Method acting and smartphone reviews

I use Colgate twice a day. I’ve been brushing with it for years. I don’t know when I began blindly buying it — sometimes with whitening, the kind I know doesn’t really work; more recently, the version that decreases sensitivity — but it probably began in earnest when I latched on to my current dentist around 10 years ago. When I find myself running low, I will remark that we need more toothpaste, but I really mean we need more Colgate.

Brand loyalty is not a new idea. The biggest consumer companies in the world rely on it to forecast revenue earnings for the following year. Conglomerates like Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, Kraft, Nestle and others have multiple brands with the similar functions for this very reason; Unilever, for example, owns both Axe and Dove, two product lines that, from a marketing perspective, couldn’t be more different.

The reality of loyalty comes down to trust and convenience: the longer someone is happy with a particular product or service, the more difficult it becomes to get them to switch to something else. My grandfather never smoked a pack of cigarettes in his life but, until he died, swore by the health benefits of chewing tobacco.

We’ve reached a similar armistice in the world of smartphones. The ecosystem is mature, a growing list of phones and tablets sold or handed down to nieces or cousins. The distribution model has been disrupted, sure — you can buy your phone from Google or OnePlus or Expansys or eBay — but people still mostly buy their phones in carrier stores, signing a contract.

“My grandfather never smoked a pack of cigarettes in his life but, until he died, swore by the health benefits of chewing tobacco.”

And like those who prefer one grocery or drug store over the other, loyalty plays a big part, too. Not just loyalty to the brand, but to the platform; all those apps, all those saved games stored in the cloud, all those hours getting everything just right, add up to cultural investment that rivals or surpasses anything monetary. Entrenchment goes further than merely deciding to buy a new phone at the end of one’s contract, and the decisions are certainly less trivial than choosing to switch toothpaste brands. Indeed, the longer one stays in a smartphone ecosystem, the more difficult it is to be extracted from it.

The issue is compounded by the fact that all three major smartphone ecosystems, iOS, Android and Windows Phone, are inextricably linked to the companies that control them. Apple in particular, by creating a stacked virtuous cycle between multiple hardware and software components, makes a compelling argument for sticking with its own hardware, from phone to tablet to computer to set-top box. AirPlay alone is worth the price of admission in many cases.

Google and Microsoft have a different sort of interplay: their services are available on multiple platforms, but emphasize unique advantages when hardware and software are married. One could argue — and many have — that iOS is actually the best place for Google’s services, but with the release of Lollipop the pendulum has swung back to Android. Nevertheless, it’s increasingly becoming a multi-layered loyalty proposition: the underlying ecosystem, from maps to mail to calendar sync; then to mobile OS, which hosts the services and apps; and finally, the phone manufacturers (often with their own take on services).

“People want to feel vindicated in their choices of mobile operating system.”

This is a problem for someone that writes about tech on a general level. When a site like Android Central or N4BB writes about a device, it is (generally) taken for granted that those interested in the product are already entrenched in the site’s representative ecosystem. Android Central rarely, if ever, refers to an iPhone or Windows Phone when reviewing the latest LG or Samsung device. Similarly, and more pointedly, a Windows Phone or BlackBerry user, steadfast in his or her commitment to the cause, rarely reads a review to search out compelling alternatives. People want to feel vindicated in their choices of mobile operating system and, increasingly, manufacturer, and will get downright nasty to obtain it.

Such is the reality of the mobile landscape. We are segmented into multiple layers of fiefdoms, where it’s no longer a battle between iOS and Android but between Nexus users and TouchWIZ fans. Two weeks ago, when a Reddit user posted proof that the battery in his sister’s LG G3 exploded, dozens of rabid LG fans ran to protect the company’s reputation.

But why? Such vitriol is usually reserved for Premier League Soccer teams and car brands, but the increasingly personal nature of smartphones, and the amount of time spent with them, leads to the same defence mechanism.

MobileSyrup has a unique position in this fight, as we represent the biggest community of hardcore mobile fanatics in Canada. We don’t specialize in any given ecosystem, OEM or form factor, and try to provide a well-rounded view on every device we test. But that is not possible. Like anyone visiting the site, we have our own preferences, honed from years of using so many products. We’ve tested virtually every combination of software and hardware, and that gives us a unique perspective from which to convey our experiences. But, like any review, objectivity is impossible. The very notion of objectivity and tech reviews is a murky proposition. I’ve grown to prefer the combination of certain services in my workflow, and will obviously test against those more thoroughly, because that’s what I know.

Over the years, that workflow has been honed needle-sharp. I use Dropbox, not Drive or OneDrive; I use Evernote, Prezi, Todoist, Chrome, Lightroom, Skitch, Rdio, Tweetdeck. I use Google services, but not exclusively. I’ve tried them all — Microsoft Outlook, Google Docs, Apple Pages — but these are the ones I return to, the ones that work best for me.

The idea of method acting emerged in the 1930s as demand for realism in movies necessitated that actors more thoroughly immerse themselves in their characters’ thoughts, motivations and beliefs. While an actor playing a thief wasn’t expected to go out and rob a jewelry store, he or she would have to do the research necessary — perhaps interview those involved, or read books on the same — to more completely inhabit the role.

As food critics are clouded by their need to eat, phone reviewers must generally settle down with one device for a period while savouring newer and better alternatives. There is no way to completely avoid bias, but placing oneself in the proverbial shoes of an avid BlackBerry user is a good start. Still, it’s one thing to move one’s SIM card from his or her daily driver to a new device; it’s another entirely to uproot one’s digital workflow. Whenever I review a Windows Phone device, and I bemoan the lack of native Google services, I receive the same myopic missives: transition your email, calendar and contacts to Outlook. Become one of us. I, and many of my contemporaries, try to do just that, but short of renting a cubicle at KPMG there’s precious little I can do.

Similarly, upon the release of a new iPhone, I am informed that Apple has done too little to deserve such praise. “Android had this feature in 2012,” someone inevitably writes. “You’re an Apple fanboy.”

It’s true, I am an Apple fan. I love the iPhone; I think it’s probably the best smartphone on the market for most people. I love Apple’s dedication to design and attention to detail. I love that developers creating compelling experiences on the platform seem to really care about their craft. I enjoy being an early adopter, and most startups release apps for iOS before Android.

But I also take issue with many of Apple’s policies, especially around app store content. I found iOS’s notification scheme lacklustre, and don’t find widgets nearly as useful as I do on Android.

These days, it’s also hard to “be an Android fan” because that definition is so diffuse. There are so many different kinds of Android users, so many choices to be made along the way. Sometimes I think owning a Nexus 6 is more akin to owning an iPhone than a Galaxy, since so much of Samsung’s “Androidness” is governed by what seems like committees of self-interested engineers and designers. And so much of what I love about Android is lost in carriers’ ambivalence towards software updates. What does it mean for Google to release a new version of Android if you can’t walk into a store and buy a phone that runs it?

But I love Android. I use it every day. I think there are some amazing ideas native to Google’s OS that, despite supporting it from an app level could never be reproduced on iOS. I also love Windows Phone, and I love BlackBerry 10. I’m a technological optimist; I think innovation is good for everyone, even the products I don’t like.

I’m also a critic, and have a responsibility to like one thing more than another; but your opinion of a product shouldn’t be singlehandedly forged by one opinion. Increasingly, though, reviews are becoming ineffectual because people are being informed by so many disparate things. If you’ve been an iPhone user for many years, even an effusive review of the latest King Android is unlikely to sway you; similarly, a Nexus diehard has already written off the upcoming Galaxy before its announcement.

These fiefdoms make it very difficult for those without preconceived notions to make decisions on what phone to buy. Most often, people will run through several spheres of support before making one: family and friends; the internet; and finally, and perhaps most dangerously, the carrier store. Each concentric circle has a vested interest in informing that decision. At the end of the day, I’d prefer you buy a phone that I like because I think myself a good judge of the best products. But I also know that my needs are not indicative of everyone’s. It’s a balancing act, trying to appeal to the largest audience without alienating the core user base.

“The notion that you have to be a BES customer to write a BlackBerry review or circulate an Outlook email to use Windows Phone is preposterous.”

This fragmentation has made it nearly impossible to find an appropriate numerical rating for a product. We’ll be doing away with that system in 2015, choosing to distil the virtues and drawbacks of a particular device in more relative terms. Smartphones are so personal, an opinion of its virtues can only be derived from a confluence of things, much of which is informed by previous experiences.

The notion that you have to be a BES customer to write a BlackBerry review or circulate an Outlook email to use Windows Phone is preposterous. We are users all, and in the expansive (and expanding) world of cloud services  it is no longer feasible to suggest migration as a solution. The iPhone is the best phone for most people not because it is objectively best at all things, but because its blank canvas is wider than any other platform’s. I also think the Moto X is the best phone for most people, too, because Motorola currently makes the best Android phone.

But these definitive statements are just me talking, today. Like my predilection for cereal one day and toast the next, I may be enamoured by something new and shiny tomorrow. The constant is my experience: I do this all day, every day. I use and reuse, test and re-test nearly every phone on the market, from low-end Androids to high-end BlackBerrys. I’ve earned your trust because I eat, sleep and breathe mobile.

Don’t take my word for it. Take mine, Phil’s, Michael’s, Dan’s, Darrell’s and Chris’s, because they eat, sleep and breathe this stuff, too. And that’s great for everyone.