What You're Buying Is an Ecosystem that Comes with a Phone

A recent trend on technology websites has been to try to dumb down fairly complex and multifaceted matters into bite size, ELI5-type articles with the basic stance that you, dear reader, are in need of having something explained to you.

I'm not really sure why this is or where it came from, but I can see marketing folks running around the editorial room shouting "—Hey guys, great great stuff... but we need something that captures people's attention — they're seeking fast answers. Millennials, ok? MILLENNIALS!! OK!! Any questions?"

These articles are often called things like: "Here's the best TV for you", "We've picked your next fast food”, "Your next car is electrical", "Eat nothing but carrots", and so on.

The Verge is an online tech and culture website I usually take pleasure in reading. However, their latest addition to the buzzfeedy clickbait genre outlined above is called The Best Phone You Can Buy Right Now (2017). Their suggestion is the Samsung Galaxy S8:

“Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and S8 Plus is the best phone for most people. It’s available across all four US carriers and unlocked. It has the best display on any smartphone right now, a head-turning, premium design, a top of the line camera, reliable battery life, and fast performance.”

Confusingly, they later suggest that the iPhone 7 is an option “If you’re not into the S8’s curvy design or are locked into Apple’s ecosystem”.

There are many possible angles from which one could try to approach this article, such as who this article is actually for (assuming that most people who find their way to a semi-obscure website such as the Verge have probably heard of both Samsung and Apple already) — but let’s just focus on the “ecosystem” part mentioned in passing above.

As a disclaimer — I'm a long time user of both Apple's iPhone (since model 1) as well as Android. I currently have and use both an iPhone 6S and a Nexus 6P. I'm not a strong proponent of either and see pros and cons with each platform and ecosystem. In this, I think I differ from most of the authors of these articles, that unfortunately tend to be written by people that have a very strong preference for either Android or iOS. Android fans tend to stress superior tech specs of Android phones, especially per dollar spent, where Apple fans tend to stress the quality of the user experience and the quality of the third party apps. 

This actually gets us to the point here. When you choose a phone in 2017, you’re basically not primarily picking a phone, you're main decision is choosing between two competing, behemoth ecosystems: Apple or Google.

Sure, there’s a bit of overlap, especially Google's ecosystem can bleed into Apple's and Apple has made a few lame attempts at providing some of its services on other platforms, but basically, you pick one or the other as your go-to place for things like cloud storage and backup, mail and calendar, and media consumption.

The phones that are currently for sale are in some sense just the latest physical incarnations of these competing ecosystems, whether they are from Apple, Samsung, Google, Nokia, HTC, Huawei, LG, OnePlus, Sony, or what have you.

There’s a new iPhone every year and a never-ending stream of new Android phones – although the one that counts, the latest Galaxy from Samsung, is also updated on a yearly basis. The tech specs of the latest and greatest phones in terms of CPUs, storage, cameras, screens, and so on are incredibly similar, to the point of being identical, across almost all the so-called ‘flagship’ phones. Sure, there are some small differences, but these are mostly only relevant until the competition’s upgrade cycle kicks in which tends to level everything out again. So right now, as duly noted by the Verge, the Galaxy S8’s screen “has the best display on any smartphone right now”.

A few  observations here. First, what’s meant by “best display?" Second, note the “right now” disclaimer.

The S8 has a great display, no question about it. It’s one of the first phones to shrink the bezels around the its main screen to such an extent that the phone and screen becomes one. This isn’t really a device with a screen on it; it’s more a screen wrapped around a device. The screen's curved edges add to the feeling that what you’re holding is a screen, not a 'device'. The Galaxy’s screen is also very bright, has a ridicolously high resolution for its size, and uses HDR and other display techniques to boost colors and contrast to make the image pop.

Many people find that these effects produce a “better” image. Personally, I find these images artificial, plastic, and fake looking and I much prefer the more natural image reproduction offered by the iPhone and most of Apple's products (as well as some other Android phone manufacturers for that matter). What this does point to however is that “best” is a difficult concept when it comes to things where personal preference matters.

Similarly, the Galaxy’s camera is indeed “top of the line”, as argued in the Verge's article, but if you look at side by side comparisons between images taken with different smartphones you see that, first, they differ very little in anything measurable (they all have very similar color depths, resolution, etc.), and, second, where they do differ is almost entirely in their subjective aesthetics — color temperature, saturation, differences in fake bokeh, low light compensation, etc — most of which is a result of differences in post-production software processing, not hardware specs. Again, “best” here is in the eye of the beholder.

Additionally, the differences between the phone tend to be evened out very quickly. Apple's new phone is due to come out later this year — which by the way seems to look very similar to the S8, Andy Rubin's Essential Phone, as well as the LG G6 and V30. The next Pixel? Chances are it'll be an all screen phone too (or not, surprisingly enough).

What this generation of phones more clearly than ever shows us is that phones-as-devices are increasingly becoming less important, they are gradually becoming just windows into the software — software which in itself is just the machinery needed to access the underlying ecosystem. More than ever, what sets phones apart in 2017 is what’s on the screen, not the screen itself and what’s literally behind it.

The argument is that the choice you make when buying a phone is first and foremost not about the phone you buy, but the ecosystem you invest in.

If we buy this argument, then there are three relevant questions you need to ask yourself:

  1. What user interface do you prefer, Android or iOS? Both have pros and cons, yet they are becoming increasingly similar in some key areas. In my view, iOS is a much more polished user experience and I'm to this day surprised that Android isn't catching up faster in this area.
  2. What ecosystem is right for you? Google’s or Apple’s? Both have pros and cons. In my view, Google's ecosystem is better for your own stuff (such as the integration between Gmail, Google Drive, and Google Photos) whereas Apple's ecosystem is much better when it comes to entertainment. iTunes has a bad rep, sure, but it's also very functional.
  3. How privacy conscious and concerned are you? If you are concerned about privacy, you would naturally gravitate towards Apple's ecosystem. This is not to say your data is safe with Apple, but unlike Google, Apple's key "product" isn't your data. What's a bit counter intuitive in all this is that it's probably less likely that Google gets hacked than Apple, so in some sense your data is probably more secure with Google, but on the other hand Google's using that data in a variety of ways — not all of which you're aware.

Looking at it this way — when you take a photo with your phone, what happens to that image after you taken it? What would you want to happen to it, or not happen to it?