Phones are the new average

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Nov 26, 2016 GMT
Bruce Byfield

A few weeks ago, I traded in my phone. I prepared the way I usually prepare when buying hardware, looking up the specs, and making a spreadsheet for comparisons, but the task didn't motivate me. When I realized I was avoiding the task, I took my spreadsheet down to the nearest mall kiosk and listened to the clerk's description of several of the most popular phones. But somewhere in the middle of the descriptions, I realized I had stopped listening, and bought one at random.

Which phone I bought, I had suddenly realized, was irrelevant. One Android phone, I realized, would have the same apps as any other one, and I had been trying to be conscientious about differences that, on some level, I had realized, made very little difference. One model have a few more square millimeters of screen space than another, and one might have a slightly higher resolution camera, and that would be the extent of the difference. No matter which phone I started with, by the time I had customized it from Google Play, it would have the same functionality as any other phone. So why, in the end, should I agonize over the decision of which phone to buy?

I might have been more interested if a phone with Ubuntu Touch was available. I have used Ubuntu Touch on my tablet for half a year, and it is by far the most convenient interface for mobile devices I have seen (although it does leave the screen or its protector a blur of fingerprints with all the swiping from all four edges). Yet even that novelty would probably fade quickly

Really, the only major decision was whether to buy an Android or iOS phone, and since I have never cared for Apple products, even that was not a decision for me. Nor was the accessory package -- whichever phone I bought, I would have been offered a case, a screen protector, an extended battery pack, and, most important of all, a warranty that would probably outlast the phone itself. The entire process was as exciting and as predictable as washing dishes.

The New Average
Phone buying wasn't always like that. Throughout much of my adult life, I have watched cell phones evolve from monster the size of a brick to flip phones, then mutate into smart phones. I have seen phones evolve from devices to make calls from to entry level computers whose main purposes were texting, web surfing, and playing games. Now and then, I do come across users who carry phones that can only make calls, but they are generally over sixty, and a definite minority. One phone today is very much like any other, and the center of innovation in computing devices has long since moved on.

So far as I can see, the only differences between my previous phone and the one I just bought was that the new phone was a bit larger, making it fit more comfortably in one hand, and the previous phone came with Angry Birds already installed.

From what I can remember, phones were never deliberately designed to fill their current niche. The evolution was mostly a case of first Apple, then other manufacturers, adding features in the hopes of getting ahead of competitors. How customers would actually use their new phones was left largely for them to decide.

However, by accident, the result was just enough computer for the average user. Nobody knew at the time, but what the smart phone did was put an end to the workstation as the basic model computer. Looking back, the convention seems ridiculous, but for the first few decades of the personal computer, everybody bought computers with far more memory and speed than they would ever want -- except, perhaps, to brag about. Laptops brought portability, and, for a while, netbooks were an attempt to produce devices more in keeping with people's needs, but, for the most part, users were still compelled to buy devices with far greater specs than they needed.

With the first iPhone, that tradition came to an abrupt end. Even today, the most expensive smart phone has less RAM, less storage, and a lower clockspeed than a bottom end workstation, but hardly anyone ever notices, because they are undemanding users. They are never going to render animations on their cell phones, or even write a large document. If they need to do those things, they will move one level up and buy a Chrome Book. But the average user will seldom notice their phones' limited capacities. A surprisingly large number will use only a phone, and never miss a higher-powered device.

You might say that smart phones brought a degree of sanity to computing devices, establishing new norms more in line with users' actual needs. However, in doing so, they have also lost any allure or mystery, becoming as exciting to buy as a toaster.

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