Why don't smart phones work any more?

It seems like not a day goes by without something going wrong with the latest kit. Are modern phones too complicated for their own good?

It seems like not a day goes by without something going wrong with the latest kit. Everything's in beta nowadays, whether it's the Samsung Galaxy Nexus , Nokia Lumia 800 or the Apple iPhone . And it's all Apple's fault. And Android's. And ours. And yours.

Products that somehow didn't work used to be embarrassing anomalies that led to mass recalls. But not now. Now, phones and tablets and what-have-you are released with bits missing, or simply not working. But it's OK, because "there's an update coming".

An update? Well whoop-de-do! In that case I will definitely lay out three, four, five hundred quid for an iPhone that won't make calls , a Samsung Galaxy Nexus I can't hear , a BlackBerry PlayBook that doesn't email and a Nokia Lumia 800 that won't charge . Hooray!

It feels like every major release has something wrong with it. Is anything actually ready for release these days? Everything's in beta, and it does my head in.

I may be looking back through rose-coloured glasses, but I remember a time when everything did what it said on the tin. While some gizmos were marginally easier to use or produced marginally better results, they rarely came with egregious flaws.

But then smart phones came along and ruined everything. The iPhone made apps the next big thing, so the idea of getting a gadget and then personalising and altering and continually customising it took hold even in everyday, non-geeky folk.

The idea that you could buy a gadget and continually alter it quickly extended to the operating system itself. An Apple iOS update is a simple operation, where everybody plugs in their iPhone and iPad and shortly thereafter everyone has the same new features. Then Android took that to new levels.

Today who knows what version of Android your phone will have ? Laid out a couple of hundred quid for the latest Android handset? That's no guarantee you'll have the latest version of Android -- and no guarantee you'll ever have the latest version .

Continually upgrading your phone or gadget is a great idea -- as long as it works perfectly in the first place. The problem is that the ability to improve a gadget has led to a "that'll do" attitude. The software update has become a get out of jail free card.

And it's not just software.

The first iPhone didn't have 3G. You'd forgotten that, hadn't you? Even before smart phones were the norm that was an unbelievable omission. Apple's stated philosophy has always been to release a product only when it's perfect, but then came the great iPhone 4 antenna debacle . How did nobody at Apple try making a phone call with their left hand?

Since then, we've had the Samsung Galaxy Nexus volume bug and the Nokia Lumia 800 battery problem. We've had the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet arrive without email. They simply weren't ready for prime time, but it's OK: let's bang out a software update. We'll fix it in post.

It's our fault, too -- you and me. We clamour for the latest thing, and in this accelerated information age, we're feverishly searching for the next latest thing almost before the current latest thing has been switched on for the first time.

No wonder manufacturers knock this stuff even when it's not ready to satisfy our insatiable gadget lust. Maybe we should be happy with the stuff we have; maybe then everyone can take a deep breath and stop knocking out products that aren't ready.

Of course, many gadgets have been works in progress before iPhone apps and Android updates came along. We've long been comfortable with the separation of hardware and software in computing, each ready for upgrade or physical modification. But the fact that we could download a new image editor, add some more RAM, or soup up an engine didn't mean computer or car manufacturers shrugged and just started releasing products that weren't really ready.

When you buy a car, you don't want to hear that it's a work in progress. You want to know for certain that bad boy has been bounced off walls enough times that you'll be broadly okay should some eejit try and bounce his car off yours.

Nobody wants a car that's still in beta. Hey, sorry your ride just steered into a river. We're planning an update that'll fix that. Oops, sorry your washing machine just ate all your smalls. The next iteration definitely won't do that.

Sure, with some gadgets the stakes are different. A car that decides to stop working as you scream down the motorway could do you a serious mischief. Even worse, a washing machine that fails at its job could leave you with no trousers to go to work in. While a phone that fails at the crucial moment is just annoying.

But you look at a phone constantly, so you want it to do its job or you'll experience a drip-drip effect of frustration and annoyance that leads, inevitably, to your head actually exploding.

Seriously. We've seen it happen. A head just bursting like a melon, spattering viscera all over your stunned spouse, making a right mess of the couch -- and all because the map app freezes every time just when you come up to the turning, or you've never got a signal even in the middle of town, or the battery's already on 38 per cent when you only bloody charged it an hour ago.

And of course, before this thing pops your head like a brain-filled waterballoon, you're paying through the nose for the privilege of having this thing drive you nuts.

Something that costs up to five hundred quid shouldn't be annoying. Something that removes thirty quid from your wallet month in, month out shouldn't frustrate you on a daily basis. It should delight your senses and tickle your fancies every time you get it out of your pocket and poke at it.  

Look, it's not unreasonable to expect stuff should just work, alright?

Everything's beta nowadays. Why can't everything be better?

Tags:
Phones
About the author

Rich Trenholm is a senior editor at CNET where he covers everything from phones to bionic implants. Based in London since 2007, he has travelled the world seeking out the latest and best consumer technology for your enjoyment.

 

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