The only suitable products in 2013 are from Apple, and that makes me sad.
January 7, 2013 by Bill Palmer
by Bill Palmer
You name it, I’ve been accused of it: Mac worshipper. iPhone shill. Secretly getting paid by Apple. I’ve heard it all. Some folks have gone to creative lengths to express their displeasure with the fact that the majority of my tech product recommendations happen to be Apple products. But the truth is, it makes me rather sad that in most instances nothing else out there is nearly as suitable as the stuff from Apple, and for a couple reasons. One is that innovative as they are, Apple products aren’t perfect. More importantly how cool would it be if there were two, three, or five companies out there like Apple who were able to figure out what we wanted before we wanted it? Each innovator would bring their own ideas to the table, we’d have a choice of which was most suitable for us, and we’d all win. We don’t have that now, but there’s reason to hope that it’ll be that way before too much longer. Why? Because we the mainstream are slowly but surely winning, and the geeks will eventually figure out that it’s best to simply give us what we want.
Give the tech companies a break in one sense: we the mainstream rarely know what we’re going to want until we see it. Ten years ago, did you see yourself carrying a smartphone and using it for more computing tasks than you do your computer? Even if you did, you probably didn’t see yourself wanting a tablet. It wasn’t until the tech companies showed us those products and showed us what all we could do with them that we were along for the ride. The trouble is that the ones who hit upon the correct initial idea rarely have the detailed vision to take it to where it needs to go. MySpace knew we were each going to want our own connectable pages, but didn’t understand the level of integration those pages needed to have with each other. BlackBerry was way ahead of its time, but it evolved very little over the years. So Facebook won because it had a better way of doing MySpace than MySpace did, and Apple won because it figured out everything that BlackBerry had been getting wrong all along. But now we have these products like Android and Surface which are clear steps backward, yet they gain marketshare anyway (at least one of the two does). And that’s because certain tech companies are less interested in making a good product than they are in cheating to create the kind of chaos, confusion, and consumer harm that they can profit from. And therein lies the reason most tech products suck…
The original tech villain, Microsoft, is now looked upon as more of a crazy uncle who simply doesn’t know how to function in the new century. We forget that this is a company which has spent thirty years trying and failing to guess what we the mainstream might want, then giving up and selling really bad ripoffs of Apple’s products instead. Perhaps that’s because Google is now better at playing that villain role than Microsoft ever was. A few years ago Google tried to sell an iPhone competitor on honest terms, with the Nexus One running the Android 1.0 software. It was pretty far behind the iPhone in terms of usability, but it showed promise. Trouble is, it didn’t sell well.
Google then decided it was more interested in winning than in being any good, so it killed off its own hardware and gave the Android software away to soulless vendors like Samsung and encouraged them to slap it onto any random hardware they wanted. In doing so, Google broke the Android platform: the software didn’t (and still doesn’t) run well on any of the random hardware it’s been squeezed into, and the unpredictability of the hardware means that Google’s development of the Android software went straight down the toilet. Fragmentation, they call it. You know it as the reason why your Android device has entire chunks missing from its interface, crashes and slows down more than it should, can’t take advantage of your smartphone’s dual processor, and has entire store full of uniformly crappy apps. Samsung pushed its second rate hardware running now-broken Google Android software on the carriers like Verizon which weren’t able to sell the iPhone, and they all conspired to sell you a completely broken product under the false premise that it was “just like an iPhone but better.”
The fragmentation of Android means that each generation is worse than the last, with the incompatibility reaching alarming levels. The latest Android 4.2 system software has been out for six months, and according to Google’s own published reports it’s still running on less than ten percent of existing Android devices (in comparison when the latest iPhone system software was released, it was installed on fifty percent of all existing iPhone within a week). Most Android device are simply incompatible with it, and even most of the users whose devices are compatible haven’t figured out how to update or aren’t aware that they can. Even most Android devices currently on sale now, new hardware models which have hit the market since the Android 4.2 software was released, are running something older. The majority of Android devices are still running Android 2.0, which means they have almost none of the features you’d expect on a smartphone in 2013 and are instead stuck in 2010. But that’s what happens when a product like a smartphone, whose ease of use is based largely on a unifying syncing tool like iTunes and its embedded App Store, simply has no equivalent. Years later, Google is now half heartedly trying to bring some sophistication to its junkyard of a platform with weak tools like Google Play, but even that has fragmentation issues. Google was smart enough to know how things would play out, that it could only carve out a large swath of marketshare by turning its once-respectable Android platform into a collection of malfunctioning jalopy devices that you were more or less conned into buying, and yet it did so anyway. We the mainstream pay the price for it. And you wonder why I can’t recommend such devices…
Any hardware running Android is broken by definition, giving you no chance of having a full product experience and no ability to take full advantage of any cool features your hardware does have. That makes every Samsung smartphone and tablet an inadvisable buy, even before you get into the misleading specs on devices like the Galaxy S III which are designed to sound like they’re on par with the iPhone but are actually far behind and second rate despite having the same price tag as an iPhone. Android is for, in a word, suckers.
Worse, rogue companies like Google and Samsung are counting on the geeks who work as tech journalists, and the geeks who work in the retail stores, to help them steer you in the wrong direction. Most geeks hate Apple, you see. They actually like the wild west nature of Android where random software runs incorrectly on mismatched hardware, because they’re tinkerers at heart and they want the challenge of getting in there and reprogramming the whole thing to their heart’s content. What we call practical usability, they call “closed” and “evil.” Ask a typical geek what they hate about the iPhone the most, and they’ll say “ease of use” as if that were a bad thing. And the geeks know that the more Android devices they can sell to the mainstream, the more apps and ecosystem will spring up around their pet tinker toy platform. Many of them will steer you toward Android under any false pretenses necessary.
Need proof that the geeks are not on your side? Remember the iPhone antenna issue, the Apple factory labor conditions, and the Apple Maps brouhaha? All phony controversies, created out of thin air by Apple-hating geeks in positions of influence (some of whom I know personally), all aimed at scaring you into buying Android instead. Every smartphone can be gripped in an unnatural way which will knock a bar or two off its signal strength, but the geeks were counting on you not knowing that fact when they showed you an unnatural finger pattern which would do so on the iPhone 4, thus making you think it was defective. The “Apple factory” in China with the poor labor conditions is actually a Chinese-owned factory called Foxconn, which manufactures Apple products on a Monday, Samsung products on a Tuesday, and so on, and the labor story was in no way specific to Apple. And all geeks know that every online maps app has a few hilariously inaccurate results here and there, none of which they ever pointed out when it came to their beloved Google Maps, all of which they made a dishonestly big deal out of when it came to Apple Maps. Sure, Apple Maps once told me the nearest 7-Eleven was in Singapore. But then Google Maps once told me the nearest Cracker Barrel was nine miles away, when I was already in a Cracker Barrel parking lot. We can all bend these facts any way we want.
So if traditional computers are old news and the rising platforms are now smartphones and tablets, there are only four platforms to choose from. Anything running Android is defective and therefore a ripoff at any price point. BlackBerry is fading so quickly that it’ll likely be out of business in a year or two. Microsoft’s Surface and Windows Phone 8 products are almost respectably mediocre, thanks to a fit of irony which sees Microsoft now taking great pains to match its software with mostly compatible hardware in a way it never did with Windows PCs. But Microsoft’s mobile devices are selling so poorly that there are far too few apps or accessories available, and by this time next year it’ll likely have thrown out the entire lineup and started from scratch, leaving current users marooned. That leaves only Apple’s iPhone and iPad, which are far from perfect but manage to run circles around the competition in every meaningful way, and really cost no more than the name brand competition once you price it out, as the only smartphones and tablets which are recommendable. They may not be a perfect fit for you, or me for that matter. But sadly enough, they’re the only real option. Everything else is, to sum it up in an overtly juvenile yet still accurate manner, varying degrees of crap.
Well, most everything. There are always glimmers of hope. Google was doing some rather innovative things a few years ago, before its company motto went from “Don’t Be Evil” to “Win Dishonestly.” Amazon’s traditional Kindle products like the Paperwhite are ideal for those users who want an inexpensive digital book reader but don’t want a tablet. Of course Amazon wanted to win as well, so it stuffed a fragment of the Android software onto cheap hardware which can’t run it right, and the resulting “Kindle Fire” is quite possibly the worst major tech product ever made. Perhaps the real problem is that each promising up-and-comer has such a hard time keeping up with Apple on legitimate terms that they end up deciding that chaos and confusion and sabotage are their best chance at getting you to buy their products.
Still, the next Steve Jobs has to be out there somewhere. It’s not enough to be a smart geek or even an innovative geek. Some rising geek out there needs to have the instinctive ability to figure out what we the mainstream are going to want and how we’re going to want to use it, along with enough forthrightness to follow his or her own path to innovation without giving in to the urge to steal from Apple and cheat us in the process. Once that finally happens, when Apple finally has a competitor which tries to out-innovate it instead of merely outmaneuvering it, the rest of the industry might finally catch onto the idea that it’s okay to be an innovator. Microsoft has already proven it won’t be the one, Google has already gone too far to the dark side, and Facebook doesn’t seem interested in developing an entire platform. But the more we the mainstream demand products that are truly suited to us, and the better we get at sniffing out and avoiding broken knockoffs like Android, the more we forcibly steer the industry toward the idea of catering to us instead of merely steering us to whatever crap they feel like churning out this week.
My job as a tech journalist isn’t to pander to the various platforms as if they were all equally legitimate. It’s not to tell you what you and I wish were true, that there are a wide variety of great tech products out there to choose from, because that’s a lie. The real truth is that most tech products are still mere shiny crap to be avoided. If all you’ve ever used is Android and you believe you’re happy with it, I could score cheap points with you in the short term by playing along with your misperceptions. But the truth is you only think you’re happy with Android because you’ve never used a legitimate smartphone like the iPhone and you don’t know what the experience is supposed to be, and if I’m going to be of any value to you then it’s going to be through telling you the truth about tech whether it’s what you want to hear in the moment or not. The odds are you’ll thank me in the end, after you’ve ultimately figured out what I’ve already spent years learning the hard way, and it’s okay if you’re mad at me in the mean time.
I didn’t get into this line of work to tell you want you want to hear. My job is to tell you what you need to hear. When what I’m saying sounds wrong to you, you’re always free to get out there and try it for yourself, educate yourself. In fact, do precisely that. The more educated we are about what we’re using and what we could be using, the better off we’ll all be. A well educated user base is the best way to ensure that the vendors have to try harder and can’t get away with playing games.
In the mean time, believe me when I say that it brings me no joy to point out the sad fact that for the most part, Apple’s products are the only recommendable ones which offer a fully legitimate user experience. I simply choose to share that truth with you because it’s what you need to know. Perhaps someday we’ll have additional legitimate options.