It’s starting to look like I need a new cellphone. My current one is two and a half years old now, and while it’s served me well, the hardware is starting to fail in various minor but annoying ways. And since we don’t fix things anymore, that means it’s time to go cellphone shopping.
Here’s the thing: I’m a nerd, and mobile technology is the hottest sector of the technology marketplace right now. There’s been an explosion of options, and sorting through different technologies to find the Right One is the sort of thing I’m supposed to love doing.
So why do I find the process so dispiriting?
I’ve tried four times now to buy a new phone, and each time I’ve walked away without closing the sale, feeling vaguely depressed about the whole process to boot.
I think it has to do with values. I know the kind of device I want to buy; the problem is that nobody makes it.
I want to buy a phone that’s open — that respects my right as the owner of the device to use it in whatever way I see fit. But every modern smartphone is locked down in various ways, either by the manufacturer, the carrier, the operating system vendor, or some unholy combination of the above. They all want to channel you into App Stores where things you used to get for free on the Web you now have to pay a dollar a pop for — and which you’ll never get access to at all unless they approve it first.
I want to buy a phone that’s responsible about power consumption. Modern smartphones suck power at an absolutely unholy rate. I have yet to meet anyone who can boast of getting more than a single work day out of a fully charged smartphone. In this respect phones are actually getting worse, as time goes on and features like huge displays and quad-core (!) processors become standard.
I want to buy a phone that’s ethically built. I want the people who actually build the phones to be able to keep a non-trivial share of the enormous profits they generate, and I don’t want them to have to risk their health or work eighteen-hour shifts — especially when doing so only serves to bump up management’s already huge profit margin.
I want to buy a phone that’s respectful of my privacy. I always giggle a bit when I hear people talking about Cellphone Revolutions, because the only reason those work is that the governments of the world haven’t realized what an enormous opportunity cellphones provide them. (Though a few have figured it out.) Here you have a device placed in every citizen’s pocket that knows (and can therefore record) everywhere you go and everyone you communicate with — and the citizens carry them voluntarily! They even consider them a status symbol! The potential for abuse is huge, and it’s only growing as the devices gain the ability to sense more about the world around them and to connect to more types of networks. I want a phone that puts my interests before that of a government, or a carrier, or an app developer.
So that’s what I want. But the state of things in 2012 is that it’s an impossible list. If you want a phone — especially a smartphone — you just have to accept that it’s going to be a locked-down, power-sucking blood diamond that routinely rats you out to a breathtaking range of third parties.
I suppose that’s the way it is, at least for now. But it’s hard to get excited about, that’s for sure.