I was an iPhone man once, like you. Then Shitphone changed everything.
By John Herrman
Last month my fourth iPhone in six years was, in medical terms, crashing. The screen, which had pulled away from its glue, was behaving strangely. The charging port, no matter how thoroughly I cleaned it, only occasionally took power. Repair would be expensive, especially considering that my contract would be up in about six months. Buying a newer iPhone would mean spending $650 up-front, spending $450 with a new two-year contract or amortizing the price with my carrier’s new early upgrade plan. I felt trapped, as every smartphone owner occasionally does, between two much more powerful entities that take me, an effectively captive chain-buying contract iPhone user, for granted. I began to take offense at the malfunctioning iPhone’s familiarity. Our relationship was strained and decreasingly rational. I was on a trip and away from home for a few weeks, out of sorts and out of climate, slightly unmoored and very impatient.
And so the same stubborn retail-limbic response that prevented me from avoiding this mess in the first place — by buying an AppleCare insurance plan — activated once more, and I placed an order I had been thinking about for months: One BLU Advance 4.0 Unlocked Dual Sim Phone (White), $89.99 suggested retail (but usually listed lower), $76.14 open-box with overnight shipping. 1,829 customer reviews, 4.3 stars. “This isn’t the best phone out there, but it is by far the best phone for only around $80–90,” wrote Amazon reviewer Anne.
Yes, Anne, sounds perfect, let’s do it. Shitphone would be delivered the next day.
I’ve been living happily in an electronics shitworld long enough that I’ve begun evangelizing for it. My last television, a Hisense pulled from the storeroom of a North Carolina Walmart by an employee who didn’t know it was there, is a simple and vibrant LED TV with bad sound. My stereo is built around an Insignia receiver (Best Buy house label) that powers speakers from a company called Micca ($55.60, 347 customer reviews, 4.7 stars) and it sounds… pretty good! My router is made by TP-LINK ($18.99, 575 customer reviews, 4.3 stars), and keeps me online about as reliably as my Netgear did. I bought my mother a neat little Baytek Bluetooth speaker for $26.99 (54 customer reviews, 4.6 stars), which she loves, even if its programmed voice draws out the “ess” in “Connected SuccESSSfully” in a way that suggests a strictly mechanical familiarity with English. I impulse-buy off-brand earbuds with mixed results and derive great satisfaction from discovering good ones. I bought a used Macbook for work but use a $280 Chromebook whenever possible. It is my aspirational shit-top, and I consider this situation a failure. Mainstream laptops are far enough along in the commoditization process that, for the purposes of browsing and emailing and chatting and dealing with photos — a near-totality of my computer usage — almost anything available will do. The top-selling laptop on Amazon is a $250 Asus that runs Windows 8. It would suit my needs nicely. We’ll see what happens when the Mac dies.
Off-brand electronics are, like their branded counterparts, interesting for a limited amount of time: The highest-end branded version of a product offers a chance to taste the luxurious future of technology; the shitworld version lets you preview a more practical future — the future most of the global electronics-buying public will actually enjoy. Take the Jambox, a small and dazzlingly expensive prism of speakers and battery and wireless radios that plays music from nearly any phone at a respectable volume; it was a sensation for a few years after its introduction in 2010. By 2013, off-brand speakers were making major inroads online, allowing shoppers like me to feel like we were somehow gaming the system (this requires, of course, a narrow and convenient definition of “the system”). The year after, Amazon, America’s primary portal to consumer electronics shitworld (and recently one of its proud citizens), had released its own version of the Jambox concept under the pointedly dull name “AmazonBasics Portable Bluetooth Speaker” (731 customer reviews, 4.4 stars). Soon, basic picnic-ready wireless speakers may become an undistinguished, disposable part of many consumers’ lifestyles, like USB sticks or batteries — a point at which branded versions are a minority sustained only by those consumers looking for Bluetooth speakers that signify luxury, style, or taste. Off-brand electronics are alluring only when they feel like deals — that is, only as long as there are more popular branded alternatives which they can imply are overpriced. They’re interesting, in other words, for as long as they make the buyer feel smart.
One of the lesser-appreciated joys of online shopping is that, in the process of streamlining and compressing the expressions of capitalism we call “retail,” it gives us a god’s eye view of market patterns. In one search on Amazon or Newegg you can see a category’s past, present, and near future: high-margin luxury options on one side, low-margin or out-of-date good-enough options from unlikely or unknown brands on the other. Then, in the big mushy middle, brands fighting over a diminishing opportunity. This is faintly empowering. To watch the compressed cycles of modern consumer electronics pass through your viewfinder gives a calming order to an industry that depends on the perception that it is perpetually exceptional. This perspective also helps to enforce realism about your relationship with consumer electronics. Whether you choose the luxury option, the commodity option, or something in between, you are buying future garbage.
It feels a little too early for the shitphone. My other off-brand electronics are easier to conceive of as LEGO-kit assemblies of parts. If my off-brand TV has a confusing menu system or a slow remote it’s not a huge deal, because most of my TV watching is passive. Its job is to show me a picture, and it does. But a smartphone’s job is to connect me to hundreds of people and dozens of internet services. A smartphone is extremely expensive, extremely small, and extremely complex, not just as a machine but as an interactive object. It must receive commands as ably as it provides information. Our relationship must sustain hundreds of expectant touches a day, and it must not be miserable.
The arrival of acceptable shitphones would represent the final commoditization of an entire era of consumer electronics, after the laptops and flip-phones but before the wearables and the implants and the [REDACTED] and the [RETURN TO YOUR CONSUMPTION SECTOR, THANK YOU, THIS IS YOUR LAST WARNING].
Shitphone arrived on time, delivered to the doorstep of our temporary rental home so quietly that the dog didn’t notice. It just appeared: a final invisible link in a labor chain stretching back to BLU Products, in an anonymous rectangular structure in an industrial suburb of Miami, and from there back to a factory in a Special Economic Zone in China. On the side of the box, a sort of manifest: 1 handset, 1 battery, 1 charger, etc. On the back of the box, the basics:
Aside from a few mysterious markings (a seal from Anatel, for example, which is Brazil’s version of the FCC) the packaging is serviceable and even helpful, more like nutritional information than advertising. Neatly packed around the thick, light, shiny phone were headphones, a case, and a screen protector. I installed my SIM and slotted in an $8 SD card. I activated the phone and installed my apps. The screen was fine, the software was Android (4.2.2, aka “Jelly Bean”: not new but not abandoned). The camera took pictures, the internet connected. It was mostly charged, and so we began.
The first day with shitphone was one long sigh of relief. Everything worked, or at least seemed to work. There was no app I needed that I couldn’t download. I chatted on GroupMe and checked Instagram and took pictures and texted and made some calls. I went for a run and listened to music that streamed from the internet. I dictated directions to Google Maps and it got me where I was supposed to go. Typing was a little slow, and Gmail would pause for moments, but as a proof of concept shitphone was performing better than expected. For a tenth of the price of the iPhone I had begun to resent I was getting nearly all of the functionality. At the end of the day — an active one — I had some charge left. Nice, nice, nice. I set my alarm, and the next morning it woke me up.
Homogeneity is what you should expect from shitphones, because it’s what you get. Buy a BLU or an Unnecto or a Posh Mobile or a Prestigio or a Yezz or an InFocus or an iRulu and you can expect similar boxes of parts, sorted by price point. The guts will likely be low-to-mid-range hardware from MediaTek, which is mostly invisible in the U.S. market but is the second largest supplier of mobile phone systems-on-chip in the world. This means the phones will share not just specifications but quirky features: even some of the cheapest phones let you use two SIM cards, for example, and many of them have an FM radio. The shells, which must fit around MediaTek’s core technology, stick to a few basic styles: For the bigger phones, seamless rectangles of a particular thickness; for the small ones, round-back thick-bezel handsets that evoke the iPhone 3G. For cheaper phones, you’ll get Android 4.2x. For a few more dollars, Android 4.4x. As is the case with major brands, shitphones with the latest version of Android, 5.0, are just becoming available.
Premium branded phones are the culmination of decades of research in wireless technology, computing, materials, and design. Shitphones are the culmination of decades of research in wireless technology, computing, materials, and design — minus a year or two. Shitphones are generally not actually shitty. They are, if you isolate them from the distorting effect of highly competitive preference-driven smartphone retail and marketing, the absence of which helps keep them so cheap, marvels of engineering and execution, assembled with precision and care and able to accomplish tasks that a half-dozen years ago would have been inconceivable for a portable device. iPhones are really just shitphones from the future.
This is what commoditization feels like: genuine novelty rapidly reduced to thankless anonymity. The iPhone and its high-end competitors benefited for years as the most visible and functional instance of a profoundly and globally novel new product. To be one of pioneering brands at the beginning of a new technological era — to sell someone his first magical hand device — is to apply a temporary multiplier to everything from brand recognition to loyalty to profit. But their brands, now, are just temporary protective spells cast against the inevitable. As we approach the 10-year anniversary of the release of the iPhone, the category it blew up is starting to feel familiar. By now, an American who purchased a smartphone on contract in 2009 has not just bought but discarded at least three devices, and as smartphones mature, that is the reality of their use: to improve is to disappear just a little more. Aren’t we all just emailing and Instagramming and Facebooking and Snapchatting and WhatsApping and Angry-Birdsing anyway?
A couple weeks with shitphone and things were fine. Well: things had adjusted. Some notes:
- The screen looked OK unless I turned the phone sideways, at which time it became impossible for both eyes to be within its viewing angle, and so one of my eyes perceived the screen as white.
- Things had gradually become slower. They rarely came to a full stop, but they got close. Complicated websites in particular were hard for shitphone. I found myself blaming the websites.
- Typing had not improved as much as I thought it would, so I type less. I started counting myself out of active group texts and returning emails in spare prose. This did not, as I initially hoped, result in better writing: my messages were not more thoughtful or carefully considered so much as they were strained, dumb, and blunt.
- If I tilted the phone just so the little LED buttons on the front flickered, sometimes.
- The back camera was fine, as long as there was good light, and the front camera was worthless.
- After a day or two of slow accumulation, things would just stop working. Apps crashed and needed to be reopened. I restarted every couple days. I told myself that even the nicest phones required similar adjustments: My iPhone died every 12 hours and didn’t get good reception in my bedroom and interrupted my music every time I walked out of Wi-Fi range. These were facts of iPhone life. I accepted restarting this phone every few days as the same. I became acquainted with Google’s halting error messages. I particularly liked this one: “Unfortunately, Maps has stopped.”
- The GPS was fine unless I plugged in the phone to charge, at which point it would sometimes place the blue dot somewhere unrelated to my current location.
The overall experience was still acceptable, but had come to be characterized by delay. There were the long delays when you open Google Maps or refresh your Gmail inbox. There were the short delays while scrolling through Twitter or when the browser needs to finish loading an ad. Then there were the tiny delays between basic input and basic response, between swiping smoothly and scrolling smoothly, which created enough of an interruption to break the illusion of a physical relationship between thumb and interface. This illusion was one of the great underemphasized accomplishments of the first iPhone, which above all felt like something you were manipulating directly. It felt great. This phone does not feel great, which cast my frequent phone activities in a slightly harsher light. I had time to wonder, Why am I opening this app again? I had time to remember, Twitter never, ever, ever makes me feel good. I recognized each pull-to-refresh as the delivery of a command and the new content it delivered to me as the command’s fulfillment. I felt something similar to what I felt before this all started, when I felt trapped between AT&T and Apple: That, in using my phone, I was frequently stuck between two or more powerful companies that were extracting from my time and interactions fresh monetary value. My commodity smartphone neither concealed nor apologized for what it enabled me to do: participate enthusiastically in the ongoing commodification of my personal information.
The easy tactile pleasure of a nice phone makes you feel like you’re at the center of the internet, which is designed to respond to your desires. A shitphone is a comparatively degraded interface with the world. A flicker, a stutter and a momentary freeze are all it takes to remind you that what we think of as the internet — the interminable feeds — will move on without you, and that this deflating realization awaits every giddy or obsessed smartphone user, eventually.
Shitphone gradually instilled patience. When the phone malfunctioned, or a call dropped, I assumed the mindset of a citizen trapped in a bureaucracy: I did what I must to navigate the system in which I was stuck.
I came to believe that shitphone had helped me reconnect with my immediate surroundings, but quickly realize it had not. My idle moments were filled with idle thoughts and actions of similar or lesser value to another glimpse at the internet. I looked at the sky more, which was nice, and I stopped looking at my phone when I walked, which was a terrible habit anyway. Sometimes I looked at other people buried deeply in their nicer phones and felt like I had ascended, somehow, in the slightest way possible.
I definitely had not: I had gone from compulsively checking my phone to watching others compulsively checking theirs. (I also came to believe, briefly, that shitphone is somehow a more honest device, as far as its relation to the global economy is concerned. An iPhone is instantly associated with Apple stores and book-length interviews with Jony Ive and Steve Jobs and America, all distractions from its provenance; shitphone marketing is flimsy enough, and pricing low enough, that there is nothing to distract you from the fact that these devices are made possible by companies willing to take thin margins and people willing to work for long hours and low wages, and that you will throw them away after two years anyway. If you look at any piece of cheap consumer electronics long and hard enough you will be able to see nothing but a collection of externalities; with shitphones, you get there faster. But this was a feeling, not understanding: I knew no more about the people and labor that created this phone than the people and labor that created my iPhone. If anything, I knew less.)
It had become clear, at this point, that there is a wide experiential gulf between my shitphone and my brandphone, and that, at this moment in the history of technology, there are reasons to buy, through subsidy or otherwise, a $650 device. But I still suspected that the smartphone industry’s weird narcissism of small differences has left it, or us, somewhat blind to what’s coming. I researched, and then began to covet, premium shitphones. I nearly bought another BLU — the company’s flagship device — but it was a little out of my price range, especially now that I was replacing one phone with two. I found a better match: The Posh Mobile Titan E500A. For $169.99, delivered. 177 customer reviews, 4.3 stars.
“I actually really liked it it was very responsive and it had so many cool features,” wrote reviewer Alvino. Yes, Alvino, sounds perfect. Premium Shitphone was on its way.
Premium Shitphone is an improvement in that it only occasionally feels like a compromise. It is one-quarter the price of an iPhone 6 and feels like at least two-thirds the phone. The screen is excellent, the camera is good enough for Instagram (though still not great in the dark), and the software sits at the modern end of the vast fragmented spectrum of Android. It’s an attractive, thin, simple device. Like Shitphone, it is 4G but not LTE, a difference which is, in my somewhat diminished use case, rarely noticeable. It is responsive if not smooth. People ask me about it with genuine curiosity. Then, when they try it, they don’t laugh. It’s just another Google phone. Every aspect of its performance could be better in ways I know from firsthand experience, but after a few days I stop thinking about it. It exceeds my demands. Not by much, by enough.
Recently, I was pacing outside a store, waiting to finish a phone call, when a teenager with a group of friends yelled, “Hey, give me your phone. Hey. Give me your phone.” The other kids laughed, and I did too, nervously, as I apologized to the person on the other end of the line and crossed onto a crowded avenue. One of the kids threw a chunk of ice, hitting me in the shoulder, and they all walked away, rattling off jokes. Score one for Premium Shitphone, object of teen desire. Score zero for the actual teens, who probably only needed to ask for it one more time. Shitphone is not my baby, though, and I don’t fear for its safety. Shitphone attachment is minimal: Losing it or breaking it or handing it over to teens would be less of a loss than an interruption.
If shitphones were ready for everyone, they wouldn’t be shitphones. As devices, they’re nearly there; as buying decisions, they’re still exotic. They represent a compromise and a risk. They are classic shitworld. Still, smartphone shitworld is already encroaching on brands, and smartphone brandworld is ceding to shit. Major carriers offer cheaper devices, though many of them are older devices from familiar brands; ZTE and Alcatel sell affordable smartphones through pay-as-you-go carriers Cricket and Boost Mobile as well as T-Mobile. More and more casual phone-buyers — people who either can’t or don’t want to pay $80+ a month for a traditional contract, or who don’t have good credit, or who don’t care to enter into a multi-year contract just to Snapchat with their friends — could be tempted to pair such options with cheaper prepaid plans, pushing the industry toward some kind of populist tipping point.
It is tempting to see this as the triumphant rise of the shitphone. But nothing from shitworld ever really rises, it just reaches up at whatever is above it and pulls relentlessly down. Brands that can escape before the pulling becomes too strong must then find, or invent, something new. These breakthroughs, or new features, or new categories, comprise innovation. Or are they just fresh economic inefficiencies waiting to be solved?
I look forward to my first good shitwatch. I trust I will not wait long.
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Illustrations by Devin Washburn.
Image sources, from top: Mieke Dalle/Getty; Hocus-Focus/Getty; Lucidio Studio, Inc./Getty; LM Photo/Getty.