The Curious Case of Phone vs. Smartphone

It seems to me that the world around me is in a constant state of (technology) hype. Latest and greatest is the only way to go. I am talking about the craze of smartphones (and smart devices in general), of course. It is automatically assumed that anyone under 60 years old must have a modern “smartphone” and feature phones are relegated to being either a relic from the past used only by the elderly or “burner phones” to be used as your non-primary phone (like work phone or a backup emergency phone). In this post I am going to make my case why this attitude is unhealthy and incorrect. I will also express my disdain for most modern smartphones and will explain my point of view. This is going to be a biased article, keep that in mind before reading: I’m not trying to be “right”, I’m just expressing what (and how) I think.

Foreword, or “Tyranny of the Majority”

First of all, I want to describe the overall atmosphere which forced me to write this article. Every time I pull my non-smart, non-touchscreen phone at work, or basically anywhere where there’s acquaintances nearby, the reaction is always the same: “Whaa?.. What is that? Why are you using this? Can’t you afford a smartphone?“. Then when you try to explain that you don’t need and don’t want a smartphone, that this simple, functional phone is enough, you get these puzzled looks… People start to think you are some kind of weirdo, or they start accusing you of trying to be different. “Just stop pretending to be special and get a smartphone like everyone does“, they would say. Apparently, to them it’s inconceivable that a specialised device could be as good (let alone better) at some tasks than universal smartphone. It’s like I don’t even have the right to choose what phone to use without being judged/ridiculed/frowned upon. Either use a smartphone or die (or, at least, be exiled from “normal” society).

What’s even more absurd, is that even if you do use a smartphone, there are only a few “right” choices: try using a rugged smartphone such as Sonim, or CAT, and you will once again cause same confused reaction, same puzzled looks, same questions and assumptions that you’re only doing this because you’re abnormal in some way. “For that money, you can get an iPhone!“, people will say. “But I don’t want an iPhone” I would reply, and the following reaction would be “Whaaa?.. But what do you mean? You’re just pretending.” Apparently, it’s supposed to be a common knowledge that every single person wants only one phone: iPhone. But since not everyone can afford it, less rich settle on Samsungs, Xiaomis, HTCs etc. And then if you’re really, really poor, only then you would use a feature phone. That’s how the thinking goes. When I got myself a rugged CAT S60 smartphone, which costs almost as much as iPhone6, it blew their minds: “This person has money for an iPhone, but he chooses to get something else instead? He must be stupid“. I even heard arguments (directed at me personally) such as “Hundreds of millions of Americans are waiting in huge lines to pay nearly 1000$ for a new iPhone, and you are saying you don’t want it??? That’s absurd!“. Also, in the same argument, I was told repeatedly that “Rugged phones are crap, better get an iPhone instead.” and “You’re just fantasising about apocalypse and pretending to be ninja, when you grow up you will understand why everyone chooses an iPhone.

OK, now let’s continue to the main article…

Form over Function

The first issue I have with most smartphones is that almost universally phone manufacturers are sacrificing ergonomics, features and usability in order to make a device stylish and shiny. It’s all about the looks:

  • all-glass, ultra-slippery, shatter-prone, fingerprint-collecting backs;
  • slim-to-nonexistent bezels that contribute to fragility of the device and makes it tricky to get a good grip;
  • obsession with ever thinner and thinner devices, which results in abysmal battery life;
  • obsession with ever larger screens, making it impossible to use a phone with one hand (or comfortably put it in the pocket);
  • refusal to implement any kind of physical keyboard — because it is incompatible with “largest screen” and “thinnest possible” manias;

Since the smartphone became the main accessory for both men and women, a status symbol as important as the car, anything can be sacrificed for the looks and that supposedly “premium” appearance. I cannot stand this attitude about as much as I cannot stand suits or tuxedos — those things are pinnacles of “form over function”. Clothes that are as unnatural, as uncomfortable and as impractical as possible, yet cost huge amounts of money because they are supposed to show your status — in my mind, that is just absurd. Picking up a good rugged feature phone or even an old Nokia 1101 feels like a breath of fresh air: it’s simple, it works 100% of the time and works well, it does not require any maintenance or special handling, it feels natural to use with one hand, it gives you proper tactile feedback, it’s made of very durable and resilient (yet cheap) materials: rubber and plastic. And it’s battery lasts for weeks. It’s like putting on a jumpsuit after wearing a tuxedo.

Feature-less and Character-less Design

Wherever you look, all modern smartphones are just simply large slabs of glass+metal (or, in latest cases, all-glass). They all look the same, yet they try really hard to differentiate themselves by slight changes in curvature and maybe colour. Now if anyone remembers Nokia E90 Communicator, Nokia N90 or even Blackberry Bold line — those were all smartphones with their distinct characters and visual features. And if we would dive into feature phone arena, the features and characters are even more diverse. In short, current modern smartphones, despite being “cutting edge technology” (as marketing drones would like you to think), are unbelievably boring. If you’ve seen one of them, you’ve seen them all. Well… Okay, there was one major player in the smartphone market quite recently that did dare to produce something really different, innovative and bold. Behold, the BlackBerry Passport:

Sadly, no one really cares for a smartphone that is not an iPhone or iPhone clone.
To illustrate this point, here are some popular Nokia phones from the past:

And here are most popular current phones:

Attitude to consumers

Looking at pictures above and current marketing trends I came to the conclusion that past phone makers, such as old Nokia, were operating under the assumption that people are different: that they have different needs, different tastes and different values. Thus, Nokia designers and engineers were striving to fulfil those different needs by producing very different and diverse devices. In contrast, current crop of smartphone makers seem to have the motto “Consumers will want what we train them to want“. They refuse to accept that people are different. They just throw in a slightly upgraded version of their phone every year or so, run an ad campaign saying “XX phone — now 10% slimmer, shinier and sexier. Go buy now.” That is it. That’s how current smartphone manufacturers treat us, consumers. Manufacturers no longer listen to market demands — instead, they create a market demand. And for me, that’s highly offensive — some big corporation thinking they can tell me what to like and what to want? And then I am supposed to give them money for that? They can go sodomize themselves with their selfie sticks.

Lack of Contact and Proper Grip

I recently realized one more very important aspect about modern smartphones: they have zero tactility and zero “feel”. Because of their shape, all modern smartphones come into contact with your palm in a very unnatural way — human palm and psyche is not accustomed to handle large, flat, thin slabs of glass.

Feature phones, on the opposite, are much more ergonomic thanks both to their shape and materials: rubber and plastic is many times more ergonomic, more resilient, more durablecheaper to manufacture and overall better than glass and metal used in modern smartphones. But… Plastic and rubber apparently isn’t shiny enough to qualify for a device that costs near 1000€ and (for some people) is supposed to be a status symbol. Plastic and rubber does not “look premium”, as some people might say… Thus the modern trend is to choose materials that are impractical, unpleasant to touch, requires constant wiping to keep fingerprints off. Just because of the looks.

The Horror of Touchscreen Input

Virtually anything you do with a smartphone is accomplished by stabbing your fingertips at that flat piece of glass. It gives your fingers zero feedback, although your eyes can see things happening as a result. At least for me, this causes a serious “cognitive dissonance”, feels very unnatural. Also, smartphone’s reaction to your fingers are often inadequate or very imprecise. After you stab and icon with your finger, it might take 0,2s for the result to appear on the screen, or it might take 0,5s, 1s, 3s… And in worst case, entire phone can freeze. It’s a very inconsistent behaviour and on a subconscious level very frustrating. It’s as if the things happening on the screen are not really a direct result of your actions. Also, occasionally you would miss the icon or a button on the screen completely, which is even more frustrating. You have to be looking directly at the screen and concentrate your full attention to it in order to precisely hit an icon, a button or a control element. Other times the phone would not register your tap because you tapped too quickly, or did not make enough skin contact with the screen, or because your fingers are too dry/wet. Quite often you are left wondering if the phone just registered your touch and is now performing the operation, or do you need to stab your finger at the screen again?.. It’s a struggle. A struggle to use a device as simple as a phone.

Even fans of touchscreens are always using auto-correct everywhere, because without it every 3rd letter in their messages would come out wrong. Auto-correct re-mediates this issue somewhat by means of guesswork/prediction, but then instead of mis-typed letters you get wrong words, which sometimes is hilarious, other times cause misunderstandings, but it’s always annoying for the user. It feels as if you were a handicapped person using some kind of movement aid, but that movement aid fails you as often as it helps you. It’s not a good feeling.

Now that is NOT the case with proper feature phones (especially old ones) — physical buttons always give you satisfactory physical feedback, you can feel them with your fingers even without looking at them and the reaction time to every single button click is very deterministic — if certain operation takes 0,1s from button press to the result on the screen, then it will always be 0,1s. Every. Single. Time. That gives a feeling of reliability and consistency. And you would never miss a button (unless you were using a really crappy and unusually small keyboard). You could easily write messages, or even do some other simple things without looking at the screen. And, as a result, you could pay more attention to your surroundings instead.

Overly Complicated and Unreliable Operating Systems

The issues with inconsistent response time are thanks to the complexity and layered nature of modern smartphone operating systems. There are many, many issues and good (as well as bad) reasons why smartphone OSes are what they are and have the shortcomings that they have… I’m not going to get into those reasons here. I just want to emphasize my grievances and make a case for my hate towards them.

It is well known that the more complex a piece of software is, the more lines of code it has, the higher the probability of serious bugs and performance issues. Smartphone OSes are becoming as complex as traditional general-purpose computer OSes and runs into same problems as a result:

  • Poor (or very inconsistent) performance
  • Security bugs (sometimes critical)
  • A need for constant updates (mostly because of security bugs)
  • Updates fix old bugs, but introduce new ones, starting a vicious cycle

These problems are made even worse by fast-paced development when programmers are pushing the software out to users as soon as it reaches semi-working state, making users their beta-testers (this is also known as “Agile development”).

I remember one (of many similar) case when my colleague came to the office all frustrated: that night failed software update on his smartphone caused on-screen keyboard to crash just split-second after appearing on the screen. He could not even enter the PIN to unlock the phone… He did not use any bio-metrics and phone was encrypted. Nothing helped, he had to do a complete factory restore, erasing all data. He wasn’t using contact sync with Google account, thus he also lost all his phone numbers etc. And that was his one and only phone (as it is the case for most smartphone users). This is a very good example of how unreliable modern smartphones are.

None of that ever happened (at least to my knowledge) with simplistic single-purpose OSes on phones like Nokia 3310 and the like. Even if it did happen, those issues were either very minor, or very localized.

Fragile Hardware

On top of issues with OS reliability and miserable battery life, modern smartphone users are suffering from very common issues of shattered screens and broken phones. They buy this mega expensive, ultra thin, shiny and stylish phone only to wrap it immediately in a cheap rubber or leather case and stick a screen protector on it. And yet phone repair shops are still busy replacing shattered screens. Buy 950€ phone, break the screen in first few months, pay another 150€ for screen replacement, and now you have 1100€ device that needs to be handled with care and requires you to lug around a beefy USB power-bank to get through a full day of heavy use. Yes, I just checked those prices in the official store.

They Do Shit in the Background No One Asked Them to Do

Modern smartphone OSes do shit in the background that no one asked them to do. There are always random background crap like sync jobs, background scanning of WiFi and BlueTooth neighborhood, GPS coordinates logging at random times, apps waking up from sleep/background and consuming CPU cycles doing hell knows what, Google Services Framework doing it’s own things, update checks, push notifications from sources I did NOT subscribe (like ads from MS Office and similar) and many, many more… Allow me to illustrate: when I bought CAT S60 with Android 6.0, in a default configuration battery would last me 2-3 days max. But when I went in deep, installed Greenify, set up aggressive app killing policies, disabled all background data, opted-out of using WiFi and Bluetooth for location services and did many other things, that phone now lasts me about 11-16 days if I use it as my primary phone (calls, messages and occasional Uber/internet access). Nonetheless, Android keeps bugging me to re-enable background data, to opt-in to location services scanning WiFi/Bluetooth and similar. It really wants to do all that background crap that I don’t need (because Google wants to monetize that data). There are many more things I would like to do, customize and disable, but this model still has no root, so I’m stuck. Anyways, this illustrates my point: battery life went from 2-3 to 11-16 days after I worked hard to prevent useless crap (for me as a user) from happening in the background.

They Take Control Away From User

Modern smartphone OSes take control away from the user and transfers it to the OS vendor. With each new version, smartphone OSes are becoming more and more locked-down. For example, features such as mounting phone/SD card as USB mass storage or ability to turn on airplane mode via API were removed from Android. There are more, but I chose 2 most absurd and inexplicable limitations imposed by OS vendor that gives no advantage to the user. Google says it removed a capability to enable airplane mode by apps because of privacy/security concerns, which is total bullshit, because apps can still turn on WiFi and do background scanning of WiFi networks even when I explicitly disabled WiFi in settings… I mean, it’s OK to let any arbitrary app to use WiFi (even though user turned it off), but somehow it’s a “privacy/security concern” if an app disables all radios? The main reason for this restrictions was obviously for Google to be able to gather more data — since now users cannot use apps to schedule “airplane mode”, which means more devices will be online more of the time. I really wanted to do scheduled “airplane mode” during night between 23:00 and 06:00, which would have further conserved the battery, but you have to either use a very old version of Android that still supports that, or root your device, and neither is possible for my phone.

Jack of All Trades, Master of None

In part due to their universal general-purpose nature, modern smartphones try to do everything, yet fail to do any single thing really well. They are the “ultimate compromise”. This issue is especially stark when trying to use actual phone functions: calling and SMS. Basic feature phones are much more convenient for phone calls and messages, it’s much easier to make/take a phone call or send a message using old basic Nokia with monochrome screen than it is using latest top of the line smartphone.

Another issue with having a serbentillion functions on one (very unreliable) device is that if you lose it or break it (or the battery runs out), you lose all those functions. For some people it’s the equivalent of losing your phone, your watch, your MP3 player, your internet access, your navigation skills, your contacts, your camera, your alarm clock… you get the idea.

Planned Obsolescence

Modern smartphones are designed and manufactured to last a year or two and things such as non-replaceable batteries, lack of critical security updates for older devices and constant pressure to use latest and greatest model makes sure consumers are forced to buy a new phone every year or two. This might vary slightly depending on where you live and to which class you belong (some people in first-world countries and enough income actually replace their phone immediately when a new model comes out, every time). This I also cannot stand, knowing that a device is on the countdown to becoming obsolete the very minute it rolls off the conveyor belt.

In contrast, feature phone makers do not expect their consumers to ditch their phone and buy a new one every year. In part because feature phone scene is not that exciting and “bleeding edge” extreme space nanotechnology as smartphone scene. Feature phones are built to serve a purpose, not to be status symbols. They are not general purpose computing devices like smartphones, they do only very few things, but they do them well. All these things are especially true for previous era feature phones, the ones that were on store shelves along with previous era smartphones (Nokia N series, Blackberry, etc.). Right now, feature phones fill only few niches: rugged phones, cheap phones for third-world countries and backup/”burner” phones. All of these (except maybe burner phone) still have to be reliable and made to last… Just one “but”: manufacturers are forced to cut corners since no one is willing to pay good money for feature phones anymore.

<will be continued as my frustration with smartphones grows…>