90WPM

Seeing It

Update: Gruber has clarified his position on this.

In case you missed it, or you don’t read tech blogs, there’s a bit of a row going on at the moment regarding MG Siegler’s lukewarm review of the new Galaxy Nexus. Josh Topolsky at The Verge wrote a scathing editorial critiquing this bit from MG’s review:

Unfortunately, the system still lacks much of the fine polish that iOS users enjoy. The majority of Android users will probably think such criticism is bullshit, but that has always been the case. I imagine it’s probably hard for a Mercedes owner to describe to a Honda owner how attention to detail makes their driving experience better when both machines get them from point A to point B. As a Honda owner myself, I’m not sure I would buy it — I’d have to experience it to understand it, I imagine. And most Android lovers are not going to spend enough time with iOS to fully appreciate the differences.

The article attacks Siegler’s review on multiple points, but the quote which seemed to set Topolsky off most of all was not actually from the review, but rather an aside from John Gruber at the end of his link to the piece:

You either see it or you don’t.

Topolsky’s response?

The world is not black and white. It’s really, really gray. You can see it and not care. You can see it and love it. You can see it and hate it. You can see it but need something else. You can see it, and yet see other things too.

Topolsky’s right; you can see an iPhone (or an iPad), and the polish that goes into the experience, and not care. Some people hate them, or need other things that they don’t offer, like true multitasking, or the ability to install apps that are not subject to approval by a third party.

"Elitists"

Topolsky is clearly pissed off. It’s easy to dismiss his post as yet another Android reviewer ranting about Apple-centric bloggers, but if you listen to the core of his argument, he’s voicing a common objection from the Android camp: that reviewers who regularly praise Apple products are generally dismissive of Android devices, cherry-picking the worst failures as evidence that Android Just Isn’t There Yet.

That MG chose to make his point with an analogy that opened his argument up to attacks on the basis of classism is an unfortunate detail.1 But Topolsky seems to be offended not so much by the implication that iPhone users are generally richer and better educated than Android users, but rather that Android users are somehow ignorant and blind to the difference in polish between Android devices and the iPhone.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult for me as an iPhone user to understand how Android users put up with the annoyances that are commonplace on most mainstream handsets. So I can understand how bloggers who appreciate Apple’s attention to detail might be tempted to dismiss Android enthusiasts as feature-porn junkies who don’t notice how far Android has to go to match the experience that iOS users have enjoyed for years.

That said, it might be a good idea for us to dial down the sarcasm and start anticipating these kinds of attacks before hitting “publish”.

The fact is, there is no great divide between the blind and Those Who See. Design is subconsciously processed, even by people who downplay its role in successful products. We all come out pretty much the same at birth: we can see, touch, and hear the same things. Cognitive interruptions and flow are attained in more or less the same ways across cultures. We’re not really the unique snowflakes that we think we are. Android users “see” the user experience just as clearly as iPhone users, they just have other priorities—carrier choice, monthly plans, LTE support, camera quality—that override concerns about design and polish.

It follows logically that smartphone penetration will always be split along cultural lines.2 But one divide does not imply another: Android users are not mouth-breathing Morlocks. They have different priorities, and they have a right to not be made fun of for that.

Still I’d encourage those members of the tech press who are sick of bloggers shitting all over Android to take a long, hard look at their audience and think about what they really want. Not what they might say they want—they often lie—but which device will make them happier.

Trade-offs

I won’t question the value of choice in the market. That goes without saying. And I understand, to a degree, Topolsky’s rage at the tone of MG’s analogy, even though (as Siegler himself pointed out later), the iPhone 4S is $100 less expensive than the Galaxy Nexus.3

But Gruber has a good point. Consider the above quote in context:

You either see it or you don’t. If you don’t, that’s cool, enjoy your Nexus. But I think the reason Apple Stores are so crowded, and getting so big, is that there are an awful lot of people who do see it.

What do these people see? Are they really blinded by marketing, as so many reviewers suggest? Is it possible that for every AT&T subscriber who chose an Android phone because it was the best option for their needs, 15 other subscribers were seduced into getting an iPhone 4S regardless of whether it solved their problems?

Gruber was a guest on Topolsky’s show, On The Verge, last week. It was a great episode, and if you haven’t already you should watch it.

There was a moment where Gruber and Topolsky were discussing Gruber’s notorious “Apple fanboy” reputation, and Gruber pulled an example from The Verge’s review of the LG Nitro. The review was mixed (in Topolsky’s words, “[The phone] wasn’t a complete piece of crap”), but Gruber chose to highlight the choice of the manufacturer to include high-speed LTE4 mobile internet at the expense of significant battery drain with no option to use slower but more energy-efficient 3G.5 His explanation for why he chose to pull that detail?

"To me, that shows that Apple is a company with a very different philosophy towards these products. At Apple—"

At this point, Topolsky cut him off and noted that his views are influenced by his beat, and the point was lost in the shuffle as they moved on to discussing Gruber’s bias or lack thereof.

What surprised me was that Topolsky, rather than addressing Gruber’s point about the battery life, chose instead to deflect it with an all-to-common refrain: some variation on “of course you’d say that.” I’d be interested to hear whether or not he thinks that the drop in battery life is worth the speed increase.

The 99%

Here’s what I think Gruber was trying to say: at Apple, the people making the products are making them for the 99% of users who don’t give a damn about having the absolute latest technology in their phones.

This is not to say they don’t care about their phones, just that they don’t know, or care, what goes on inside them. Chances are, they never will. They have other things they care about: baseball, their child, the Euro. They’re the people who have no idea what LTE means, or how many megapixels the top smartphones can pack into a light sensor. They just want their phone to work, and they want it to work well. Everything else is just icing on the cake.

How do we define “working well”? It means a responsive UI that doesn’t make the user feel like they’re waiting for the device to catch up with their input. It means not worrying about malicious software messing up the phone, even if that means they can’t install any app they want. And it means a battery that lasts longer than a few hours of normal use.6

I love The Verge, and Topolsky was a very nice guy in person when I met him at the taping of the aforementioned show, but it feels sometimes like tech writers who are skeptical of Apple’s more public advocates are living in a world in which these things don’t matter as much as some other things. And I don’t think that’s the world most people live in. To me, LG releasing a phone with high-speed 4G internet but horrible battery life and no way to switch to 3G is like an automobile company actually building The Homer.7

"You can see it but need something else. You can see it, and yet see other things too."

Topolsky needs other things. He’s not alone. That’s why we have a free market. But the market has already spoken many times, and the answer has thus far been “Apple”. And it will continue to be “Apple” until another company makes something that convinces it otherwise.


  1. I think the point MG was trying to make was really that some Android users, for varying reasons (“openness”, lack of true multitasking, general antipathy towards Apple, etc.), will never actually use an iPhone for long enough to grow accustomed to the difference in polish, in much the same way most drivers would never test drive a Mercedes they couldn’t afford anyway. 

  2. It certainly has so far. Rich people owned brick phones until the StarTAC came out. Now the rich kids all own iPhones and iPads and poorer, less educated people own Android and feature phones (for anyone wishing to debate this, comScore has put the argument to bed). This will most likely shift somewhat now that the iPhone 3G is free with a 2-year contract. 

  3. It’s interesting to note that Android is beginning to adopt economic strata similar to iOS. On the Apple side, lower income users are already driving the iPhone’s growth and this will only increase with the new free-with-contract price point point for the 3gS. More well-off users get a 64GB 4S—which, for the record, costs more than a Galaxy Nexus fully loaded. Android phones now run the gamut from free with a contract all the way up the price scale, and can no longer be dismissed as cheap knockoffs for users who can’t afford an iPhone. 

  4. 3GPP Long Term Evolution, A.K.A. “real” 4G. 

  5. In fact, after going on the show Gruber later linked to another review of the Galaxy Nexus which trashed its LTE battery life as well. 

  6. Before you jump on me about the horrible battery drain in early builds of iOS5, check Apple’s track record and consider the possibility that iOS5 (which introduced iCloud, a backup service running constantly in the background) was an outlier. Apple has a long history of prioritizing battery life over the fastest or thinnest possible hardware. 

  7. Fun fact from Nick Disabato: The Homer was meant to poke fun at the Ford Edsel, another massive failure that was actually produced and sold. 

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