Bennett Haselton writes My LG Optimus F3Q was the lowest-end phone in the T-Mobile store, but a cheap phone is supposed to suck in specific ways that make you want to upgrade to a better model. This one is plagued with software bugs that have nothing to do with the cheap hardware, and thus lower one's confidence in the whole product line. Similar to the suckiness of the Stratosphere and Stratosphere 2 that I was subjected to before this one, the phone's shortcomings actually raise more interesting questions — about why the free-market system rewards companies for pulling off miracles at the hardware level, but not for fixing software bugs that should be easy to catch. Read below to see what Bennett has to say.
How long would it have taken you to find these bugs, as a beta tester?
The phone's auto-correct changes single-quotes to double-quotes in contractions -- for example, when you type you're, the phone auto-corrects it to you"re .
When you backspace over part of a word that you've typed and then type the rest of the word, auto-correct corrects based on the letters that you type after you've finished backspacing, rather than the letters in the entire word that you've just completed. For example, if you type couchsurfing and the phone auto-corrects it to concurring, then backspace over all of the letters except the initial co, and then type "uch" followed by a space to form the word "couch", the Optimus changes "uch" to "such" to form "cosuch", because it thinks it's auto-correcting just the "uch" fragment and doesn't see the entire word "couch".
The first time I launched the voice mail application, the app prompted me to freely choose a new PIN code, and then sternly warned me, Mao-like, that my supposedly freely chosen PIN code was "incorrect". (I never got it working, and just called in to the voice mail number manually whenever I wanted to check my messages.)
When I bought a movie on Google Play and wanted to "pin" it to the phone -- i.e. download a static, non-streamed copy so that I could watch it offline, e.g. on a plane ride -- the phone didn't have enough internal storage left to save a copy of the movie (1.27 GB, most of it taken up in 1-2 MB increments by crapware already loaded on to the phone, so that only about 200 MB was left). So I tried saving the movie to a 32 GB SD card that I had plugged into the phone, but ran into the problem that Google Play wouldn't let me save the movie to the SD card, a problem described in Joe Levi's 2013 article "Why does Google hate your SD card?" and still not fixed almost a year later. (The comments posted on his article indicate that lots of people are pissed.)
Unlike the other bugs, this may be an example of stupidity not at the testing level but at the design specification level -- perhaps this was done in a misguided effort to prevent illegal copying. But, as Levi says of this theory, "If the DRM being used on Android is sufficient enough for content providers to accept it when media is saved internally, they should also accept it when media is saved to an SD card. Otherwise, the DRM isn't really that trustworthy, is it?" It's pointless from a copy-protection point of view, since anyone who wants to pirate a movie can just download it from various BitTorrent sites anyway; all this "feature" does is alienate people who are trying to pay for a movie legally.
In the Messaging (i.e. texting) app, you cannot search for messages by the name of the sender. Your conversations are listed in reverse chronological order by the date of the most recent message in each conversation, but to find a conversation with a particular person, you have to scroll down the entire list of conversations and keep your eyes peeled for the person's name.
- On certain mobile website forms (the Fandango site, for instance, and some others that I don't remember -- it's not clear why this happens on some website forms but not others), the phone won't let me type "special characters", the ones that appear in the upper-right corner of the keyboard keys (so that you can type the "@" symbol by first hitting the "Fn" key to access special characters, and then pressing the "2" key). This means that since I can't type the "@" symbol, I can't log in to any form that requires an email address as a username. (The workaround is to open the Gmail app, find an email address in an email message, copy the "@" symbol from the email address to the clipboard, and then paste it back in the browser form -- yes, I have to do every time I log in to a mobile site that has this problem.)
In my previous phone-suck article about the Samsung Stratosphere, I listed as many problems as I could think of at the time, and I completely forgot the fact that the phone recorded videos without any sound. (I know it wasn't a hardware problem with the microphone, since the phone app picked up my voice fine.) As part of my research into how to ruin Burning Man forever by telling "tourists" how to get there easily, I wanted to post a video of the quintessential Burning Man spectacle that makes all the dust and thirst and heat worthwhile -- and I had to post it with no sound recording, because Samsung's product testing is done by the same drunken bonobos that worked on the LG Optimus.
And both products raise the same question, not rhetorically, but seriously: How did this happen? More specifically, in a theoretical free market, any product improvement that costs only a small amount compared to the benefit it brings to consumers, should be implemented (and consumers will reward the company by paying additional dollars for the improvement, in proportion to the benefit it brings them). While it doesn't always work out that way in practice, it's hard to believe LG couldn't spring for a few English-language testers to point out that the phone shouldn't be correcting you're to you"re.
I think the answer in both cases is that the free market optimizes mainly for things that are easily quantifiable, like camera resolution and network speed, because those can be listed on the packaging and compared against other products. But the amount of stupid s*#t you run into while actually using the phone, is hard to define on an objective scale, so that's the first thing that companies will cut corners on, even if it's something that consumers would be willing to pay money for.
So my solution is still essentially the same as what I proposed after trashing the Stratosphere: Some Consumer-Reports-type outlet should rate phones on a Stupid S*#t Index (along with speed, reception, etc.), based on how much stupid s*#t they run into in a week of typical usage. Ideally the Stupid S*#t Index should be reduced to a number so that you can do a quick comparison between different models. If a cheap phone has a lot of stupid s*#t problems, but you don't mind because you want to save money, that's a valid choice, and if you want to pay more for a phone with less stupid s*#t, that's fine too. But people should know what they're buying.
More generally, I think people vastly overestimate the ability of the free market to meet consumer demand, in cases where the demand is for something that can't be easily quantified. I've spent a fair amount of time in "entrepreneurial" circles (while bouncing back and forth myself between entrepreneurship and regular jobs) and have heard the faithful reciting a lot of platitudes like "The market rewards the best product," or "Focus on building the best product you can make, and the customers will come." But most of them evidently didn't even believe it themselves -- they spent most of their efforts on search engine optimization, running content farms, networking with important business contacts, and other activities that didn't directly relate to the quality of their products. And who could blame them? Since their products weren't competing on qualities that were precisely quantifiable, there was no reason for any of them to try to create the "best" product, or even a particularly good one. And that strategy worked quite well for several of them.
On the other hand, when you're competing on a quantifiable metric like price, the best product or service can shoot straight to the top without wasting any time on zero-sum games like SEO or networking ass-kissery. If you're selling external hard drives on Amazon for $0.01, you'll make a lot of sales. You'll go broke, but in the meantime, the free market will connect you quite effectively with your customers.
So, make the mobile phone Stupid S*@t Index into something quantifiable, and maybe we'll have less stupid s#*t. One review body could publish the average rating from several different reviewers, or several different review bodies could publish their ratings and consumers could weight the averages themselves.
Not that it's a panacea -- I bought the LG Optimus not because it was the cheapest or because I didn't expect it to have bugs, but because it was the only offering with a slide-out keyboard, and I've become addicted to the precision of physical keys. (It is so much easier to let your fingertip feel its way to the right key first, and then actually press the key in a separate motion, rather than having to hope your fingertip lands on the right spot in the first place.) So I never returned the phone, they kept my money, and I suppose that makes me part of the problem.