Phone Lock-In: Switching Isn’t Always An Option

on Monday, Sep. 9th

Tomorrow is the big day. The day that the tech press waits for every year: the announcement of a new iPhone. Some come to praise, others to bury Apple. Everyone–at least secretly–hoping that there will be a surprise at the end of Tim Cook's hour long talk in front of some of the most privileged technophiles in the world.

The tech press is afflicted with a "keeping up with the Joneses" mentality. The meaning of their jobs, and by extension their lives, tied up in a never ending quest for the perfect gadget. For the past few years this has meant breathless coverage of the smartphone market.

As an iPhone owner I'm often tempted by the "newest-latest-best" phones from the Google and Microsoft camps. I play with them at the local Best Buy and think about jumping ship for a minute. Until I remember: I'm locked in.

Not in the store, physically, and not even in a phone contract. I'm overdue for an upgrade, the "home" button is on the fritz, and I can abandon ship for a new handset at any time without financial penalty. After five years of iPhone ownership the grass often winds up looking greener on the other side.

To do so, however, means that I'd be sacrificing all the money I've put into buying apps for the iPhone over the years. This is probably running into the hundreds of dollars when you add up all the games, productivity apps, magazine subscriptions, and on and on that I've sunk on measured advice and whim alike.

That doesn't even account for the entire ecosystem that ties the mobile apps to desktops, tablets and web services. Leave for Android or Windows Phone and I can kiss all those pieces of software goodbye, and start building up a new collection from scratch.

This is an option someone with a boatload of disposable income can make, and if you read the tech press it can feel like pretty much all of its reporters qualify. There's a bit of an illusion there: what can appear like limitless wealth is actually loaner phones and expense accounts. What's missing from the discussion on so many tech focused sites are the perspectives of those who are not able to afford the endless upgrade game.

In the middle-class economy hard choices have to be made. You'd think this was a point of view that would be easy for tech bloggers to keep in mind, as it is highly unlikely that they are all pulling down big bucks on a blogger's piece rate.

If you need to see how focused the myopia can get look no further than the reaction to the Nintendo 2DS handheld game system this past month.

Perhaps the most telling line in all the coverage was from this Dean Takahashi piece at VentureBeat:

Mitch Lasky, general partner at Benchmark Capital and a longtime video game industry follower, said, “To quote my six year old daughter, barely looking up from her iPad: ‘What’s a Nintendo?’”

Now that's not on Takahashi, but it illustrates the larger tech-world disconnect with those of modest means. An attitude that trickles down into the blogger world. In an earlier age, just owning a Nintendo was a mark of privilege. The cheapest iPad mini will set you back $329, a full $200 more than the 2DS. I'm glad Lasky's kid has an iPad, but beyond the mellow parks and sunny vales of Silicon Valley, not everyone can afford to put a piece of luxury tech into the hands of a first-grader.

However, the tech and gaming press doesn't seem to make the connection. Instead of a sober discussion about a striped-down version of the game maker's 3DS device, one that was clearly targeted at budget-conscious parents, we got a storm of entitled whining about how this new device wasn't for the hardcore gamers of the world.

The talk of Nintendo's irrelevance hit an all time high, all because the company had the gall to make some marketshare gains. (To be fair: there was some reasonable discussion. Wired's Chris Kolher has the best take.)

It was made for the same reason that Apple is expected to announce a low-cost, plastic iPhone tomorrow: to get another generation hooked on the company's products. To have them learn an interaction language that will then make others seem backwards by comparison.

That's the other side of lock-in.

The time I spend in Best Buy with other kinds of phones is often filled with a low level of confusion. The design metaphors that are baked into Android and Windows Phone devices are similar to Apple products, but just different enough that they feel like distinct dialects. We're all "speaking" touchscreen, some of us just have a little twang. With time I'm sure I'd get used to it, that's an advantage of having the technophile gene. Yet the gene also comes with an extra dollop of impatience, and another reason to resign myself to being a quasi-willing captive of Cupertino.

So how does all this color tomorrow?

Like everyone else, I'm hoping for something unexpectedly gee-whiz to be unveiled. It is, after all, the device I'm likely going to live with for the next three or four years if history is any guide. Something that goes beyond the auto manufacture mindset of putting a little more power under the hood and changing the styling. Something, to borrow a term, different.

Follow Noah Nelson on Twitter (@noahjnelson)

Creative Commons image by Luiz Filipe Carneiro Machado via Flickr

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