Matt Radford

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Perpetually Dissatisfied

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Right now, someone, somewhere, is complaining about their phone…  “It’s so slow, the camera takes terrible pictures, I can’t get it to pick up my email…” And you can be sure they’re writing a blog post or comment about it, so the world knows that this thing sucks.

Wait, what? My mobile does an amazing array of things, some of which I could only dream of a few years ago. So why is there so much whining about technology? Why is there incessant criticism, particularly of mobiles? Why are you never happy?

Disappointment manifests itself at the intersection of expectation and reality (see below). So let’s consider expected versus actual experience.

Why is there such expectation?

Aside from external factors, expectation of new mobile phones is conditioned by:

Moore’s Law

In terms of computing power, things are only going to get better, faster, and cheaper. This year’s model will be have greater power without costing an increased amount. Simply put, Moore means more.

Product Cycles

Mobile manufacturers kick out new phones seemingly all the time. I’ve no idea how long these things take to design and produce because it’s irrelevant to me as a consumer. There just seems to be a constant barrage of new stuff that’s a bit better than the old stuff, which makes the old stuff instantly not worth having, compared to the new stuff. It means the next big thing is always just around the corner. Oooh, if only I wait a few more months, there’s this phone that will totally kill that other phone…  And increasingly, you don’t even have to wait for a new phone to come out to experience a better phone. With software updates, we even expect our current phones to get better while we own them. Hey, where’s my Android 2.1 upgrade anyway?

Continual, Un-ending Discussion

The Internet provides rumours of new phones and instant feedback, sometimes even before those phones are released. Every mobile released will receive a detailed dissection – its benefits, its advances, the perceived flaws and missing elements. Particularly if it’s described as a smartphone. Look at this review of the Nexus One from an iPhone developer’s perspective. It’s incredibly detailed, but also utterly anal.

Rumour sites stoke anticipation by providing tidbits of information, which often only serve to drive the speculation in the direction that would produce the most desirable device for the rumour-monger. I’m guilty of this myself, so now I confine my predictions to what makes sense for Apple, rather than what would make the best iPhone for me. But even so, it’s still adding fuel to the fire.

Overall, the expectation for new phones is not only incredibly high, but constantly increasing.

These expectations drive and are driven by the Hype Cycle. It’s too easy to get caught up in speculation about a new phone, but almost impossible not to. The expectation of and desire for an improvement over the mobile you currently have, means your stay on the Plateau of Productivity may be short indeed.

So what’s the reality?

Mobiles are getting more capable every year, with manufacturers pushing features further down into lower-end phones. But they simply can’t get there fast enough. The future is not now, it’s still to come.

And the reality is that sometimes, things do just suck. You read a hint of a rumour of the über-device you need, then wait ages for that phone to be available to purchase, and then… and then… you end up with a dog like the N97. Phone makers do let you down. They tease, then come out with devices that have had features cut since they were announced, or they simply don’t work as promised. Cue disappointment and much blog outrage.

On one hand, the geek desire is one that can never be satiated. Remember that “Utopia” also means “no place” – it doesn’t exist. Your personal mobile zenith may never be reached.

But on the other hand, there’s a sense of righteous indignation. I paid my hard-earned cash, and this thing doesn’t do what was promised!

But is it just us?

Are we – that is you, the reader of this website – the exception? Are pro-users asking too much of our phones – being too spoilt and needy? Do those sometimes referred to as “normobs” have the right idea – a certain amount of blissful ignorance coupled with delight that they can – Wow! – see Facebook status updates on their phone.

Everyone – normob or pro-user – wants to have a nice experience from their mobile. And there’s nothing wrong if Facebook updates on your phone make you smile. But I think it’s possible that geeks – those most interested in new technology – have perhaps the closest relationships to their devices. And so I think it’s the phone geeks who can see the possibilities of what could be. Those who grok their gadgets can see the most flaws, and express the most disappointment.

So no, I don’t think geeks are necessarily being unhealthily obsessive. Perhaps disappointment expressed in blogs and comments is actually just frustration at not being able to get the stuff done that we want, where and when we choose. And without people to needle over the details and point out the deficiencies, you won’t push anything forward. As my Dad has always told me, “If you don’t complain, nothing gets done”.

Keeping the WOW!

But frustration with my iPhone 3G aside, I maintain my sense of amazement. In early 2002 I was using a Motorola Ti280e. That itself was a step up from an earlier phone I’d got free from my bank. The Ti280e could send long text messages! But then I bought a Nokia 7650. Incredible – a colour screen, picture messaging, a decent camera, even (with some work) email! And it just keeps on getting better. When I compare my Ti280e from early 2002 to the iPhone I bought in late 2007 – the advances are incredible.

I’m still amazed at what my mobile can do. It’s almost hyperreal. What I can carry in the palm of my hand is multiple forms of communication, at lightspeed. I can listen to an artist’s entire life’s work of music. I can almost instantly have access to greater knowledge than entire civilisations previously could. I also have some fart apps.

So, no, our impossible needs will never be fully met. But it’s right to point out where things could be better, and push manufacturers in that direction – to make the phones that would make us feel really mobile. For me, I’d like to think that I’m always dissatisfied with my iPhone, but also constantly blown away by what it enables me to take for granted.

Title image credit: glenbowman, Flickr
Graph image credit: Hype Cycle, Wikipedia

Matt Radford is a web designer who runs All About iPhone. He’s a former analyst for telecoms and rail companies, but recently gave all that up to become a full-time parent. Matt is @allaboutiphone and his personal site is