SIMPLICITY, MARKET STYLE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The salesman at the electronics store explained it well: this phone is solidly built, has latest operating software, no bloatware, makes do with less internal storage space, saves photos to the cloud, is not a fan of multi-tasking gone crazy electing instead to multi-task judiciously, puts the brake on all-in-one mythical super-phone, keeps photography basic, is happy with modest RAM and has a battery of equally modest capacity.

I had waited long to hear this.

I thought of a similar moment earlier at the peak of my research and subsequent confusion over what bicycle to buy. That was expenditure heavy to shoulder on freelancer’s income. Unable to throw money around as the consumerist market expects, I had worked on understanding bicycle models and component specifications to find the bicycle model suited for my needs, at my price point. Problem was – my price point was too low for the specs I sought. Suddenly a slightly old bicycle model of right dimension and specs, at price tad discounted given its age and outmoded wheel size, materialized. It was perfect fit for freelance journalist lacking a fortune to spare. A source of considerable enjoyment since, it is now parked six feet away from my work table.

The dust on that purchase had hardly settled when the government threatened my comfort zone with all out drive to go digital. I use an old Nokia feature phone. What it can do is all I need. It also suited my interface with universe, which is quite tactile. Back in 2002, it was nice seeing Tom Cruise swishing his hands this way and that as he shuffled data on virtual screen in Minority Report. I didn’t ask to live it. I also have difficulty viewing large sections of geography on small screen. Where am I? – is a more important curiosity for me than destination guaranteed. We don’t mind small screen for maps because we value destination guaranteed with pointer showing you the way. Besides, your typical smartphone keeps beeping with messages from this app and that. I don’t like it. I have zero appetite for some of the messages floating around, particularly the troll type. Further, once I started going on expeditions, I grew accustomed to switching off phone and being out of contact. The digital epidemic however meant more angles than the above, affected. Unlike the phone of old, now our money, bank transactions, passwords – all have dovetailed into the smartphone. The world around me was being prompted to transact its business in a certain way and if I hung on to my old phone, I risked getting deleted from existence. The epidemic triggered hunt for a smartphone.

In both bicycles and smartphones, trends appear similar although it is particularly entertaining in the case of phones given that simple argument – if you spend for a bicycle as much as you spend on a smartphone; at least you gift yourself an active lifestyle.  Needless to say, one of the most hilarious sights I witnessed recently was a fellow commuter on a Mumbai local train taking selfies with his tongue sticking out. It amused to think that moments like this get official patronage through policy favoring smartphone while the bicycle battles daily with growing traffic hell bend on denying it space. Don’t these trends speak something about us? Anyway, the nature of market evolution I noticed from my search was somewhat like this:

First you take an innovation that has at heart a relevant and clear proposition. None can dispute the clarity in what a bicycle or a phone means.  A bicycle takes you from place to place at modest pace with zero pollution and physical exercise included. Motorized transport beat the bicycle in terms of speed. But in days of present lost to smog and sedentary life, the bicycle has been reborn absolutely futuristic. To think that it was introduced in the late nineteenth century and its relevance remains strong – now that is a product. A phone helps you talk over long distances. Do you need one? The answer is yes. But that isn’t good enough from a manufacturer’s point of view. So in the second stage of evolution by manufacturers and market, you dismantle given product into its several constituent parts and start tinkering with the parts, such that you are developing capabilities in apparent isolation. This is a departure from the unquestionable relevance of a product at debut stage. In the second stage, either industry players are many or more players are seeking to muscle in. In both cases fresh raison d’etre needs to be manufactured. The plain vanilla cellphone, which catered to clear, fundamental needs, gets touch screen, camera and apps (none of which are the sort we died for lacking) and becomes a smartphone. During marathons you hear technology’s automated voice speaking with robotic love: congratulations, you have completed a kilometer; the time taken was….Or, there is the selfie generation, which has grown so big and omnipresent that of the smartphone’s two cameras, the one facing user is gaining more megapixels than the one facing world.

The third stage is the strangest stage, when the focus is no more on overall product relevance but marketing gimmicks promoting the technological advances in specific components used, quite often at the expense of larger harmony among components. It is the Popeye stage, when brain and body live in the shadow of outsize bicep. In my search for smartphone, I came off wondering why someone is selling an imbalanced product. A typical review: this smartphone does this, this and this. But the cost of having all these functions is – it heats up and may not run that long on a single charge. When was the last time a decade ago, that your phone claimed to be smarter than you and died every day for want of power? Equally confusing are the product reviews. Online retailers in their effort to empower customers with information, host plenty of reviews, many of which seem rants or half baked analysis. Not to mention, there is nothing in the identity of reviewers to prove that they are really customers and not paid PR by brand or competitors out to put a spanner in the spokes of a brand. Given this, my hunch is brick and mortar will return for those valuing tangible product before buying. But it won’t be as the regular brick and mortar of old. Its new avatar could be in line with trends articulated at the end of this article.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Meanwhile, business is brokered by how you look at a problem. The above mentioned lacuna of inadequate power opened up room for phones with massive batteries. Not all massive batteries are sold to you with quick charging devices alongside. If you want your own private power station that takes a lifetime to charge, you pay a certain price; if you want the same with quick-charge, you pay a bit more. And no matter how huge your battery, few of these phones with ever increasing apps and expectations riding on them, match a good old feature phone in terms of reliability. The old phones were rugged; they survived in rain and cold. They used all the power they had for two primary functions – talk and text. The new ones are comparatively fragile and born of proximity to power sources. You can make up for absence of power source nearby by carrying a variety of portable power sources and charging devices, all of which merely add to the stuff you truck around. With required gadgetry stashed on self and backpack, you could call yourself a smartphone-commando, a smartphone-marine or member of the elite squad of communications-special forces. Point is – this third stage is all about confusing the customer and milking him. Do you want to make a phone call or do you want to look like a commando?

A good instance of third stage in the bicycle market, in my opinion, was the confusion over wheel sizes in MTBs – 26 inches, 27.5 and 29. It had nothing to do with the happiness you found, cycling. Cyclists had managed to reach most places on the planet. The 27.5 and 29 were not going to reach you some place humanity hadn’t. Yet you paid for industry’s eccentricity because industry was desperate for a reason to energize its business. A case of overlapping domains in cycling and communications technology would be using smartphone for navigation, weather forecasts etc. Yes they are absolutely relevant. They work. But setting out on a ride only if you have all this is a bit like retracing the footsteps of Marco Polo or Fa Hien and knowing all along that they ventured out despite not having any such technology in their times. With capital backing technology, there is no great wave seeking to restore the adventure in adventure. Instead, there are isolated moves afoot. For example, the upcoming 2018 Golden Globe Race (GGR), which is a race to circumnavigate the world solo and nonstop in a sail boat, has banned all kinds of modern electronic gadgetry aboard participants’ boats. They want you back at technology levels matching the year of the first GGR – 1968.

Not surprisingly, the fourth stage is clarity rediscovered and restored. I greet it with as much hope and affection as Ice Age’s sabre toothed-squirrel does his prized acorn. It celebrates relevance, aptness and perfect fit. Sounds like fundamental rights. Isn’t this what buying a product always meant? Transpose this to the idea of democracy. If a democracy deemed fundamental rights luxury you would be quick to say it got things wrong. What would you then say of a market where relevance is luxury or matter of circuitous rediscovery? Overall therefore the simple description for this evolution by market is: wild goose chase. There is a saying that you can either touch your nose from front or you can take your hand behind your head and try touching the nose from behind. Smartphone’s discovery of simplicity harked of the latter. How else would you birth bloatware, sell a tonne of it and then acknowledge it as dispensable?

My friend Prashant owns a couple of smartphones including the sort that currently dominates sales in India: 3GB & 32 GB, 16 MP & 4 MP, quad core Snapdragon at 1.3 GHz and 3000 mAh battery. Prashant likes to climb and cycle. He is into yoga. Recently I found the old Nokia smartphone with Windows operating system back on his table. “ How come?’’ I asked. “ If I can live without all these apps, this much of phone is enough for me,’’ he said bluntly. I know he was saying it prematurely for there are facilities from the smartphone’s recent past he has got used to and which need a different phone to run. But he had a point. If I go by specs from six years ago archived by Wikipedia, the old phone should have 512 MB RAM-16 GB internal storage, 1.4 GHz single core processor, 1450 mAh battery, 8 MP rear camera and no front camera for selfies. Between this phone and returning to this phone, were a couple of other phones owned and got tired of. One discussion Prashant and I often have is whether money can be the answer for everything. If you look at the market, it would seem – you fix the problems you are facing at a given state of life by being capable of affording a better one. But we moved from sophisticated phone to more sophisticated phone and after screwing up the phone market with a plethora of transient twists in technology, we are gifted a simple, uncluttered phone. It harks more of starting line than finish.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The salesman at the electronics store explained it well to Latha and me: this phone is solidly built, has latest operating software, no bloatware, makes do with less internal storage space, saves photos to the cloud, is not a fan of multi-tasking gone crazy electing instead to multi-task judiciously, puts the brake on all-in-one mythical super-phone, keeps photography basic, is happy with modest RAM and has a battery of equally modest capacity.

Wonderful!

There is one thing though: simple phone doesn’t come cheap yet.

You still have to pay the premium for industry’s return to simplicity after many intervening phases of delusion by technological opiates. Like that ` carefully worn careless look’ from the pages of fashion glossies, this is ` simplicity redefined’ and expensive. The same will shape brick and mortar’s return too. Prices there are already not as low as prices quoted online. They have a valid reason – you are getting to touch and feel a product before buying it. It is an argument that wasn’t there earlier. A precious part of the data our brain uses to decide – the sense of touch – has got monetized. That’s one of the legacies of wild goose chase – all aspects of our existence get monetized. Meanwhile big data has been compared to what oil was in the twentieth century. Shareholders and equity markets must have liked that. By the same yardstick, I would assume parallels between the legacy of oil and the evolving legacy of big data. The new legacy will unfold even closer to our physiological and psychological make up for when I look around I find the smartphone’s impact on human behavior to be profound. Through smog and climate change – both legacies of the oil age – the smartphone’s fans stay glued to the mesmerizing device. This time, whatever smog and storms are due, will be in the human head. No wonder gurus and babas have a roaring business teaching us how to install delete buttons in the brain.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

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