Bennett Haselton writes "How did a $400-billion company ship millions of units of a phone with a calendar app that displays the wrong date, a texting app that can't reply to group texts, a screen capture function that doesn't work, and a phone app that won't let me use the keypad unless the speakerphone is on? The answer, perhaps, suggests deeper questions about why market forces fix certain problems but not others, and what to do about it." Read on for the rest of Bennett's thoughts.
I've been using either a Samsung Stratosphere or a Samsung Stratosphere 2 from September 2012 to the present. Where to begin?
If you open the calendar application on the Stratosphere 2, it usually highlights tomorrow's date as "Today," and lists tomorrow's calendar entries as your list of things to do "Today." Here is a picture of my phone's screen taken on June 2, with the calendar app displaying "Today, Mon, Jun 3 2013" — despite the phone knowing the correct time is 9:22 PM on June 2.
Strangely, in the morning the calendar app would display the correct day as "Today," but would switch to the wrong day some time in the afternoon, and eventually I decided that the calendar app was probably using Coordinated Universal Time to decide what "Today" was, which is 9 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time.
You'll notice that these images are not screen captures, but photos taken with another phone. This is because some time between the Stratosphere 1 and 2, the screen capture function broke — every support site says you're supposed to be able to take a screen cap on a Stratosphere by pressing the Home and Power buttons at the same time, and that works on the 1, but not on the 2.
If someone else sends a text to multiple recipients including you, the Stratosphere gives you no indication that it's a group text, and there's no way for you to see the other recipients or reply to the whole group. (I had a lot of awkward "What, you were asking everybody, not just me?" moments before I realized what was going on.) Other users have been complaining about this for months, and it apparently affects more Android phones than just the Stratosphere.
The built-in camera refuses to take a picture if the battery is low — it just says "Warning: low battery" and exits. Yes, I know they think they're doing it for my own good since the camera is a battery hog, but a few times I've wanted to take a picture where it was well worth using up a half a percent of my remaining battery life or however much it would have taken, but the phone wouldn't let me. That should be the user's decision, dammit.
When I was in Canada last week, if I tried sending a text message longer than 160 characters, the phone would tell me that the message sent, but it would actually fail silently and never get delivered. I'm not sure whether to blame Verizon, Android, or Samsung for this one (or just, you know), but in the end someone has to take responsibility for the product, and the phone telling you that a message was sent when it actually got lost, is a complete fail. If it doesn't work, fine, give me an error message, but never tell the user a message got sent successfully if it didn't.
During a phone call, the on-screen keypad doesn't work unless the phone is on speakerphone. If the speakerphone is off, the screen goes dark after about 1 second of inactivity, making it impossible to enter an account number or anything else. I can avoid this bug by turning on a speakerphone (which is how I know it's a software bug, not a problem with the touchscreen), but this is a pain if I'm in a public place and don't want to annoy everyone around me who would have to listen to all the voice prompts. (The phone's software seems to be following a rule like: "If the speakerphone is not on, then when the phone moves away from the user's face, assume the user is not actively using the phone and let the screen go dark" — where the bug is that it doesn't make an exception and keep the screen on if the user is actively pressing keys on the keypad.)
At first, these and many, many other bugs produce a state of mind that transcends annoyance to reach a kind of genuine curiosity, where you're asking "How did this happen?" not rhetorically, but because you actually want to know. But eventually the surprise wears off, and you're just left with bugs that are disproportionately aggravating because they obviously would have been caught during even the most basic UI testing. They're aggravating to me not because of how much they get in the way (you eventually get used to them), but because the existence of those bugs conveys a certain lazy attitude towards finding and fixing bugs at all.
I realize this is not a logical reaction. The aggravation you feel towards a bug should depend on how much the bug actually interferes with the user experience, not on how easily the manufacturer should have found it. Rationally speaking, the biggest problem with the phone right now (and the reason I'm having to mail to back to the manufacturer for a replacement) is that the charging port spontaneously broke, so that unless the micro USB charger is plugged in exactly right, the phone can't charge (even if you get it right and form a connection successfully, the connection breaks if you move the phone half an inch). Needless to say, that's exasperating — but it's hard for me to get mad at Samsung over that, because it's not an easy defect to catch at the manufacturing stage. On the other hand, if the calendar app displays the wrong day, I would say that someone should be fired over that except that probably nobody was assigned to do that testing in the first place.
I also posted questions about each of these problems on AndroidForums.com and AndroidCentral.com (those links show all questions recently posted from my username on each site), which have so far received hundreds of "views" but no replies. I mention this because some people think that if you do run into problems like these, all you have to do is post a question and The Community will help you out with a workaround. Nope.
Also, lest you think you can do away with these bugs by downloading third-party replacements for all of these apps, I spent part of an afternoon downloading different texting apps to see if any of them would fix even part of the problems I had with the built-in one. None of them worked much better, although several of them displayed pop-up ads over every third incoming text message, and most of them did not play nicely with each other, giving me no way to disable them so that their notifications would double and triple up on top of each other for every received text. So I gave up. Even if I thought I might eventually find a better app for texting, I didn't have time to test multiple replacements for every built-in default app that didn't work.
Farhad Manjoo has a column up at Slate arguing that the reason many Android phones suck is that they're laden down with adware attempting to extract more personal information and money from the user. I'm sure that's part of the problem, but I can't see how the manufacturer is making any money off of the bugs I ran into; they were just being lazy.
The problem, I think, is that phone manufacturers know that phone reviewers (and users, when they're choosing between models in the store) will focus on easily quanitifiable attributes, such as size, weight, battery life, and the number of megapixels in the camera. The number of aggravating bugs in the user interface is not something that is easy to compare across phones (and in any case would not be printed on the box). Thus market forces simply don't favor the development of a hassle-free interface, because in most cases the phone manufacturers wouldn't be rewarded for it.
And — I don't consider this too much of a stretch — this is where it connects with larger issues for me, because I've been arguing for years that the free market will usually fail to fix certain types of problems, often in the context of threats to free speech and civil liberties, especially if the user lacks information they need to compare multiple options. A major argument in favor of Net Neutrality is that the typical user wouldn't realize it if their ISP were throttling access to certain sites; they would just think that the remote site was responding slowly. Since that information would be hidden from the user, "the marketplace" won't solve the problem on its own. Similarly, every time I say that my Circumventor mailing list keeps getting blocked as "spam" by Yahoo, Hotmail, Gmail, or AOL (despite being 100% verified-opt-in, natch), someone tells me that if the free market is blocking my emails as unwanted, it must be because the users don't want them. That the free market might make a mistake (in this case, because users don't have full information about what is getting blocked as spam), doesn't occur to them. I think the belief in the infallibility of the free market, is one of the most widespread fallacies of our era — people who would never make the mistake of confusing correlation with causation, have no problem thinking that if a product or service gets blocked by a third-party intermediary, it must be because the end user didn't want it.
And so when I'm staring at my Stratosphere's calendar telling me that tomorrow is actually today, it brings out my aggravation not just towards Samsung, Google, and Verizon, but towards all the people I've heard over the years claiming that the marketplace will automatically reward good products and punish bad ones. If there weren't so many people who believed that, maybe we could have collectively put more effort into rating phones according to their usability, knowing that the "invisible hand" of the marketplace was not likely to solve those problems on its own, and maybe these bugs would have gotten fixed. Instead, the "marketplace" focuses disproportionately on attributes like dimensions, weight, and processor speed that are easily quantifiable.
So perhaps the solution — seriously — would be for some third-party review company to rate each new phone on the Stupid S#!% Index. They test the phone under normal usage, and each time they run into an idiotic bug like the calendar application not knowing what day it is, they file it under Stupid S#!%, and after some fixed period of phone usage they count up all the problems and rate the phone under the Stupid S#!% Index. For greater precision, you could compile multiple scores from different users for each phone and take the average. Now you have a quantifiable rating that can be used to compare one phone to another, and could incentivize manufacturers to do more testing on their phones in order to get a better Stupid S#!% Index score.
The message that Apple keeps pushing about the iPhone, after all, is essentially that it would get a good Stupid S#!% Index rating. In his keynote address at the 2011 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference, Steve Jobs repeated the words "It just works" like a mantra — unlike, presumably, everyone else's stuff. iPhones don't score well on price, openness, or compatibility with other companies' products (I always have to tell people that my car charger is not an iPhone charger, it's a literally-every-other-smartphone-in-the-entire-world charger) — but all of that scarcely matters to some people as long as It Just Works.
Well, I couldn't tell you. I can't test an iPhone under normal usage because I'm too addicted to the Stratosphere's slide-out keyboard, which enables me to type much faster than a touchscreen but which only comes on a few Android and Windows phones, and not on any version of the iPhone. Maybe I'll try one more time to make the switch to a touchscreen while my Stratosphere is in the shop.
Yes, these most First-World of First World Problems — especially the bugs specific to the Stratosphere — only apply to a small fraction of the population. But it should be a lesson for anyone who thinks the "free market" would prevent this sort of thing from happening.
Meanwhile, every time I hear an ad talking about how "thin" some new phone is going to be, I just want to say to the phone the same thing that I want to tell all the anorexic girls in nightclubs: You're already thin enough. So stop worrying about being thin, and just try to work on not being so f@#$ing stupid.