The Paradox of Choice and Why OEMs Don’t Listen
I recently posted a recapitulation of every bit of information we gathered throughout the little “blowout” OnePlus had regarding their OxygenOS. XDA Senior Member Cerberus_tm pointed out that my article seemed overly positive, which was something I hadn’t noticed up until that point. Through re-reading it under this light, I saw that he was correct indeed, and this left me wondering as to what subconscious drive made me write in such a tune… when I usually find myself criticizing applications and services, even going as far as calling them train wrecks.
So I went back to the basics about what I love about this OnePlus offering, and at the core was participation. OnePlus is one of the few companies out there who had reached out to the community in this way. You don’t typically see Samsung going on Reddit to have these kind of interactions, with a back-and-forth of ideas and suggestions. And this can have some immense consequences for the development of our phones: OEMs can pull out millionaire logistics studies, but sometimes they miss the ball completely. They miss the forest for the trees in their quest for a successful product. Samsung, for example, has added droves of features into their devices since the Galaxy S3; some are utterly amazing, such as multi-window, but then there’s the borderline useless air gestures that barely ever work in the first place.
Variety: Openness, Participation
What we love about Android is openness: we can grab any aspect and tinker with it. The platform has gained thousands of APIs in the last few years that also allow for more possibilities. There are lots of services in the last couple of versions that simply wouldn’t have been possible at the time of the OS’ inception. Yet manufacturers usually don’t offer us innovative services – things that many independent developers can single-handedly pull off sometimes. OEMs opt for the safe road of iterative successors with incremental upgrades. The variety in hardware is there, but in the end they mostly offer the same experience. For example, most manufacturers opt for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon line of processors, and these have gotten so powerful that it is rare to see stutters in manufacturers’ UIs, even on Samsung’s – who is putting an emphasis on exterminating these inconsistencies anyway. There will always be a best in each category, but for the most part, no flagship offering is “bad” and if you are a casual user any of them will keep you satisfied.
But in their quest for differentiation, they all end up offering too similar experiences – which isn’t bad, as their experiences often are great indeed, but I see it as a waste of resources and energy. And there’s still major complaints and debates going on in the tech community that are not widely listened to, or at least acted upon. Take the case of battery life, for example: it’s been a heated topic for years (ever since smartphones, really), and 2014 saw a promising start with devices like the S5 and M8 getting pretty good numbers due to optimizations and bigger li-ion troopers. But then the king of battery life, the LG G2 saw a disappointing follower (in this regard) with the LG G3 getting less longevity than what people had been hoping for. Then the biggest (literally) phablet of the year came and went without much recognition for this aspect either, despite its massive battery and the supposed optimizations of Project VOLTA that Lollipop promised – although in its defense, many of the tweaks have to be implemented by developers on their apps, so it was never meant to be a one-off change.
And this battery retrograde movement is in most aspects tied to another forward-process that OEMs are pushing, yet the vocal consumers mostly don’t want, and most consumers certainly don’t need: screen resolution. Now, I think screens are an essential component of a smartphone experience, and I would never want to go back to screens less sharp and less bright than what I’m running on my phones… But 4K resolution on a phone is something that seems to be coming too early, and too fast. And as it approaches, we power-users are left shriveling in fear as to what implications that could have to our precious battery lives. While we argued that higher resolutions are a necessary means to Virtual Reality, not everyone has a need for that, but everyone has a need to have juice left in their phone before their day is over.
Some manufacturers like Sony and possibly HTC with its M9 or “Hima” have heard the cries for better battery and realised many would settle for a FHD screen. Sony’s latest Xperia phones are a staple in smartphone longevity, for example, and this company has seen a lot of interaction with users and now has strong bonds with Android developers. This participation can lead OEMs to be in touch with what consumers actually want, and shape the devices that would maximize enjoyment and usefulness for their users. That is something I’ve noticed recently: those companies that do not seem like high-powers sitting on ivory towers designing The Next Big Thing for us mere mortals seem to be the ones that get it right. They are the ones who are really in touch with the needs our daily lives inquire, and companies like Motorola have built entire business strategies and feature sets around these wants and needs that led them to an amazing recovery… but a rather moderate success. Shouldn’t Motorola have overtaken Samsung right now if they offer the products people really want?
The Engineering of Consent
The sad truth is that all our talks about openness, about wanting better and richer options, possibilities and functionality in our smartphones apply to limited sectors of the market. Most consumers are happy with whatever phone they get, yet always want something better (or prettier). But they still conform to getting through a single day with it, and as long as the camera is good enough for selfies they give it a buck. The use-cases of the basic or mainstream consumer aren’t as esoteric as the ones of the more informed bunch that selectively browse forums to choose their future purchase. And in a world of uninformed masses, gimmicks, promotions and ultimately manipulation reign king. Practicality is not a primary purchasing factor in most people’s minds, as prominent figures in marketing like Edward Bernays have brought subconscious manipulation into modern advertising. He himself says that in his 1928 book called ‘Propaganda’: “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society”. When you apply this statement to an economy, it basically states that manipulation is an integral part of participation. And applying these strategies to marketing is just what Bernays did for capitalist societies of the 20th century.
So what we see now is the top leaders in the industry not selling you their products based on how useful they are for your life, but on how good they are for you and who you want to be. Take a look at Apple’s Macbook Pro page and see for yourself. Let’s scroll together: you are greeted with a beautiful picture, followed by the “Retina” marketing buzzword, and a statement about it being powerful. How powerful? Well, the average consumer doesn’t need to know that; “if Apple says it’s powerful, it must be, and I don’t need to waste time looking at specs to know that”. In fact, if you want to find the technical specification sheet in that page, you’ll be disappointed, because those are hidden away somewhere else. After being guided through a page where they decide what you pay focus to through simple exposition, you read all these statements about how “stunning” and “astounding” the screen is… Without any real sort of explanation or certainty. This kind of marketing is founded on whole language and it is intentionally and carefully laid out in a manipulative and sometimes misleading way.
In today’s day and age, many of the consumers who pay top-price for a phone do so based on this kind of information, and anything else would fly past the amount of time many are willing to dedicate to their purchases. So you could say some are not entirely sure as to what they are buying into, in a way. Marketing openness, in this regard, is something complicated. Openness entails possibilities, and on ecosystems like Android they are endless. There are too many offerings to inform the short-spanned consumer about, and thus the “open” tag is not quite the selling point it should be. But then there’s participation, and this is also a very tricky subject.
While we’ve got amazing projects like Ara coming up that fully embrace openness and customizability, Google itself knows very well that their project’s demise could be “The Paradox of Choice”. American psychologist Barry Schwartz proposed an idea that caused furor in marketing circles, which has an ultimate consequence of more being less. His theory can be summarized by saying that choice can often be overwhelming to consumers, and that a carefully planned choice can be a stressful or anxiety-inducing procedure on some levels. He argues that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce these symptoms and make people feel certain that they are getting a safe purchase that is guaranteed to be good. In this sense, less is more for OEMs.
So while openness is a great principle and a driving force for Android, it is not something that will be adding up to a primary purchasing decision for the masses any time soon – unless Ara can make things change. This hurts developers in the sense that the more in-depth and low-level tweaks that can be extremely useful are limited to select circles that those outside the enthusiast world label as underground… or “nerdy”. Here at XDA, for example, we’ve got amazing offerings – from programmers all over the world – that can change the experience into whatever we want it to be. And many of the tweaks in here would be useful to just about anyone, yet the hassles needed to root or flash a device scare the casual phone users away…
Openness is something we love, but it is not necessarily something the whole world loves – such a world would not have Apple be worth over 700 billion. Look at iPhones, how much can you modify? Their homescreens are as flexible as a Nokia 3310. And sadly, Android isn’t going in an opposite route for the average user. The constant under-the-hood improvements allow developers to bring all these cards to the table, and everyone benefits from innovate applications. But what’s on the Playstore is the tip of the iceberg of what Android can do, and the limitless possibilities are too much for non-enthusiasts to handle. And as such, I see Android being limited by these consumers in the same way much of technology is: some functionality is sacrificed for “intuitiveness” sake, options crammed together or removed to not confuse users, permissions locked behind sacred unlock commands, and so on and so forth. Lollipop’s non-existent “silent mode” is evidence of this, and the overwhelming negativity they got for that shows how their design decision was simply not founded by people’s desires or use-cases. In this sense, participation can alleviate the problems of closed systems, for what gets added is guaranteed to be useful.
But participation is only as good as its participants. If, for example, a democracy would have an overwhelming amount of individuals with low capability quotients, simulations suggest that such a population would choose low capability quotient Heads of State. If consumers were to decide what drives consumer electronics forward, we could potentially end up with a disaster. Luckily, the OEMs that practice these methods do so under enthusiast circles of those that browse specific forums that cater to power-users or those who actually know or care about these matters. But this participation model is not as common as it should be, and as it stands, we’ve got two big set of models of smartphone production: catering to what the masses want through indirect participation (logistics), or hiring professional designers or developers who may very well be out of touch with what people really need (even if they don’t value those needs as much as they should).
As it is, the future outcome of smartphone development is hard to predict. Modular smartphones could bring variety and openness into hardware in an unprecedented form, perhaps in a way that might just be able to bring the average consumer the notion of openness as a fundamental virtue. Companies like Motorola and OnePlus could push participation in the right path for the right sectors and get direct logistics and suggestions to shape the future phone of the suggester crowd. And then there’s the possibility where companies like Apple and their models continue to thrive, driving people into uninformed purchases with their manipulative promotional statements. Or we can continue to have blind companies push out features nobody really wants; yet they still manage to entice people with gimmicks to show off to their friends every once in a while. In a way, these industries and their consumers hold ideologies isomorphic to some found in politics: populist participation, clientelistic offerings, zealot brand fans reminiscent of the fanaticism fueling fascist regimes… Whatever flavor you want, there’s a company for you, so ultimately there’s choice… But just like we value openness gained through our OEM’s devices, we value freedom gained through our governments’ laws. In this sense, it is not an ideological battle, but a quest for liberty. And as far as operating systems go, Android’s the one to go if you value that – but it can get better through more openness, participation and promotion of these two as virtues. Given current society’s conditioning, this proves difficult. But maybe one day we’ll bring these notions to not just smartphones, but every aspect of our lives.