Zen and the art of smartphone
I love my smartphone
I have always been a fan of technology but not necessarily in the higher tradition of break it down. and build it back up sense. More like the person who likes the simple joy of riding more than being able to take a motorcycle apart and put it back together.
As I discovered recently through my voyage between parallel universes of Apple and Andriod, the path to salvation lies within.
Like most, my ongoing tryst began with the original iPhone. There was nothing quite like it. Sure it was a bit cranky, ridiculously expensive but it was the coolest thing to have happened to those who love consumer technology. Sure, the iPod had changed the world but bringing it all together into an Apple designed phone was just irresistible. For all the criticism of Apple copying existing gear, there was nothing like the iPhone at the time.
So like many others, I was smitten. The original iPhone followed by iPhone 3G, iPhone 4…. All the way to iphone 5. Through this journey, there were iPads, MacBooks and well a marriage. It helped that the wife was and continues to be a devout Apple spiritualist.
The 7 year itch
Well not quite 7 years but the world didn’t wait for Apple to dominate and obliterate. Google came up with Android and a host of manufacturers came up with their offerings. Like Apple, at first there were the clumsy attempts but also like Apple, things got cleaner, swisher and more stable.
The Fanboi saw all of this from a distance, slightly curious but hugely impervious to basic reason. Not quite the 7 stages of grief but analogous to that first came the shock that someone dare compete. Surely this was just not possible. Perhaps a little Anger ensued with friends claiming the rebellious Android to be the tool of choice for people who truly are Technology. There was bargaining; surely iOS was leagues ahead of anything else. As Android was marching ahead and especially Samsung with their path breaking S5 Galaxy; removable battery, waterproofing and a UI that was looking more polished than ever led to Depression. The few times I got my hands on a S5, there was Testing and increasing Acceptance that we had a worthy contender.
The King is dead , Long live the King
Through all of this melancholy came the S6 Galaxy…Edge. Samsung had just pulled an Apple, almost too perfectly. The device was breathtakingly beautiful with its glitzy screen, enchanting curves and the seductive edge. The notorious bloatware had been significantly reduced and for once we had a properly worthy rival.
How could I resist? The time had come and it was now. With limited actual research but a boatload of YouTube, yours truly preordered the S7. The shift was one of those occasions where one can truly use the word epic. One side feature was marital discord; my faithful (perhaps more to Apple) wife posted a lengthy and sharp albeit good natured critique on Facebook and general hilarity, at my expense, ensued. Yet the line must be held. Not quite the courage of Somme or Verdun but there were moments that felt somewhat like that. Yet we resisted and we persisted.
By this stage there was a groundswell , or at least in my mind, of people moving to Andriod. Samsung had even created a nifty little utility to transfer your data from iphone to the S6. But if I was going to take the plunge, I had to go all in. Contacts were backed up with my Google accoun and Photos with Google Photos. Game data transfer was easy as well. Most of the apps are multi platform so getting on to social media was a breeze. And lo and behold, we were plugged into Android (and Samsung).
The first few months were glorious. The much bigger screen made the iphone 5 look almost pedestrian. The camera was brilliant and a big battery that lasted me all day. Well, most of the day anyway. I had confirmation of my decision when I garnered envy and perhaps even some lust. I had turned into the type I despised the most in my Apple days; aesthetically challenged neophytes. With Hubris being a definite emotion, I was not far from having a clean sweep of the 7 deadly sins. I’m sure if I had maintained a journal of those days I could weave Gluttony and Sloth into the narrative somehow.
The Android world was a bit daunting but delightfully engrossing. The usual hunting around for settings, playing with widgets, customising every single facet of the phone gave me endless hours of joy. Even the iPad, my once mighty internet consumption device was ignored oftentimes to point where I would not even feel the need for it.
Trouble in Paradise
Piling ridicule on the Apple cultists also came easy. Much too easy. Perhaps this was an omen.
Once the initial fascination with customisation subsided, was my experience better? While this highly customised version was very much me and I do appreciate the freedom to make these choices, the overall look and feel wasn’t quite well constructed. It’s a good thing I don’t make a living from designing UI.
With multiplatform apps becoming ubiquitous, what do we really want from the OS? For me, it was reliability, security and portability. On all three fronts, my experience with Android left me wanting In different ways.
The apps crashed far too often, even the ones I regularly used on my iPhone. For some reason, that much vaunted stability just wasn’t there. As a one off, crashes are annoying but repeatedly is unfathomable. Sure, I could blame the developers for not putting enough effort but aren’t these same developers who do iOS apps? Is it the Apple QC that prevents bugs? I can’t say for sure but certainly my own empirical evidence suggests so.
Then there were the security issues; almost every day there was a new flaw that was discovered but the update cycle via Samsung is almost criminally slow. Perhaps my view was coloured with the Apple experience but knowing that there is a known flaw and in some cases with a fix but wasn’t available because Samsung hadn’t finished their testing was and perhaps continues to be reprehensible. Maybe the solution is to go stock and get a Nexus. Certainly for a pure Andriod experience that would make sense but isn’t the premise of open source mobile OS predicated on differences. What’s then real difference then between iOS and Android?
What I thought was a great part of the Andriod experience soon proved to be a bit of a mixed blessing. Google had by far the slickest and most stable apps on the Play store. Whether it was Google Keep to replace notes or Google Photos to replace iPhoto, you could thrive in the Google universe. The ability to use your Google account for almost every thrid party service meant that while you gave up privacy, you got a rather seamless and lossless experience. This is not to say that there weren’t options outside of Google but none of the technology giants have mastered the art of taking over your life by stealth like Google. Isn’t this what I was rebelling against? Not being stuck in a ring fenced ecosystem? Was I being just another brick in the wall, just this time dividing my fealty between Google and Samsung.
But such are the machinations of free markets, you don’t like it – take your custom elsewhere.
The Tipping Point
Or more precisely the lead up to it and the the actual tipping.
The lead up came in the form of a work issued iPhone 6 which was replacing the finest email device created, the Blackberry. Having to carry 2 phones is painful enough but with Big Brother watching, having a personal device becomes a fact of life. Bulky pockets aside, constantly moving between the iOS and Android is peculiarly annoying. It did however let me experience the updated iOS and that unique Apple feeling of slick UI backed with stable software and the always sublime hardware.
The second and by definition the actual tipping point, was when out of the blue or more likely as part of a cunning plan, my wife got me the iPad Air 2. Suddenly my beautiful screen wasn’t quite as extraordinary and everything else just seemed every bit ordinary. The fact that I had greater connect between my work phone and iPad but not my personal S6 started to grate on me. At about the same time, there was realisation that I was going through the 7 stages of grief, again. My work iPhone was coming up trumps in more than a few ways.
There was also a clip I saw other internet that for some reason is firmly etched in my mind; the very funny Romesh Ranganathan, in one of his stand up routines made a very profound observation. Everyone who thinks Android users are the anti-Apple uber-hipsters need to take a pause. Google and Samsung(or other manufacturers) are the very much of the mega industrial ilk that we deride Apple for. In fact, Samsung is called the ‘Miracle on the Han River’ given their size and scale. They are rumoured to account for 17% of the South Korean GDP. That is phenomenally huge and is the embodiment of The Man. Google, on the other hand, doesn’t even need an explanation. The more recent and far more disturbing reality is Google’s increasing attempt to ring fence you in their world.
All said and done, I could feel the pull of the Apple universe rather strongly.
Despite the evolving thought process, there was also the need for an event that pushes thought into action. This came soon enough on a boys trip. Over a night of too much drinking, an otherwise saintly friend of mine dropped a glass bang on top of my S6 smashing the screen to bits. It still worked fine and I could in theory replace the screen at some cost but wasn’t this the perfect opportunity? I had taken the long and arduous path and there wasn’t much point to all this internal monologue if I chickened out now.
The iPhone 6s was ordered online and almost anti-climatically, getting back to iOS was remarkably smooth. If it weren’t, I may have had to rethink(yet again) my whole approach. For once, lack of excitement was what I was looking for and exactly what I got.
While many and at some level even I could think of this runaround as a colossal waste of time and certainly money, it did teach me a few lessons which apply to more facets of life than just technology.
Firstly, the finely tuned marketing machine of technology-industrial complex is doing a fine job. To deny its power is more about our imperfect yet hopeful faith in free will. Without realising technology has become so enmeshed in our existence that we now apply all our bias to it just as we do in fashion or politics.
Secondly, the problem of ego getting in the way of self-actualisation is equally applicable to our ‘choice’ of technology. Both Android and Apple or perhaps even Microsoft have an equally competent offering. Sure, each will prefer one over the other but without moving around, we couldn’t possibly know what’s best for us. The fierce competition means moving between ecosystems is easier than ever before. Not doing so because we are somehow intrinsically iOS/Apple or Android is plain arrogance at best and wilful ignorance at its worse.
Lastly, in my tribulations I came across the Manjoo Doctrine( link below). Its a fine analysis of Apple and how it has its way with us. The one thought, from the article, that remained with me was a statement: “Buy Apple’s hardware, use Google’s services and get media from Amazon”. While we can argue ad nauseum which part of that we agree/disagree with, what would hopefully be less disagreeable is the need to have interoperability which despite best efforts is a key customer need and in its own way is and will continue to be fulfilled. Google needs the millions of iOS users to use its search. Apple couldn’t afford to lose customers by not offering Google Maps or Gmail. I still use Google Keep , Maps and Photos; for me they are better and suit my need. Google Calendar, I persist with although I do prefer the cleaner and less zeitgeist version of Apple. And I truly truly miss the back button on my Android.
Nevertheless, the sum total of my experience with my devices has improved considerably from my ‘only Apple’ days and this is as a result of experiencing and where possible, blending the best of both worlds.
As I mentioned at the beginning, knowing one’s own needs is an individual journey. Until we know what we need or want, we need to decouple. My big realisation was my need for blend of structured experience that was stable and secure. If this meant I had to sacrifice or spread portability between the available options, thats fine. For you it may be pure efficiencies. The point isn’t which is superior; the point is that all offerings are compromises and the only way to make the right selection is to truly know what you expect or demand from your phone and what you can live with or without.
In summary, buyer beware of course, but more importantly buyer rejoice! Uncles Apple and Google want you! Don’t be afraid of getting on the journey, of the short term pain, of leaving your bias and in turn you will find the best fit for you. Or at the least, you will better than off than you have today. Given most of use our smartphones more than any other device, spending a little time and effort is hugely rewarding.