The droid you’re looking for
A few weeks ago, I replaced my iPhone 5 with a cheap Android device. Yesterday, Apple reported that its phone sales had slowed to their lowest growth rate ever. Clearly, the two facts are connected—and I’m not entirely kidding about this. My phone had been giving me problems for about six months, ever since the display was cracked in an accident last year, but I managed to soldier on with a replacement screen until shortly after Christmas. A gentle fall from my sofa to the carpeted floor was enough to finish it off, and dead lines appeared on the touchscreen, forcing me to rotate the phone repeatedly to perform even the simplest of tasks. (For a while, I seriously considered trying to write all of my texts without using the letter “P,” which was the only one that was permanently disabled.) Finally, I gave in. I was still several months away from my next upgrade, so I went to what my daughter called “the boring cell phone store” to evaluate my options. After about five minutes of consideration, I ended up shelling out forty bucks for a Chinese-made Android model, reasoning that it would make a serviceable interim phone, if nothing else, until I could shop around for a more lasting replacement. But as it turns out, I love this goddamned little phone. I like it so much, in fact, that it’s caused me to question my lifelong devotion to Apple, which has begun to seem like an artifact of a set of assumptions about consumer technology that no longer apply.
My new phone is a ZTE Maven that runs Android 5.1. Its specs aren’t particularly impressive: eight gigs of storage, 4.5-inch screen, 1.2Ghz quad-core processor. Online reviews give it an average of three stars out of five. But I’ve been consistently delighted by it. The camera is significantly worse than the one for my old phone—a real issue for the parent of a three-year-old, since nearly every shot I take of my daughter, who refuses to sit still, ends up smeared into an indecipherable blur. But I’ve learned to live with it. And in every other respect, it either matches or exceeds my iPhone’s performance. Google apps, which I use for email, maps, and web browsing, load much faster and more smoothly than before. Notifications are so seamless that they take much of the fun out of checking my email: I simply know at a glance whether or not I’ve got a new message, while my old phone kept me in delightful suspense as it slowly spun its wheels. Eight gigabytes doesn’t leave me with any room for media, but between Google Photos, which I now use to store all of my old pictures in the cloud, and streaming music from Amazon and other sources, I don’t need to keep much of anything on the phone itself. And while it might seem unfair to compare a newish Android device to an iPhone that is several product cycles behind, the fact that the latter cost ten times as much is a big part of the reason that I held onto it for so long.
And to repeat: this phone cost forty dollars. It doesn’t matter if I drop it in the toilet or lose it or break it, or if my eye is caught by something new. There’s nothing stored on it that can’t be replaced. I have close to zero connection to it as a consumer fetish item, which, paradoxically, makes me regard it with even more affection than my old iPhone. If an iPhone lags, it feels like a betrayal; if this phone stalls for a few seconds, which happens rarely, I want to give it an encouraging pat on the head and say that I know it’s doing its best. And it constantly surprises me on the upside. Part of this is due to the relentless march of technology, in which a phone that would have seemed miraculous ten years ago is now being all but given away, but it more subtly reflects the fact that the actual phone is no longer a significant object in itself. Instead, it’s a tiny aperture that provides a window between two huge collections of information to either side. You could think of our online existence as an hourglass, with one large bulb encompassing the data and activities of our personal lives and the other embracing everything in the cloud. The slender neck connecting those two gigantic spheres is your phone—it’s the channel through which one passes into the other. And we’re at a stage where it doesn’t really matter what physical device provides the interface where those larger masses press together, like the film that forms between two soap bubbles. You could even argue that the cheaper the device, the more it fulfills its role as an intermediary, rather than as a focal point.
As a result, my crummy little Android phone—which, once again, isn’t even all that crummy—feels more like the future than whatever Apple is currently marketing. There’s something slightly disingenuous in the way Apple keeps pushing users to the cloud, to the extent of removing all of its old ports and optical drives, while still insisting that this incorporeal universe of information can best be accessed through a sleek, expensive machine. Elsewhere, I’ve written that Apple seems to use thinness or lightness as a quantifiable proxy for good design, and it could theoretically do the same with price, although the odds of this actually happening seem close to zero. Apple’s business model depends so much on charging a premium that it doesn’t feel much pressure to innovate below the line, at least not in ways that are visible to consumers. But this isn’t just about cheap phones: it’s about the question of whether we need any particular phone, rather than a series of convenient, provisional, and ultimately disposable lenses through which to see the content on the other side. The truth, I think, is that we don’t need much of a phone at all, or that it only has to be the phone we need for the moment—and it should be priced at a point at which we have no qualms about casually replacing it when necessary, any more than we’d think twice about buying a new light bulb when the old one burns out. If the Internet, as people never tire of telling us, is a utility like heat or running water, the phone isn’t even the fuse box: it’s the fuse. And it took a forty-dollar phone to get me to realize this.