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tech for everyone and no one

I've recently thought about the tech I used to own, the tech I own now, and what I would look for to replace it. I noticed that in the past, I have usually been content with the things I had; they did what they were bought for perfectly, because they had fitting key features. These key features were a focus in development and the main reasons consumers bought it. Now, the following is highly subjective and just ideas, not facts; but my hypothesis is that dedicated devices for specific activities and uses was in some ways superior in its design than what we tend to have with consumer tech nowadays.

There was a time where phones were getting improvements on communications, walkmen and mp3 players such as iPods had more and more sensible improvements to cataloguing music and listening to it, and so on. The improvements felt like the next logical step in it. I guess nowadays, we have pretty much reached an acceptable level of comfort, and true improvements that are not just empty gimmicks disappearing in a generation or two happen rarely. The move has been to cram as much as possible into one device, which makes it general-purpose, but also less specialized. The advantage is obviously to not have to carry around 5 different things, and for people to discover other uses and have access to things they would otherwise not invest in (think: someone very invested in listening to music, who also now capitalizes on the great built in camera); but the disadvantage is that the different functions all have to share device space and developer attention. And some of it feels like it's being neglected in favor of other stuff, and there seemingly can be an attitude of "if the OS lacks it, someone will make an app for it" that isn't entirely working out well all the time. Obviously, there has to be some prioritization, and some demands are directly contradicting each other. But that has lead to what to me feels like tech being for everything and everyone, but also no one, since specialization is not really possible anymore.

The way I use a phone makes me want a good texting experience, a good calling experience, an average camera, and enough space to have apps such as maps, music, banking, 2FA, public transport and similar ones. For portability and for my small hands, I would love it to remain relatively small, especially for walks and exercise, to fit in pants/jacket pockets. But this is different than the people who enjoy taking amazing pictures on the fly - they need a really good camera and a good screen to view them on, plus enough power to edit them on the go, and some might be thankful for the automatic AI picture improvements. And it's different than the person who loves to watch videos and movies, and is gaming on the phone, so it needs a big screen and enough power to not lag or have long loading screens. There used to be a time where people would buy for their own use case and specialization due to a wider diversity of features in the same product category (think: the Xperia for gaming enthusiasts, the HTC for normal uses), or simply getting dedicated other devices for their desired uses (think: a phone for phone uses, and a Nikon for pictures). In an ideal world, there would be different phones with different focus features still.

But we are all sold more or less the same phone now. Some specs are slightly different, of course, and some brands have more features than others, but the general design and trends of it stay the same. I increasingly have to make do with larger and larger phones, even though it goes directly against my desired use case and isn't good for my hands. I upgrade my phone because my old one deteriorates, is not supported anymore or doesn't receive safety updates anymore; and even though I could do with a much worse camera, I am forced to take the package deal with the really good camera, and other advertised features I don't care about. Improvements I don't use or need are always used to justify the new high price. Same with processors and the general gaming experience on it. Features like the aforementioned AI picture improvements and sorting algorithm that try to justify the new powerful chip, but in reality just make taking pictures annoying for me and cannot be turned off. The music experience on smartphones has deteriorated since it is just a device that can have music apps, instead of being a device to listen to music with (like the iPod models). Something bad happened between an OS on a music-listening device, and offering the music listening experience on an app between many. I really liked my iPod nano 5th gen, but I find myself frustrated at navigating Spotify, Youtube Music or Apple Music and their shitty UI changes always shoving something down my throat.

I have similar sentiments about tablets, specifically the iPad. It is marketed as something of a laptop replacement, when it really isn't. The OS is still remarkably smartphone-like, and I sometimes wonder why such powerful processing power is wasted on devices that are largely used for some doodling, putting on a video or stream, self organization (journaling, Notion et al), Zoom, and reading. The people doing real substantial work pushing the iPad to its limits have to be incredibly rare, I assume, and the uses shown in ads are not representative. But we are all in in all-in-one now (hehe), so we get a little bit of everything, if we want to or not.

I think some of this could be fixed by more customization options being offered. It has already been a standard with other products: being able to choose how much RAM you want to have, what graphics card, how much storage, choosing mobile connectivity on watches and tablets, or choosing special engraving. But I can't choose to downgrade a camera or forego it entirely for something else, if possible, and neither can I tinker with the device easily to make it fit my needs. The companies decide what you want now, care about protecting the brand image in your hands, and make messing with their devices harder and harder. Of course there are companies like the Fairphone (I don't wanna forget them here), but if you are used to specific manufacturers, conveniences of walled gardens, or have more trust in the bigger companies, you're unlikely to switch. Obviously, I as a consumer want to keep my Apple account, associated purchases, being used to iOS and in the walled garden, while still wanting to customize my experience - right to repair and up/downgrade, sideloading, a wider product range, ordering a customized product, being able to turn features off. I don't perceive Android phones as much superior in these regards, aside from LineageOS or GrapheneOS.

When I hold out, I am at some point stuck with devices that work well by themselves still, but are discarded software-wise; but when upgrading, I am stuck with choosing betweem devices that do a lot of new things I don't care about that all seem to take improvement efforts away from the features I want in a phone. The types of phones that come closest to my desires are getting phased out (like the mini versions) or neglected (the SE's). When I want to continue to have a drawing device and reader, I am stuck paying the price for supposed amazing video editing capabilities, and your grandpa who just uses it to videocall you is, too. It's almost funny.

It feels increasingly as if I cannot make the device mine, that I cannot find my niche on it comfortably and stay there; that I cannot neglect the parts I don't care about. They become so pricy it's unavoidable to weigh the options, they become so in your face that you cannot ignore them, and they become the new marketing focus so more work is being put into that instead of other parts that need it. Everything feels half finished, a work-in-progress, like the rest of it was left for the next release cycle. It's just the latest iteration, the latest gimmick, "to be continued" "more soon", and doesn't feel like a new standard, a milestone, something to depend on. It feels like it could be removed in the next generation, or significantly altered.

I mean, it makes sense - companies extract more money out of the customer base if all the available phones with x feature requested by the customer also by default have features a, b, c and d that are unneeded for that customer, and expensive, but a package deal while there is no other choice. Consumers might even be thankful to have such variety in a device, and feel good about buying it because "I could need that some time, who knows". I also assume it has something of the same effect you get when you buy professional grade hobby things for something you want to start doing - thinking about the possibilities, instead of doing, and the attempt at bypassing failure and practice by buying high grade immediately. Sedentary people buying a smartphone made for extreme weather and hiking, the person fantasizing about a photography career on Instagram when they invest into an iPhone Pro Max, and so on. I guess from a capitalist point of view, it all makes sense.

It's just not good for people like me, who are decisive in what they want, and want their devices to do few things, but do them extremely well without a fuss; a device controlled by me, and not controlling what I can do and flooding me with suggestions and features I didn't ask for.

#tech thoughts