On Technology, Tribalism, And The Future

Posted by on July 12, 2012 in Opinion, Technology | 0 comments

I’m not really an early adopter when it comes to technology. I like to wait to see which platforms look like they’ll stick around a while before investing my hard-earned dollars. To my surprise, I’ve grown to be very patient when it comes to letting the market sort out the winners and losers. I’ve done this with the cellphone market as well as with computers/multimedia. I actually kept a Startac flip phone until 2005.

Cell phones today are really just microcomputers with radio capability. If you think about the hardware that’s crammed into cutting-edge phones today, they’re superior to pretty much any desktop computer you owned ten years ago. Apple’s mobile operating system (iOS) is sleek and mature, and with Android coming into its own, and Microsoft finally putting out a promising system, there are three major platforms competing for your smartphone dollars these days.

Although I’d like to see more competition on the software side, the battle among original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) has resulted in increasingly capable devices at reasonable prices. In the next few years, I think the differences between operating systems will be little more than cosmetic. The competitive advantages that will secure customer loyalties in the near-term will be ecosystems and hardware.
 

Ecosystems

If you owned several iPods throughout the 2000s, you probably bought into Apple’s iTunes. And if you use the iTunes web/app store to purchase and organize your media, then you probably purchased an iPhone because of synchronization across devices. That’s a great selling feature if you’re already a user. If you’re not invested in iTunes (which I’m not), then you can look dispassionately at the options available and make your decision based purely on personal preference.

Lately, Google and Amazon have been trying to establish their own ecosystems through smart-devices. Their e-readers and tablets are pretty much break-even products meant to build loyalty among users and grow the community. Verizon has been trying and failing to establish its own multimedia hub for years, and Samsung appears to be following down that same, thorny path.

The theory is that once your credit card information is saved somewhere, it’s easy to make impulse purchases. And once you have a pile of virtual stuff organized on one service, you’re likely to stick with that service going forward. I agree with that premise, but I reject the wisdom of it.

Digital rights laws have been in flux for years. The latest uproar had to do with the Congressional debate on the Stop Online Piracy Act in late 2011 and early 2012. All corners of the internet came together to defeat it and, in the process, shone a revealing ray of light on a very murky topic. I’ll give you an example. Depending on where you live, you can buy a DVD, and you can legally own a copy of your purchased DVD, but you can’t make the copy of your DVD. In what world does that make sense? And it gets even murkier with downloads.

As it is now, many (but not all) of the services that facilitate the downloading of books, TV shows, and films don’t really let you own them. You’re basically purchasing a limited number of licenses to access the material. Once people have cycled through several smart-devices, they’ll get caught in the tangled web of digital rights policy and lose access to their purchases. They’ll finally realize that they never really had ownership, and they’ll feel cheated. The outrage will slowly grow. Hopefully, we’ll finally see copyright law amended responsibly to make sense in the digital age. Once that happens, consumers will more voluntarily diversify their purchasing power to chase deals, and increased competition will drive costs down even further.
 

Current Technology

In 2009, I received an Android 2.2 phone through my employer. It was a little buggy and laggy until some patches were released, but it was a reliable tool. At the time, and for a good while afterwards, it led the industry in several categories. I wasn’t completely sold on the operating system and considered several new phones when my contract was up in 2011. After spending a lot of time with the iPhone 4S (the wife’s phone), I realized that I’m irritated beyond belief at the lack of customization and personalization allowed on iOS. I also don’t find it as intuitive as people who grew up with Apple products.

I eagerly awaited the release of the Galaxy Nexus, an unadulterated Android device designed by Google, but the unimpressive camera and weak battery turned me off. Five more months passed–an eternity in cell phone time–before a device was released that boasted the specifications and customizations I’ve been seeking. As soon as it went on sale, I pounced.

My new phone is the Samsung Galaxy SIII running on Android 4.0.4. Samsung has recently dethroned Apple as the world’s largest smartphone seller. Most people don’t know it, but Samsung actually makes many of the market-leading components in the iPhone and iPad. To appreciate how far technology has advanced since the turn of the last century, all you need to know is that this phone has a dual-core processor (the international version actually has a quad-core) and 2 GB of RAM. 2GB!

This thing is lightning-fast, especially on a 4G LTE network. I can make a verbal request, and in less than two seconds, navigation is launched and a voice is providing me with turn-by-turn directions. The camera has zero lag and the battery is powerful and removable. It has expandable memory and sports a 4.8-inch screen. All of these features are packed into a shell that’s 8.6 mm thick and weighs just 133 grams. Compare that to the guts of the ubiquitous Dell tower that probably adorned your desktop back in 2000.

I never thought I’d buy a large cell phone like the S3. I used think phones this size looked a little ridiculous. Now I see that it’s all relative. It took all of 36 hours for me to fully embrace, if not openly celebrate, my phone’s screen size. Now, other phones seem small to me, almost as if their users are sacrificing a higher quality experience for a lower profile phone. That’s their right.

I guess it all depends on what you use your device for. 95% of the time, my device is used for reading. Now, when I try to read something on the wife’s iPhone, I feel like I’m holding a children’s toy. My original Droid, the smart-device that was cutting-edge just a few years ago, has been relegated to mere alarm clock duty. Such is the pace of change.
 

Tech-Centered Tribalism

I’ve never understood tribalism. I guess it’s just not in my nature. I don’t use brands to define myself and I don’t praise cultural shibboleths in order to flex my bonafides. I think the tired charade is an exercise in what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences.” It’s unnecessary and annoying, and The Oatmeal captured the absurduity of it all nicely.

All of the leading smart-devices are 80% identical, and the differentiating 20% involves the experimentation, innovation, and risk-taking that ultimately rewards all consumers (and a lot of lawyers). Those similarities and differences should be celebrated, not ridiculed. All creators stand on the shoulders of one another. These days, smart-devices seem to leapfrog each other in technical capability every six months. We all benefit from such a rapid pace of innovation and competition.

But as much as I love my new phone, I can’t help but feel like we’re still 15-20 years away from devices are are truly compatible with human life. As it is now, we have to baby these toys to a ridiculous degree. We accomodate their size, weight, and limitations at every turn. We live in constant fear of gravity and rain. We ignore redundancies. We tolerate mandatory processes. It shouldn’t be this way.
 

Future Technology

In the future, all tech is mobile and integrated. All “phones” are flexible, expandable, foldable, water-resistant, and connected to all other electronics.

It’s a world where you wear your small device like a wristwatch. With one tap, it unfolds into a tablet of a preset size that can stay mounted on your arm or can be detached at will. When you’re done poking around on the 3D screen, it folds back into wristwatch shape. When you go to work, your monitor picks up the Near Field Communications (NFC) signal from your folded device. You punch in a PIN and pick up where you left off the day before. When you walk away, your monitor powers down and your data remains on your wrist.

You take your information everywhere you go. You communicate via your device. Your device communicates with other devices ranging from TVs to refrigerators to billboards to your front door padlock. You make your purchases with it. You exercise with it. You shower with it. Your device conforms to your schedule, skills, routine, and capabilities–not the other way around.

By this time in the future, new operating systems and commercial ecosystems will have emerged, and independent aggregators will no doubt have razed many of the barriers between them. These giants of cloud commerce will be forced to compete for every transaction, further driving down costs to the consumer. Hardware will be the differentiating factor among devices, as well as market adoption/saturation.

Until that time, our smart-devices, although novel and fun to play with, are nowhere near as useful as they can and will be. They’re not worth fighting over with your friends, and their brands shouldn’t be part of how you define yourself.

 

The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same

I still get the occasional flyer under my windshield wiper proclaiming RFID to be the “mark of the beast.” Their fears stem from Revelation 13:16-17:

16 And [the Antichrist] causeth all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads:

17 And that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

I can only imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth that will follow the looming embrace of NFC payments and wearable tech.

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