“It Just Works”

by Steve, October 7th, 2014

techApple released it’s latest shiny toy last month, and the faithful lined up to buy a phone with tech specs roughly equivalent to two-year-old Google phone that sold for $350 (the current generation Google Nexus 5 has even better specs, and also sells for $350). Apple’s “new” phone ranges $649-$949 depending on storage and screen size, and that’s before accessories.

Now, let’s pause to give Apple props for finally giving in and making phones with screens big enough for grownups to use. But it’s kind of funny that they’re hyping it as “bigger than bigger” after years of pretending people didn’t want large screen phones. You’d think they were the first phablet on the market. (Samsung released it’s 5.3″ Galaxy Note in 2011. It’s third generation Galaxy Note 3, released in 2013, leaves the iPhone 6 in the dust in virtually every technical category. And it costs $600.)

Apple fans get defensive about their two-years-behind-the-curve tech specs, usually falling back to the old saw that Apple products “just work” and non-Apple products require constant care and feeding. It’s pretty much the same old Mac vs. PC argument that Apple is for cool creative people and everything else is for nerds who would rather tinker with tech than be cool and creative. People really buy into this.

One thing that Apple is indisputably good at is marketing.

Anyway, our family recently became an all smartphone household, evenly split between iOS and Android. Up to this point, I’d had the joy of setting up two iPod Touches and two iPhones (a 4 and a 4s).

It never “just works,” at least for me. Please don’t think I’m belittling you if you’re an iPhone fan. Two people I love very dearly like their iPhones very much, and I understand why. There are definitely good things about iPhones. It’s just that those things are not economic or technical, so they don’t persuade me.  Also, I suspect I know a little too much about technology for my own good, and that this leads me to difficulties with consumer tech that is designed to be set up and used by non-technologists. The whole Apple experience chafes me, and makes me fell like I’m being talked down to. True fact: I experience less stress setting up a Linux server in the cloud than setting up an iPhone in my hand.

But I digress.

Last month, after the iPhone 6 was released, we picked up what has become the  ”bottom-end” iPhone, the 5c, with the goal of moving the old 4s user to the 5c and erasing the 4s as a new phone for another family member. We also got a Blu Advance 4.0, an $80 Android phone with a 4″ screen, dual-core 1.3Ghz CPU (roughly the same tech spec as the $500 iPhone 5c, but with lower quality screen and cameras).

Anyway, let’s set up the iPhone 5c. Should be easy! Right? It’s gonna “just work,” right? Well, let’s see.

  1. Open iPhone 5c. Try to distinguish stylish packaging from things you need to keep. I’m being serious here.
  2. Turn on. Won’t turn on. Battery has no charge at all.
  3. Put on charger. Oh, yeah, it’s a new charger, the old ones don’t work. Unpack the new charger, plug it in. Wait half an hour before you can turn it on. Spend that half hour contemplating the hundreds of dollars you’ve already spent on Apple-specific chargers and docks that will not work with this new Apple phone.
  4. Turn on phone, begin setup.
  5. Enter wi-fi pass phrase.
  6. Enter Apple ID and password.
  7. Wait.
  8. Get error: no SIM. “Insert valid SIM to continue.” Well, we haven’t started with the new carrier yet, so let’s just grab the SIM from the 4s.
  9. Oh, crap, the 5C has a different SIM (nano) than the 4s (micro). We’ll have to wait till we get the SIM from the new carrier. Can’t we just activate it and use it on wi-fi? No, we cannot. Why not? No reason. We just can’t. Search Apple help online. No answers there. Find same question on forums, with no answers anywhere: Why can’t we do this? You can search the totality of human knowledge on your smartphone and not find an answer to this question. Steve Jobs took the answer to this question to the grave with him.
  10. (a week later) Get the new SIM, insert it. Repeat setup 4-6.
  11. Yay! it’s ready to restore a backup from iCloud from the old phone!
  12. Oh, wait, the backup is from a phone running  iOS 8, and this phone is running iOS 7. Upgrade required before restoring this backup.
  13. Can we just install that? No. We have to start setup. Again. Redo steps 4 and 5. Again. Skip the Apple ID bit, since we just want to set it up long enough to upgrade.
  14. OK, it sets up without the Apple ID. Now let’s upgrade it. Start download. It’s 1.3 GB. Looks like it’s going to take forever. Go to bed.
  15. Get up a 5 am. Download has failed. No reason given. Restart download. Go back to bed.
  16. Get up at 8am. Screen of phone shows an Apple icon and a progress bar about 75% complete; apparently the download has completed and it is installing.  (Side note: The “progress bar” is hands-down the stupidest, most useless widget in GUI design, and it’s not just Apple). Two hours later, progress bar hasn’t moved. (Somebody with a degree in UI design please explain what purpose this widget serves!) Two more hours later, it still hasn’t moved. Try to turn off phone. Nothing. Hold down power button and home button together. Nothing. Eventually get it to turn off. Not sure what made this happen. Maybe the cursing?
  17. Turn phone back on. It boots to a home screen, as if nothing happened. It “just works!” But… is it fully upgraded? Did something go wrong? We may never know.
  18. Erase phone. “Are you sure you want to erase phone?” Yes. Erase. “Are you sure?” YES, FFS. Erase. OK, it erases
  19. Repeat steps 4-6.
  20. Restore backup from iCloud. It “just works!” Hand over phone. Take some deep breaths.

OK, that sucked. (Now, maybe there was a better way to do this without constantly repeating steps, etc. But Apple docs treat users like complete fecking  idiots, and offer no help whatsoever for anything outside of the most basic scenario. There is no “troubleshooting” because Apple products “just work.” Except when they don’t, in which case I guess you’re expected to go see one of the “geniuses” who works at the mall selling overpriced pocket computers to passionately credulous conspicuous consumers.)

OK, more deep breaths. Let’s set up the Android.

  1. Open nerdy, unstylish packaging and remove phone.
  2. Turn on. Battery at about 39%. Plug it in, just so it doesn’t die while going through what surely will be an hours-long process (right?).  It uses the same micro USB charger as virtually every phone on the market (except iPhone), so just use the nearest one handy. (We’ve got lots of them, because all the cheap-ass phones we’ve burned through over the last several years came with them. They’re not all sleek and white like a 1969 vision of what the year 2001 would look like. But they’re everywhere, and they’re basically free.)
  3. Enter wi-fi pass phrase.
  4. Answer a few basic setup questions. (No SIM? No problem.)
  5. Set up a new gmail account for cloud backups, address book sync, etc.
  6. Done. Wait, what? Yes, that’s it. Five minutes total, if that.

Now, I wasn’t trying to restore a backup to the Android, so it’s not a totally fair comparison. That might have taken another five minutes.

With all the phones are set up, we start to bicker about which is better.

    Kid 2: ”Name one thing the iPhone has that the Android doesn’t.”
    Kid 1: “Emoji.”
    Kid 2: “Look, I’ve got emoji.”
    Kid 1: “Those aren’t emoji, those are just little pictures. How about iCloud backups?”
    Me: “Google backups.”
    Kid 1: “Facetime.”
    Me: “Google Hangouts.”
    Kid 1: “Nobody uses Google Hangouts. Everybody uses Facetime.”
    Me: “Google Hangouts is used in business every day. Nobody uses Facetime for business.”
    Kid 1: “The camera on the iPhone 5c is so much better.”

There is no arguing with that. The $500 phone has a much better camera than the $80 phone.

Wait, we’re actually having this argument?

Pop quiz: what’s the least-used feature on a teenager’s telephone?

Answer: The telephone.

True fact. Teenagers today generally do not make phone calls. The phone has been replaced by a device that is capable of making phone calls but rarely does. It can even make video calls, that holy grail of mid-century modernist telecom dreams. But social media has taken over the phone and killed the phone in one fell swoop.

The joke when the first iPhone came out was that some people had actually figured out how to make phone calls on it. Or: the iPhone is just a really small iPad with a crummy telephone app. Or: the iPad is just a really big iPhone with no phone. These are no longer a jokes.

We saw a middle aged guy standing in the parking lot at the grocery store the other day, staring at his iPhone 6 Plus. At first I though, damn, this guy is really into his new phone. Then it occurred to me: he’s probably trying to figure out how to call his wife to ask her what the hell he came to the store to get.

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