they are afraid of a lack of support. Developer interest wanes and the platform never really gains support. Wall Street pushes down the stock value of publically traded companies because nobody buys it and developers aren’t interested. Company dies. Innovation and choice dies with it.

This is exactly what happened to Blackberry. Yes they were late. Android was late compared to iOS. It took Android almost 5 years before it became a truly mature platform. Honestly, it didn’t matter how good Blackberry 10 was. It’s the fear of not having “apps.” Many believe that my beloved Windows Phone is going in the same direction, and maybe it is. It’s still around because Microsoft is a slow moving company and once it’s dedicated time and resources, it won’t give up easily. It’s not that it’s not selling though, it’s just that it’s not selling like Android is. Every single time I see a Windows Phone device reviewed, there is a pointed remark about the “lack of apps.” Is there a lack of apps? Maybe for some people, but I haven’t found anything I wanted but couldn’t find. The reviewers never point out what’s missing and if they do, they point out apps that lack 1st party support but have a plethora of 3rd party support (No Instagram? There’s a half dozen 3rd party apps!) Maybe their favorite app isn’t on Windows Phone. Maybe they legitimately don’t like the OS and the only way he or she can quantify this is with a consistently repeated meme. But I feel that the size of a mobile OS’s store is never an acceptable form of criticism. Platforms take time to mature. The most egregious form of this that I’ve heard was in this article where the author mentioned Windows Phone 8 being an immature platform and explained that “It’s not even 3 years old, iOS has been around for nearly twice that long and Apple is adding new features every year and polishing old ones.” Okay. I don’t think Microsoft can speed up time. Another word for “immature” is young and another word for mature is “old.” The fact that Microsoft has had three updates to an OS they released last year (Windows Phone 8 is a completely different kernel than 7) where iOS has a yearly update cycle says volumes. Yes, mobile OS’s are being released all the time and they are all newer than Android and iOS, but just as Android and iOS weren’t built overnight, neither can anything else. There is also the fact that many platforms don’t even really focus on apps. iOS and Android are app launchers, so of course they have to have a lot of apps. Windows Phone and Blackberry have a lot of the functionality from Android and iOS’s apps built straight into the OS. Firefox OS is entirely based on webapps and HTML5, so arguably an app store is irrelevant. Whether a platform is “mature” or not is a ridiculous criticism because that is based on factors that have nothing to do with the companies that build the software. By labeling a platform as immature, tech bloggers are essentially shooting it in the foot and preventing new platforms from getting the traction they need. Tech bloggers have a lot of sway with their readers, and they should realize it. It is possible that reviewers have written off minority platforms and have decided to focus on what they’re interested in (Android or iPhone). As someone who writes a blog in his spare time, I can totally understand that it is literally impossible to have a constant and thorough understanding of every phone and platform. But don’t pretend to say that your cross platform review is unbiased when it clearly is not. Just as I am getting trapped in defending my platform of choice, once again, I’m sure many other tech writers will absent-mindedly do the same.

When doing a review and comparison, it’s very alluring to compare specificatoins. Specs sometimes matter when comparing Android phones because the experience can very greatly based on the power of the hardware, but the user experience is almost always tied into software optimization. For instance, while the current top spec monster, the Galaxy Note 3, is highly regarded for its incredible feature set, interesting design, and great use stylus input, it is still noted as having inconsistent performance and occasionally lags behind the user’s input, despite having the beefiest quad core processor on the market and 3 GB of RAM. The reason for this, however, is that Samsung’s build of Android has become bloated with features. LG G2 and the Xperia Z1 actually both run quite well with similar specs and new Android builds. Even the Moto X, with it’s older dual core processor, runs really well. The Note 3, Z1, and G2 all have similar specs but widely differing user experiences. I’ve tried the Note 3, G2, and Moto X in stores and while the Moto X has much lower specs, it runs the best out of all 3 of them, in my opinion, because it has an unskinned version of Android. Also to note, many Android OEMs (most famously, Samsung) are now including software optimizations for hardware testing, meaning that running performance tests may provide results that are inconsistent with the actual user experience. The Galaxy Note 3 would certainly beat any phone running a performance test, but because of software bloat, the experience is actually slower than a lower spec’d phone. The performance situation on Android is so different  primarily because Google allows it’s OEMs to customize the OS as they would like. Software optimizations vary wildly across the board, leading to different experiences from phone to phone. Once again, this is an excellent state of affairs due to the amount of choice it allows people.

However, the situation on iOS, Windows Phone, and many others is very different. Where Android was built to be open and highly customizable, iOS and Windows Phone are built to be highly optimized for a specific set of hardware. iOS is built for small set of hardware that doesn’t tend to vary all that much from generation to generation. Because Apple builds the hardware and the software, they can optimize the OS to run perfectly on all their devices. This is the reason why a friend of mine has a 4 year old iPhone 3GS that still runs perfectly fine and runs most of the apps in the app store (although it won’t be getting iOS 7). For Windows Phone, Microsoft intended to sell this to OEMs to build hardware, but they wanted to ensure a certain performance standard, and thus the OS supports a limited set of hardware. While this limits Windows Phones in that Microsoft has to update the OS to support their OEM’s demands to use new hardware, it does mean that the most popular Windows Phone currently in use, the Lumia 520, runs the OS and a vast majority of apps with only 512 MB of RAM and a single core processor. An Android phone with those specs could hardly run Gingerbread, much less anything newer.

Android’s flexibility has allowed manufactuers to play with hardware and has also helped to catapult mobile technology much faster than it would of otherwise. Because of this quick hardware innovation, it’s always alluring to compare the high spec’d top end Android devices with the latest from Apple and Windows Phone. But the fact is, hardware is only a skeleton over which the user experience is made. While hardware helps, it is only how the software and hardware interact which defines whether a noticeable difference is detected. Android’s highly customizable UI and heavy feature set makes sure that any innovation in hardware is easily felt in the user experience. A Snapdragon 800 is a noticeable innovation over a last generation dual core. I suppose many will argue that 1080P screens are a noticeable improvement from 720P, and perhaps because of giant phablet screens and Samsung’s windowing apps, such a difference can be noticeable, but I don’t see it. But when Apple’s new iPhone did not see a resolution boost, many were disappointed, but remember that the original design of the Retina display assumed that a screen with higher pixel density would have no point because the human eye could not tell the difference. I find that I agree, not that higher density displays are unnoticible, but that the iPhone’s UI would not really look much better with a higher density display. The thing is, more pixels do not mean a better looking display. Brightness, color accuracy, and vibrancy make better displays, and I think a great AMOLED screen (please not Samsung) with retina-like PPI would be an improvement in the user experience.

The last few paragraphs are all to say that comparing specs between smartphones is comparably worthless. Tech journalists should be interested in none other than the user experience. While specs are easy, they are misleading, and if there is something the tech reporting industry needs to avoid, it is misleading information. Criticizing a phone because it’s processor is slower or its screen doesn’t have as many pixels is an indictment of ignorance and laziness if the spec difference is not backed up by a difference in user experience. Do you think the millions of iPhone fans are clamoring for a more powerful quad core processor? Of course not. Do they care about a lower resolution display? Maybe, but probably not. Do Windows Phone fans suffer because they can’t get a snapdragon 800? Absolutely not. Is the screen of a Lumia 925 ugly because it only has 1280 x 768 pixels? Absolutely not. So why are we even comparing these things? Tech blogging should be all about the user experience. Even if opinions will differ from person to person, getting multiple opinions but free from worthless jargon and repeatable but inaccurate misinformation will be much more useful to the average smartphone shopper.

If you gain anything from this article, please acknowledge that just because someone else didn’t buy your favorite smartphone, it doesn’t somehow illegitimise your decision. In the end, you chose what you liked and that should be enough verification. Some people love their iPhones, and that’s totally fine. Some people love the power user experience and ultimate amount of choice given to them with Android, and that’s totally cool. Some people like me love Windows Phone, and that’s totally cool. Even as Blackberry dies, there are people who bought those devices and still love them. It’s sad that there probably won’t be any further updates to the platform or many more apps developed for it, but thankfully, the OS has a lot of great built in functionality that doesn’t require a big app store. To those still holding onto their love of Blackberry phones, I salute your stalwart dedication to a platform you loved and I hope that someone will buy the company and give it a future. To those wanting the uncompromising web experience of a Firefox OS phone, good on you. To those who pledged money to the Ubuntu Edge project, good on you and good luck to the company. To those who bought an HTC One or an LG G2 or an Xperia Z1 or any other Android phone other than a Samsung, good on you for supporting choice. I want more choice. I don’t want Samsung and Apple to be the only device companies. I don’t want Android, iOS, and Windows Phone to be the only viable platforms. Can’t we all just get along? Can’t we just enjoy the technological marvels that millions of brilliant engineers have given us? Can’t we just enjoy our tech and use it to talk, laugh, cry, communicate and share with each other? The cell phone was built to improve communication and collaboration, not to inspire division.

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