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Know Your Ecosystems!

The phone is the least important part of buying a phone

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Perfectly adequate ducks

I used to be on T-Mobile, but I went into a customer service hole so frustrating that at the end, every time I even looked at my phone, I felt disgusted and powerless. Plus their service doesn’t work in the Brooklyn/Battery Tunnel. So I decided to give up on my iPhone 6, which was suffering from early onset battery death and which also had a tendency to spit out my charging cables like they tasted bad, and switch to Verizon. Which is admittedly like switching from Bank of America to Chase. Whenever I switch phones I like to switch between Android and iOS, because it keeps me young. So I got a Google Pixel 2 XL with 128 gigs of RAM.

Having had a few Android phones in the past I was expecting the typical confusion, disappointment, and sense of “well it’s garbage, but fun garbage!” that comes with that platform. Instead I…love my phone. I am a little ashamed to admit it. Partly I love it because I don’t hear Jony Ive’s voice reading off the periodic table every time I use it —

Jony Ive: It has an outer shell of pure bezeled moominium, encased in a reubenite casing made of crushed cuboid zirconite, which latches seamlessly with the band, which features a pangolin-leather exterior but a velvetronic pascaline wafer coating where it touches the skin.

Tim Cook: Isn’t that amazing?

Where Apple is just pure sheen and polish, this phone is incredibly…adequate. I mean that as the highest praise. The software works fine. Most of the apps I use are Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc., big apps from big providers. The screen is plenty sharp, everything works as I’d expect, and when I put in my Google account info most of my stuff was there. It had one catastrophic crash but mostly recovered. I find myself having two weird thoughts:

First, that I really liked the way the Pixel 2 didn’t put itself first. It seemed to be content just being good and it doesn’t have any pretensions of perfection. Its elegance is from its utilitarian simplicity. Maybe because the iPhone exists it just can’t pretend, brand-wise, to represent the apex of human civilization. Apple has locked that down. It doesn’t let me become a talking frog emoji but life is full of tradeoffs.

The second weird thought is that I’d like to plug this into a bigger screen and a keyboard and make this phone my main work computer.

Basically, I was happy with the iPhone, and happy with the Pixel, and most of the apps were the same, and I don’t really care which one is my desktop or phone computer.

It’s all pretty good and it’s all kind of the same.

Perfectly adequate shadows

The Pixel 2 sells you a camera, and certainly the camera tech is wonderful, but the way you actually experience that camera is, for relatively few moments, through the onboard camera software, and then, for a much greater amount of time through Google Photos and their photo editing tool SnapSeed.

The experience of Twitter on an iPhone and Twitter on Android is so undifferentiated that I can’t really tell you what’s different; same with Facebook, Instagram, Kindle, etc. With Amazon you don’t have to do the little wishlist dance so that Amazon can avoid paying Apple a surcharge on purchases.

The same is true of telecom providers. I would never have bothered to get off of T-Mobile, except that they interacted with me in such a horrible way that I came to hate them with my entire being and will never use them again. I know that Verizon sees me no differently — as a Social Security number connected to an American Express Card, and a number on a SIM card.

Everyone has made their beds together: Google and Verizon have a relationship. Verizon has a relationship to the US Government and the credit card companies, and to other giant ecosystems. The original iPhone was a very individual reaction to giant telecom infrastructure, by a company that still had much to prove. But Apple is more of an industrial giant than any of the ones it used to badger. They create these relationships, define the platforms, control the stores, build the towers, and we can choose which way to direct our money. Some goes to Verizon, some to Google, some to Facebook. App store economics enormously favor incumbents and well-known brands that can promote themselves across channels.

Is there room for tiny mammals among these brontosauri? In switching from one giant ecosystem to another, I found myself…basically happy. I shouldn’t be happy! I love disruptive products, I care about security, and I believe in a decentralized web. I know that I’m the product being sold, that my humanity is basically statistical noise to these companies. And yet I’m content with my beautifully designed, pseudo-open consumer electronics platforms. The camera on the Pixel 2, connected to Google Photos, is just that good.

It’s good to remember the disruptive spirit of the web, the things it changed, and the way that decentralizing can change lives and create opportunities. But it’s also wise, I think, to admit: This is just how it’s going to be for a while. We’re going to live with, and thus for, the giants.

What I’m doing is making a list of my relationships with each of the big companies, because they’re such a big part of my life. The see me as a kind of statistically interesting revenue-generating physical entity, and I want to see them and have frameworks for understanding them, too.

That’s one goal I have for 2018, along with getting some nicer clothes and shoes and building a mentorship culture at work: I want to get to better know my ecosystems. How many people work for Verizon? What are their jobs? What companies do they buy? How does Apple interact with Verizon? What data does T-Mobile buy? What are the APIs and SDKs these companies offer? What do they see as growth?

What insight can I gain about the world in which I live by observing these giant systems? What information is off-limits or hard to uncover? Just as it’s important to understand the sources of global warming or high cholesterol, it’s good to know the sources of our data and the keepers of our live’s experiences. If I find out anything worth sharing I’ll share it.

Paul Ford is one of the co-founders of Postlight.

Story published on Jan 25, 2018.