Premium Feel, Quick Updates: Media & Critics Shape our Phones, For Better or Worse

Premium Feel, Quick Updates: Media & Critics Shape our Phones, For Better or Worse

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Early this year, worries about compromises in 2015 smartphones were kindled by the news of flaws in the Snapdragon 810 chipset and its circumventing drama. Multiple flagships later, unveilings have not seemed to amass the hype of previous years, seeming to leave everyone wanting more.

Wanting more is natural, for we want the best for our money. That’s a given. I’ve argued that many compromises we’ve seen this year have truly let us down, and that there have been sacrifices in key areas of the user experience. The elusive perfect smartphone might never reach us, and that’s also a given. It will not reach us if there are compromises, as the adjustment of conflicting decisions means one will have to give in. When you sacrifice, you surrender a bigger perceived value (in this case, a consumer’s preference) for a lesser one (for example, thinness for battery). One could argue that since taste (or aesthetics for that matter) is subjective, there is no compromise given it is not measurable. But it is a compromise to someone, a whom, promoted by a who. Who promotes OEMs to decide what to do?

Paradox of Choice

This question can be answered in multiple forms. We explored this issue from a consumer perspective, finding that sometimes the paradox of choice stalls directed progress as consumers base their decisions on someone else’s word instead of their own judgement. But there is an easier (if myopic) answer, and that’s the market. OEMs adjust to demand, either tangible or projected, ahead of time. When we complain about an OEM’s decisions, assuming that they are representative of demand, we are complaining about the market’s demands, and thus, the average consumer’s. This is particularly true when we talk about popular OEMs, who ultimately try to please as many users as possible. When putting the Note5 into this context, and with the S6’s satisfied demand in mind, their decisions to forego power-user features makes sense, as they allowed for the design needed to allure consumers.

In 2015, many popular flagships saw worse longevity than their predecessors, despite there not being huge powerhungry upgrades

So assuming it’s in OEMs best interest to target demand (the axiom of a rational economy), compromising to balance the product in a way that maximizes consumer appeal (which isn’t an infallible tactic), the question moves from “why don’t OEMs listen” to “why do consumers seemingly want a thinner phone instead of longer battery life?!”. This is a particularly puzzling question when you consider that many polls and surveys suggest consumers actually do want longer battery life, on top of all the other neat things. Yet in 2015, many popular flagships saw worse longevity than their predecessors, despite there not being huge upgrades in terms of resolution and the like. What gives?

In contrast, a common complaint among enthusiasts is the fact that manufacturers do not support Android updates for too long, and most stop updating many of their phones after a single major OS upgrade. Compared to Nexus phones, for example, this is understandably worse. Manufacturers that vowed to provide quick and consistent updates haven’t truly lived up to their promises in one or another regard at one or another occasion.

Media that covers technology is not always representative of consumer demand

Yet few stop to think of the deeper implications behind these decisions (both cause and effect), or of the many actors involved. While there are valid arguments to be made in favor of updates, and especially considering Android vulnerabilities one could say most of the arguments are in favor, I seldom read the media bring up constructive propositions.

This is, I think, one of the biggest issues at hand. Media that covers technology, the Android blogosphere, and other gateways of informations the masses learn from are not fully representative of mass customer demand — quite like actual media. In many ways, they shape customer demand through exposition, and they help create new paradigms through the way they present their opinions or thoughts on new devices. And by present, I also mean visual presentation: consider the example of extremely popular video reviewing, and how over the past few years, the more popular video reviews have shifted to a more “cinematic” approach.

Leading Public Opinion

The problem (if you could even call it that) with cinematic video reviews, in particular, is that they put the subject focus on the design, through panning shots and stylish editing. Not because they want to, necessarily, but because it’s easier if not most efficient to have that – the device and its aesthetics – be the focus of the medium. It’s much harder to make a technical review in video form, in part because many of the tools used in technical reviews – charts, graphs, and other still images –  as they are stationary and often take time to take in. I’ve tried to help XDA TV producer TK and friends in the YouTube scene  brainstorm ways of porting more technical reviews, like our XDA Full Reviews, to a video format… but we often hit brick walls as the concepts just don’t seem to play out especially well. Finding a balance is hard when video clearly enhances the cinematic review style, yet impairs more technical or methodical review approaches.

While this is certainly not an absolute justification, it’s one of the examples through which one can explain the disconnect between enthusiasts and casual consumers, and between the apparent demand and that which not only people should be after, but people do actually want. It’s also clear that reviewers and bloggers have influenced smartphone design, pushing it to the more and more “premium” feelings that we now see everywhere. Did consumers always crave premium feeling smartphones? Considering that some of the best selling Android phones – the S3 and S4 – felt like cheap plastic bottles, I don’t think so. Looking back, HTC was one of the main contributors to the elevation of smartphone design. In an interview with Android Central, HTC America President Jason Mackenzie mentioned that HTC had planned metal and unibody smartphone designs years before the M7 first came out. But did other manufacturers?

Smartphones don’t grow in trees, and they often take a long time to design, test and get ready for manufacturing. How long, though? That’s hard to say, but after events such as LG switching away from the 810 with their G4, enthusiast circles began doubting the talks of smartphones taking as many ‘years” as some OEMs like to claim.

But now, it’s all about “premium feelings”, especially with flagships, and especially among reviewers. All of us love expensive looking and feeling smartphones, mind you — I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed with some of this year’s phones. But ultimately, I could do without them, as I did without them for years, and so could most people. HTC had said that the best way to lure consumers in the future would be with design, and in a way they were right.

Critics in every level of media do part of OEMs’ marketing for them

But was this a natural trend? It can’t be ignored that HTC phones raised the bar, and with the M8 being many publications’ phone of the year when its main attractive quality (in every sense of the word) is its design, it’s understandable that OEMs followed.

But consumers didn’t, and as much as they would love HTC’s design, the M7 and M8 had nothing on the sales of top players, and neither did the M9, and the A9 likely won’t either.

A pretty phone might also be easier to sell because appearances and design are things that are easy to market — one doesn’t need to spend thousands making videos explaining features or the user experience (or even figuring out how to portray them appropriately), but just spin the render around in space and add some text to a poster or video. Samsung managed to sell its S4 on gimmicks, in part, as it had (lame) commercials showing its “revolutionary” features with no promise of them ever working so accurately nor being as useful as the commercial would lead one to believe. A commercial, poster or article that advertises a phone’s design arguably comes with much less work and much less responsibility, as long as the build quality is good (as you can’t infer the feeling of mushy buttons from a poster).

Arguments instead of Buzzwords

So who is at fault for the dissatisfaction of 2015 flagships? Why don’t OEMs listen to bloggers who want quicker updates on each and every phone? I’d say that the problem is a faulty telephone between certain kinds of media, their consumers, the general consumer base of smartphones, and supplying OEMs. If consumers’ voices would truly be heard, then we’d likely hear their collective intelligence ask for similar things to those that we (enthusiast) want, like better battery life. As a relatable example, I have not once heard a friend say that he wanted an even thinner phone, but like many of you, I know plenty of people who wish they didn’t have to charge as often.

Critics in every level of media (from tech blogs to TV networks) do part of OEMs’ selling for them, as they entice consumers with favorable reviews (which as you all know, are not necessarily objective). Are those critics (particularly those on TV) in touch with the consumer base they inform and represent? Furthermore, are they deserving of their authority as “smartphone connoisseurs”? Some of them tell OEMs what they want to hear, or shower them with undeserved praise for their products — in a few cases, for their products as well (that is, to get them). Consider the curious fact that many (and perhaps a majority) of people put cases on their phone — what use to them is a premium design, then? One could argue that a thinner phone allows cases to not make the phone so bulky, but this argument is rarely mentioned in the media.

At the same time, does most of the consumer base want quick updates? Likely not. I do want quick updates and long lasting support for my devices, but I can’t see people around me who aren’t into Android really caring about such things. And as much as we – myself included – struggle with words, arguments and pleas so that OEMs will finally listen, we are sadly not representative of the consumer base at large. This is arguably one of the areas where critics (typically those more involved into Android and the community) fight “the good fight”.

But the good fight must be fought with arguments, not with demands or entitlement, and through informing users why they should want these things; through persuasion, not manipulation. We then need to show OEMs why it is worth updating phones, through any means of communication — from tweets to our wallets. Because we need them to know that it’s us – the everyday user, the enthusiast, the consumer – who has a voice, and we need to show them that we know what we want — and not let others tell them what they should improve for our next phone. And in doing so, one must understand that a single good argument can weigh more than any number complaints and hissy rants, at least in the long run.