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  • I Want a New Phone: The State of Tech in Early 2012

    2012 - 03.22

    I usually don’t write about phones on here because I think they’re an ultra-transitive subject. In one year’s time, it’s likely that all phone discussion will be completely irrelevant and not worth reading, or even skimming. That’s the paradox of a cellphone; it’s the essential piece of technology that you can’t leave the house without, and which you interact with constantly, many times throughout the day. It’s extremely important–and yet it has no¬†permanence–in a few years time it wears out and you need a new one. So this will be a phone discussion wrapped in a State of the Technological World discussion. Let’s hit it!

    I think the lifecycles of tech companies generally goes like this: Up-and-coming Company X introduces a new product which is not perfect but is pretty great. Everyone wants it. Pretty soon, everyone has it. As their market share goes up, innovation dies, bloatware multiplies, and they stop listening to anyone about the flaws in their product. Wicked and annoying quicks become enshrined under the banner of “Whaddya gonna do, chumps?! Leave us?! We’re the only game in town, so you’ll take our crap and you’ll LOVE IT! You got no other option, suckerrrrrrs!”

    In the 80s and 90s, Apple Computer was a niche market, catering to those who wanted to “think different” or those bored with the endless phalanxes of Microsoft beige-box machines. Apple was a scrappy underdog, fighting to differentiate themselves and carve out a small following against the near-monopoly of MS. Oh, the dripping irony of how time has reversed those roles! Today Apple is the most valuable American corporation. They’ve come full circle from fighting ‘the man’ to becoming ‘the man’ themselves, complete with gargantuan Asian sweatshop factories that struggle to quash suicide controversies. The iPhone is getting long in the tooth, with a dated UI design that they can’t change or abandon now, and Microsoft, of all people, are the ones with the hip’n’with-it fresh ideas! What world do we live in?!

    I had the original, first-generation iPhone shortly after it came out. And I will give it to them; it was far ahead of its time. It took a long time for Google to catch them. But eventually they did, maybe in 2009 or 2010. I’ve always hated iTunes with a passion; its slowness, the ridiculous refusal to play nice with FLAC files (which continues even several years later! Seriously, What.–TheF#%K.), lack of cool visualizers (hello Milkdrop!), lack of support for 3rd party plugins (Compressors. They make every song better. Ever. Times eight), but most of all the syncing. Oohhh boy, the syncing. You can’t share mp3s onto your friend’s iPod (like that’s going to stop anyone from burning them a CD). You can’t put songs from other computers in your own house onto your own iPod. And anytime you download a new track, you have to manually import it into iTunes, make sure it’s tagged (Apple: “What are these ‘file-names’ you speak of?”) and then wait fooorrrrrrreeeeevvvvvvveeeeerrrrrrrrr if you’re putting music onto an iPhone because it needs to do some DRM-BS with every single ‘app’ you ever downloaded. This syncing induced blood-boiling rage on many a night when I had just found some slamming new track that I knew I’d be dying to hear tomorrow. Try syncing before bedtime. You’ll be awake at least an hour longer than you intended.

    Eventually iTunes broke me. Two years ago I made the jump to Android. This netted me turn by turn GPS, better cell reception on Verizon, voice recognition long before Siri, and most importantly, access to SD card storage. Having my phone be able to function as a flash drive is the most under-appreciated part of Android. I use it constantly, every day to move files around, freely transfering them between computers and accessing them on the phone itself. And if I get a hot new track I want to listen to, it’s copied over with windows explorer in a mere seconds. No importing, no syncing, no tagging. Done. This is how it should be.

    I’ve been rocking a Motorola Droid X for nearly two years. When I first got it, it was a mean machine. One time a waiter even asked me, “hey is that the new Droid??” As a photo-nut I also love the idea of a physical, dedicated shutter release button. But lately it’s been doing some very unfortunate things which it definitely should not be doing. Like rebooting at random, and just generally getting really slow. Having owned the phone for almost two years, I know that it should not be feeling this sluggish. Something is wrong. Once, (and thankfully only once) it even committed the cardinal sin of rebooting in the middle of a phone call. That’s grounds for dismissal right there. In its defense, I have used the utter bejeezus out of this thing, even far more than I ever used my iPhone. I’m getting antsy to replace the Droid X, but honestly all the phones Verizon is offering at the moment are boring, outdated, and unimpressive.

    New phones are a dime a dozen, and even with my near-daily reading of Gizmodo and Engadget, I always skip the phone coverage. So I’ve been educating myself lately on what’s out there. I definitely don’t want to go back to Apple. I’d sooner choke myself with a 32-pin connector than suffer through another round of iTunes slogging/slavery. Plus, a bigger screen is quite nice. You get used to that. And the turn by turn GPS is majorly helpful, especially driving stickshift. But do I want an Android? What else is there?

    Google, particularly in the last several months, has been more and more annoying. They’ve come out with a unified privacy policy, which I’ve had to click ‘okay’ for, like, 50 times now. And I know what it really means. It means, ‘all this time, we’ve been collecting every single thing you do online, and now we’re gonna totally sell that shiz and get like a bajillion dollars richer for it. And you can’t opt out. Whaddya gonna do, chumps?! Use Altavista?! We’re the only game in town, so you’ll take our crap and you’ll LOVE IT! You got no other option, suckerrrrrrs!

    Actually, there is a new game in town. Microsoft has been steadily working out their “metro” UI, which was pioneered on the Zune (remember that?!), refined on the xbox, and now reached its logical zenith on Windows Phone. “Skeuomorphism” is the guiding principle behind a lot of Apple’s interface design, where the notes application looks like a yellow-page notepad, the calendar has fake leather, all the icons look like digitally recreated glass, etc–it’s feeling, idunno, tired. Metro is a clean slate, literally. It’s solid blocks of color that feel fresher and cleaner than a cluttered iOS homescreen with fake water droplets under fake glass icons (or for that matter, the me-too design aesthetics of Android).

    I really dig what Microsoft has done there, and the fact that Nokia, a very experienced hand when it comes to mobile hardware, is leading the charge on Windows phone–that interests me. It also doesn’t hurt that they’ve got Carl Zeiss printed around the lenses on those phones, even if they are plastic lenses. Searching through the MS app store, I see they’ve got all the essential apps I use; pulse, shazaam, wordpress, and the obligatory facebook (another company we’ve all become slaves to). Hmm. This is all looking pretty appealing. And I could break out from the pervasive we-know-everything-you-do-and-are-totally-getting-rich-off-it ethos of el Goog.

    Only thing is that none of these phones are available yet in the US. The Lumia 900 is totally sweet. I’d be over at the Verizon store today pickin that up if they sold it. In white. Hmm. Same story on the Lumia 610, which also looks nice. So what else is there of the “what else”?

    The biggest strength of Android would probably be choice (in many senses). Accordingly, there’s an Android phone for anyone. As I wrote about on here long, long ago, I totally went bananas for the Microsoft Courier concept videos. Sadly and stupidly the project ended up being abandoned, and MS lost one of their biggest design gurus in the fallout. Rightly so. One of the big appeals Courier held for me was the premise of using a stylus to allow digital sketching; visualizing ideas, handwriting recognition, doodling over photos or screencaps, and also for just trying to get artistic and sketch something! I still feel very drawn to that idea. Enter the Samsung Galaxy Note. (aka the Galaxy Journal on Verizon, release date…. soon??)

    It’s way oversized for a phone. The display is 1280×800, which makes 285ppi on the 5.3″ screen (wowzers). That’s monsterously, perhaps even irritatingly huge… yet that real estate is purposeful; it allows you room to draw, which is a central feature to the device. I actually went over to the local AT&T store to try this sucker out. The handwriting recognition requires careful penmanship. The stylus isn’t perfect. But it does have a wacon-designed 128 levels of pressure sensitivity, and you can certainly make drawings with it, faster, easier, and better than with a plodding fingertip, beyond question. That a pretty unique feature for something that will always be in your pocket. One that I think could potentially challenge me to sketch more, be more artistic, and maybe even pay dividends here on the website, in the form of amusing drawings to accompany blogposts, or even new hand-drawn artwork for headers and various other pages throughout the site.

    Hmph. That’s definitely food for thought. Being able to sketch might be worth flying the Android flag for a while longer. Although I do envy that sleek new Metro UI. I guess we’ll just wait and see which phone becomes available first! Expect a sequel to this post…..

    Last thing I’ll mention on the State of Tech 2012 is the disturbing trend toward “appification” in the newest crop of OSes. I don’t want “apps,” I want “programs!” The first preview version of Windows 8 dropped last week and it continues Microsoft’s unification of all platforms under the Metro UI language. As stated, I love the concept of Metro, but what I don’t like is the idea that eventually all programs will be run full screen, and frozen while not in the foreground. This is not, at all, how I use my computer now. I sometimes render timelapse video in Premiere while making beats in Reason, which has multiple windows. Multitasking and multi-window programs, which inherently improve productivity with user-customization. I hope the desktop paradigm never shifts away from that. Because if it does, I’m staying on Win 7. Call me a technophobe. ;P

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    5 Responses to “I Want a New Phone: The State of Tech in Early 2012”

    1. NineTenthsShavinPowda says:

      Sorry dude. Maybe it’s your homebrew PC… but iTunes runs great on my 4+ year old imac… it takes about 5-10 minutes to sync, depending on how much I’m changing the music up, and I have no complaints whatsoever. Now, there are some things that would be “nice to have”, such as a dedicated shutter release…. sd card storage… but there’s no way I’m trading the stability/longevity/build quality/POLISHED, POLISHED user-interface (so polished they’re ONLY using orphan baby seal asses, which are much smoother than regular babies’ butts) for those things.

      One thing that Apple gets, that other companies STILL DON’T, is that apart from engineery types like yourself, specs rarely sell anything. Purchasing anything is an emotional decision, for the most part… don’t believe me? Ask somebody why they drive a slow, poor handling SUV that guzzles gas when all they do is commute? On paper, it’s the dumbest possible vehicle for their intended usage, but they find all sorts of ways to justify ownership, because ultimately it was an emotional decision. What apple does, and other companies don’t, is really design the entire experience. Now… I’ve run iTunes for years. I haven’t had problems. It is definitely a bigger program than winamp… but it’s faster. Instead of having to organize all my MP3s into different folders, iTunes does that for me; it frees me up to do other things. Instead of having to save different playlists to listen to different artists, I either scroll to find them (quick) or type in the first few letters of who I’m looking for in the search box (quicker). I promise you can create a playlist of multiple artists MUCH MUCH faster than you could in winamp/using windows explorer. So yep. Apple definitely tries to control “everything” about my phone experience… but it works flawlessly, and easily. Backing things up is easy. Syncing is fast (my 1st gen took FOREVER though, maybe they changed it so you’re only exchanging/backing up the changed data, not all of it?), stable etc.

      I had that first gen iPhone for almost FIVE YEARS. It still works fine. The only reason I ugpraded was a cheaper “family” plan with the rents. Now… droids? On paper, they have specs that appear to be similar to the iphone, and in some ways exceed them… but literally EVERY SINGLE PERSON I know with a droid has had problems. Random reboots. Touch screens not responding sometimes. Locks. Lags. AND, it’s owned by google, so they’re probably recording everything you ever do or say.

      Lastly… as an industrial designer… nothing, NOTHING comes close to apple’s build quality. They are so far ahead of the game it makes everything else look outdated/hilarious. “Oh hey, neat, more injected molded plastic? But neat you put some metallic paint on it, or some soft touch pattern? That’s nice. We’re going to use motherfucking stainless steel with tolerances tighter than the hippest fixie riders pants, and glass.”

      Same way with laptops. I bet in Apple’s HQ, all the fridges have photos of the competition’s laptops stuck up wit magnets, so that everyone can admire them the same way a parent admires their mentally-challenged kid’s finger paintings… “Oh that’s so nice Samsung! Good job! When you grow up maybe you can do something like us, where we CNC the entire laptop case out of a muthafuckin BILLET of aluminum!” It’s beyond ridiculous… and the fact that you’re still stuck on specs… man.. .I’m telling you. Losing battle. We are rapidly approaching an era where even the slowest new computer is way faster than we need for most things, storage is practically unlimited, and the bigger deal is the entire experience. When I see droids made of amazing materials and people that keep them for over 2 years… I’ll consider it. Til then, no effing way. Apple has that market on lockdown.

      • Man. You are just… the most faithful devotee. :)

        Your affinity for Apple would make a fascinating case study in what inspires brand loyalty for consumers… So you love Apple. That’s cool. I’m not saying that anyone who does is blind, by any stretch. At some point, the Mac versus PC debate seems like it has morphed into the iOS versus Android debate. Just like politics, I think both sides suck, for their individal reasons! And also like politics, I think when people try to defend their choice, it usually devolves into a simple regurgitation of someone else’s talking points; a pre-scripted debate designed to get your dander up, but ultimately yawn-inducing after you’ve been through the motions enough times and realized that it all just goes in circles. This very reason is why I seldom bring up computers or phones on here, even though I’m interested in those technologies.

        I’d disagree that Apple’s interface is the freshest thing out there; five years ago, sure it was. Google jumped straight on to the same bandwagon when they created Android. Now I think Microsoft’s got the most svelte mobile OS design language, as far as appearance goes. Only time will tell if it succeeds, and if it translates well onto desktops.

        As for materials, I do agree that glass and stainless look great. Combine that with blonde woodgrain and you’ve got the Ikea aesthetic to a T. But stainless and glass are not really good materials to build your phone out of. My last two phones (including the gen1 iPhone) have both been clad in a rubber case, which definitely saved them from scratches/death by concrete on multiple occassions. It seems a bit silly to me that the official Apple case for the iPhone 4 is a neon rubber band… that covers up all the stainless. What statement does that make about the longevity of those materials? Sure, we want it to be beautiful. But must we really sacrifice “functional”?

        Other companies are doing some interesting things with materials: The HTC One X uses a unibody polycarbonate shell that is built by micro-arc-oxidizing metal, which is then bathed in a plasma field and electrocuted, carbonizing it. According to HTC that process makes it 5 times stronger than anodisation. Typically that process is used to build satellites. So that’s pretty badass. Maybe the end result isn’t shiny, but I bet it doesn’t fingerprint or scratch very easily. And it probably doesn’t need a rubber case to protect it against death if the phone should fall onto carpeted concrete from pants-pocket height; the circumstance that killed my first iPhone.

        Idunno. I could put together a lengthy diatribe on how iTunes has been nothing but one long annoyance the whole time I’ve ever used it, and how I really do think that there will never, in all of time, come a day when all the chip designers get fired because “specs don’t matter anymore”… but I think you’ve made up your mind. ;) You’ll believe what you want to believe, regardless of what I say. And I’m okay with that.

    2. Seth says:

      If it gives you any hope (as it does me), I was on the phone with Verizon this past week because I was due for an upgrade last Summer and they want me to spend my money on a new one. I told them I was holding out on the Note/Journal and they did confirm that it would be available as the Journal in “late spring to early summer.”

      • Hey awesome, that is good news! Funny, I got a courtesy call from big red too, wanting to know if I was satisfied with my handset… They must’ve logged me surfing their site for upgrades. I also asked about the note but the young woman I spoke to was Clueless with a capital C! It was sort of an amusing conversation. Hopefully the note shows up sometime soon. It’d be sweet to make sketches on it…