I consider myself an advocate of the affordable smartphone. 2015, and the years before it, seemed to paint a picture of promise for the mid and low-end smartphone, a noble future as the no-frills alternative to the $800 wonder-brick. I cannot help but feel we have failed to watch that potential emerge in a way that we can really say has served consumers well.
Who’s to blame for the promising ZenFone turning into a bloatware-ridden pile of bugs languishing on Lollipop, seven-plus months since Marshmallow was released? What’s the reason Alcatel’s relatively unbloated Idol 3 took nearly as long to get Marshmallow itself (mine still doesn't have it)? How did the OnePlus end up the poster child for QA issues, compromise, poor customer service, and slow updates? Why did it take deliberate public shaming to get Motorola to update the Moto E, and even then, not in every country? How did Motorola end up being sued for $5 million over poor warranty support? Why did HTC decide not to renew its promises of rapid Android OS updates on the new 10, all while pricing it at a seemingly obscene $700? Why is Sony trying to charge $550 for what is, at best, a $400 phone with the Xperia X?
The answer, of course, is money. It has nothing to do with companies “hating” customers. It’s not about whether or not they “care” about you - no multi-billion dollar corporation does, and it’d be silly to assume they did. It’s just dollars and cents. How many customers will I lose by not updating this phone? How much money will I save? How much damage will my brand sustain? How much bloatware do I need to put on here to make this product financially viable? Where can I cut costs on support and reduce warranty claims?
This is the cold reality of the smartphone business, and it’s just like any other. No smartphone company is legitimately interested in selling you happiness or a better life or in “delighting” you. They’re interested in selling you a metal or plastic brick and then spending as little money on you thereafter as humanly possible without completely destroying the chance of you buying another one of their products down the road.
That is not to say there is no reason to applaud the accomplishments or legitimate advances made by these companies. New technology is cool. Policies that are more friendly to consumers are cool. Phones getting better is cool. But let’s avoid romanticizing the issue: they are, when it comes down to it, just phones.
And this is why I have come to think my faith in the cheap smartphone has been largely misplaced. Perhaps it was naive to assume that companies whose business model is to make money on the physical product they sell - and not the things you do with it - wouldn’t be so short-sighted. But they’re proving to be just that. Android OS updates? Slow, if they ever come. Customer support? A cost pitfall to be avoided. These are generalities (and you will always find exceptions to the rule), but this is what commoditization does: the race to the bottom often has a near-term effect of ignoring long-term consumer concerns. Who cares if the phone you bought a year ago ends up being an almost unusable piece of junk for slowness and lack of updating? At the time you bought it, it was the best deal. And the company that built it was concerned only with that moment - the one in which you clicked “buy.”
But, for all the doom and gloom I’ve given you above, there are some companies with different motivations - and a bit more foresight. Would you believe me if I said - I know, the devil among the Nexus loyal - Samsung was one of them? Samsung provides customer support. It honors warranties. It has strong business relationships with carriers to ensure its phones are available and supported everywhere. It works doggedly to ensure that the software experience - even if it isn’t very good or oft-updated - is at least reliable for typical users. Because Samsung knows that the only way it’s going to keep selling those $700-800 wonder-bricks to you (really, your carrier or retailer) is if they keep you coming back for one every couple years. And that means that, on average, the number of customers who hate their products enough to never buy one again - drawing from a massive pool - is fairly low. That means catching those niche customer support issues, handling those fringe warranty cases that go on for months, and spending an obscene amount of money on support staff in live chat, online communities, and social networks. Oh, and advertising: all the advertising. Billions of dollars worth. And because of that, your $800 status symbol is able to justify its position in the marketplace among normal people.
Samsung also tries to sell an ecosystem - Gear devices, Level audio accessories, genuine Samsung phone accessories, and even crappy services like Milk Music. No one says they’re doing this amazingly, but they’re trying, and by sheer volume of customer base, it only makes sense that they do.
If you’re an HTC, you’re just struggling to stay afloat - you’ll tell customers anything you can get away with to get them to switch, to consider - just briefly - that you’re doing something appreciably better than the other guys. But you’re also in it for today, not tomorrow: your business’s very survival relies on pushing product right now, not two years from now. And that makes your motivations very different from that of a Samsung. The same goes for most of them - ASUS, Alcatel, Blu, Sony, OnePlus, Oppo, Vivo, Huawei, LG, Motorola, ZTE, Acer, Lenovo - very few companies actually seem especially interested in getting you to buy a second phone tomorrow, just the one they sell today.
There are other exceptions. Xiaomi sells an ecosystem of services and accessories, other lines of products that are profitable. LeEco wants to do the same. And we see LG and Motorola attempting to sell customers on the promise of ecosystem, too, with the G5 and Moto Z. The problem is that we have no idea if they’re sincerely invested in these ideas or if they’re simply a convenient cash-grab that will be abandoned the moment they prove to be unsuccessful. I’m a bit of a pessimist, but I tend toward the latter outcome.
So, am I sitting here telling you to buy a Samsung, or a Xiaomi? I mean, I’m not telling you not to. Both companies make good products. But of all the world’s smartphone makers, there’s only one that I truly know of that is all but wholly disinterested in selling you a phone: Google. Google wants to sell you a portal to advertisements. And cellular service (in America). And cloud storage. And email (with ads). And they want the experience upon the phone which you are served those ads to be good. Fast, simple, uncluttered, and enjoyable. Because if I hate my phone, I’m less likely to use it to consume those ads, and that would obviously be bad. Nexus phones have transformed from the developer and enthusiast bleeding-edge into pretty usable consumer devices. In fact, I pretty much exclusively suggest the 6P today, because it’s the only phone I can suggest in good conscience that is produced by a company that isn’t out to make money selling you a phone. Google even publishes end of life support dates for Nexus phones now - what other smartphone manufacturer does that?
Perhaps it’s cynical of me, perhaps it’s just me being risk-averse and boring, and perhaps it’s simply that I’m drinking the Nexus kool-aid. But I’m tired of reading about phones that don’t get updates, that are bogged down with sponsored bloatware, or that have all the customer support of a plastic spoon. I'm tired of having freaking trust issues with a smartphone. I want a decent phone with a decent warranty with decent software and support. And I'm willing to pay for that. I don’t want the best value at the expense of support. I don’t want the best support at the expense of affordability. I don’t even want the best phone at the expense of either of the previous two things. I just don’t want to feel like I’m getting screwed for the sake of a low price tag or a specification sheet. Increasingly, it feels like I don't have many options that aren't a Nexus.