Complaining About the Smartphone: a Lesson in Diminishing Returns

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In the Times, Sam Grobar has written a great article — a great screed, really — about how much people love to complain about their smartphones even though they accomplish so much for so little cost. The gist:

Consider what a smartphone can do, and the devices it replaces, and its value increases. A refurbished iPhone 3GS is currently on sale by AT&T for $19. With the least-expensive data and voice plans and a two-year contract, a customer would pay around $1,800 over 24 months, including taxes and fees.

But to do all the things a smartphone can do without buying one, that same consumer would need to buy the following:

A cellphone (at least $800 over 24 months: $20 for a device, plus $25 or more per month on a prepaid plan, plus taxes and fees).

A mobile e-mail reader ($430: the Peek 9, an e-mail reader, is $70; two years of service costs $360).

A music player (an iPod Nano is $149).

A point-and-shoot camera (around $200).

A camcorder (around $200).

A GPS unit (they start at $80).

A portable DVD player (they start at $60).

A voice recorder (around $40).

A watch (around $30).

A calculator (around $10).

Total cost: $1,999

You would also need a sherpa to carry around all that gear, rather than slipping it into your pocket in one little box.

I shouldn’t be surprised by this any more but I still am: why, with so much progress in the world on so many dimensions, is there so much complaining about the very fruits of that progress?

The only answer I can come up with is that there are sharply diminishing returns on satisfaction. Other explanations?


Perhaps the future demand for smart phones is linked to their reputation and you could think of it as a game where complaining spurs innovative improvement.


Although I agree that diminishing marginal returns is the main point, I'd throw in 2 others:
1. Nobody would actually buy the whole list of kit you suggest, and redundancy carries a big weight ie people think they are carrying around, and paying for, specs they don't need and don't want and that weighs heavier than the benefits of the stuff they do want and need. For me, the voice recorder and video camera are the redundant parts...
2. People just like to complain.

Kathy Applebaum

You're counting some things twice there. My cell phone (the one they give free with the cheap plan) has the point and shoot camera, voice recorder, watch and calculator built in.


That's a surprisingly one-sided article. Obviously, that article misses the point that almost nobody actually uses all these devices. To get a fair picture you need to substract what you would not be buying.

In my case:

A point-and-shoot camera (around $200). Nope.
A portable DVD player (they start at $60). Scratch.
A voice recorder (around $40). Anybody still uses those?
A watch (around $30). Still have one.

Bottom line: my iPhone is still more than $300 to expensive in your calculation ...


Sorry, forgot:

A camcorder (around $200).

Definitely don't need that one.

Andy the Android

Who's complaining? I finally picked up a Google Android smartphone in January and can barely put it down. It's a phone, email reader, browser, camera, video recorder, mp3 player, rss feed reader, and podcast listener, and it plays all the video games I care to play. The podcast feature alone is worth it to me. Instead of downloading the podcasts on my computer, plugging in my listener, copying the files over, waiting, disconnecting everything and then repeating ever few days, Google Listen downloads new podcast episodes to my phone when they are released.

I replaced a phone, ipod and PDA with one smaller device that does more. No complaints here.


Actually I do not really agree with the calculations...
By "smartphone" I assume you mean an iPhone, a BlackBerry, an HTC or sth in that category.

If that's correct, then a lot of the features and services that a smartphone offers are already provided by other "not-so-smart" phones. Almost any decent mobile nowadays offers many of the things you said, with a minimum being a camera, a clock and a calculator. That already saves you $240 according to your prices, reducing the total cost to under $1800 that the total cost of operation of a smartphone would be.

Some that go on the "medium end" often allow to play music and video files, even listen to radio, and might even have a video/voice recording feature and a 3G connection. These would save you about $410-480, but would probably cost about $100-200 more than a low-end mobile phone - still cheaper than a smartphone.

So in the end, if you count it like that, the price does not really add up. I feel that this is why smartphones lost their "awe" sooner or later. They combine "everything" but their overblown price in fact includes a large chunk of "status marketing". At the end of the day, you don't really buy the new iPhone for the practicality but because "it's the new iPhone!". When it's not the new one anymore, you are dissatisfied immediately and want the better one!


Reilly Brown

To me, smart phones are cool gadgets and very impressive in all their capabilities, but the problem is that with all the things that they can do, they rarely do those things as well as devices singularly dedicated to the function.
For instance, the list mentioned a watch as something a smart phone could replace, however my watch has a battery life of, like, YEARS! Plus, a smart phone doesn't always have the time visible, depending on what else it's doing. So, basically, it's not as good at being a watch as a watch is.
Many of the functions have similar issues, like load times, the need for constant updates, etc. Then there's the problem of At&T dropping calls with the iPhone, which means that it's not even that efficient at being a phone, which you'd assume is it's primary function because it's in the name!

So, as impressive as it should be, it promises to be MORE impressive, so there's a disappointment when it doesn't live up to that.



David F

Louis CK covered the problem pretty well:


"why, with so much progress in the world on so many dimensions, is there so much complaining about the very fruits of that progress?"

Perhaps because technology can be counterintuitive in very annoying ways.

My laptop, a few years old and hardly top of the range, mostly functions fine. Occasionally, and for reasons known only to itself, it slows down, crashes, etc. Recently several of the keys changed characters without my prompting. It seems to have a mind of its own.

In the real world, the rules of physics are constant and reliable. If I move to shake salt over my dinner my hand does not suddenly freeze, suspended above the food, without moving. I don't end up struggling to shake salt again and again with my immobile hand, which then lurches into fast-forward, dumping several times too much salt into my food.

But stuff like that does occasionally happen with my computer! This counterintuitive environment can make me pull my hair out: I swear at the computer like I'd never swear at people!



What about the texting plan?

Ian Wood

Don't think that this demonstrates diminishing returns, rather poor knowledge of features and functions of gadgets.

Even the most simple of handsets comes with a watch, calculator, camera so that means that you can scratch $240. With an iPod touch I can have GPS, Email, Video, DVD and so substitution means that should I wish to cut costs then it is possible to do so. Once all mobile phones had FM radios as they were low cost to include in the manufacture the issue was that most people didn't use them. Think about most of the features on a Smartphone and they are neither intelligent or voice based. The great thing that has been achieved by Apple is getting people to buy and then upgrade a device that is basically poor at everything. They have achieved this through great advertising all of the technology they use was first seen in another device so they are adapters rather than inventors.

Can remember looking at some work done by MIT on convergence of devices in the kitchen and they predicted that only device needed was a microwave. Every time I use my cooker, kettle, coffee machine, toaster and grill I'm grateful that they were wrong.


Impossibly Stupid

The entire premise is wrong. It is a mistake to think that a complaint is equivalent to dissatisfaction. Anyone who *truly* dislikes a product will stop using it and become indifferent. People who like a product without complaint are a valuable base, but tend to stagnate development. People who use a product and complain are the most valuable, because they point the way to the future. As the old saying goes, hate is better than apathy.


Firstly, because one feels, particularly with the iPhone, that smartphones could be a lot better than they are actually are, but are purposefully crippled for cynical money-making purposes. The result of the deliberate bad design is theoretically a lower price for consumers, of course, but also a lingering sense of dissatisfaction.

Secondly, whilst we obviously gain a lot by having all these features, we also lose something at the same time. For example, an phones from the early 2000s had 3-4 times more battery life as modern phones. That gives you piece of mind that your phone is going to be ready to go when you actually need to make a phone call.

Thirdly, life nowadays, as they say, is all about the quick fix. But investing more effort in to something can yield greater, more fulfilling, rewards. Asking a stranger for directions in an unfamiliar city; carefully taping a mixtape for a friend; working through a calculation with a pencil and paper; dressing up to go to the cinema; all these time-consuming but wonderfully fulfilling experiences we forgo in favour of crude, simple monotony.



I got my first smart phone last summer and am still in awe of the new uses I continue to discover for it and I talk it up to my not-so-smart phone friends, family, and peers more than they'd like.

While no one would ever accuse me of hating on my phone, Mr. Grobar does go too far in the other direction. A smart phone can temporarily do all of the things that he listed above, but it can't really be considered a replacement for any (other than a basic cell phone). The biggest issue is battery life: smart phones are really more computers than phones, and currently drain battery too quickly to serve as a real replacement for anyone who uses the other items with even moderate use.

Another issue is quality: with their screen sizes, camera sensors, hard drive capacities, and other limitations they would barely be considered serviceable replacements for many devices above, even if battery supply was not an issue.

Finally, Mr. Grobar is disingenuous listing items like calculators, watches, voice recorder, and maybe even GPS, as these are functions many standard phones can serviceably perform as well.

That a smart phone can substitute for those devices they aren't available, on vacation, or during other moments where one doesn't want to carry them is a great plus about smart phones and certainly not a reason to complain. It's meant to be a phone, and the fact that it can do so much as well for so little additional cost is great. Of course, in terms of capabilities a smart phone is not actually a substitute for almost any of the above devices, and hence why people don't value it as such.



Translates to "spoilt-childishness" as for consumer behavior.

The list by Sam Gorbar is pretty fuzzy too. Digital cam working as video recorder can be found at around $100 (the quality is more on par with an iPhone4/Blackberry... than a $200 device, which then can do GPS too).
So the math is wrong.
But your remark is more precise: the bonanza is in the bundle. Now the usual trouble with "multifunctions" has always been that of devices delivering a lot of services with results ranging from poor to a just ok.
The worst with smartphone being a device that handles calls very badly (and most unexpectedly for it's now more of a computer + OS with occasional bugs). I think that is where complaints are focused, and it's not really "spoilt-childishness" since marketers sell us smarphones as phones that can do many other things.

In product development the Kano Model helps define what are 1. Basic Functions 2. Performance Functions and 3. Delighters.
Consumers want basic functions + performance functions, but these are soon taken for granted. Thus competition and marketing (differentiation) push the focus very early on Delighters, which causes products/brands to have their own level of Acceptable/Desirable basic+performance functions, depending on segmentation and time (rush)-to-market.
Now geek-journalists tend to play up the hype of delighters (what PR departments expect them to do) instead on scoring seriously a selected set of functions and explaining what is the recommended use for each device.



Not to mention the internet, I just bought my iPhone a fea months ago to discover y wad able to connect it to my laptop and that way I can have Internet anywhere, just moved to Mexico city to study Economics and I'm glad I won't pay more for internet connection :)


Adaptation. People get accustomed to the way things are and adjust their expectations. Same thing happens with other amazing technologies like air travel and computers (desktops/laptops).


If when they invented the lightbulb it glowed dark green instead of light yellow, it's not unreasonable that people would say "that's great, but..." When it comes to technological leaps, humanity is astoundingly quick at adapting to the new status quo and then pushing for improvements. That's actually what makes us great and innovative. It's not to say we're unthankful for what we have; its a credit to human ingenuity that any Joe can pick up the latest and greatest and almost immediately find himself vexed by the frustrating intellectual and technological "nearness" of something even better.


Well, to be a bit more fair, you should use the refurbed prices for all those devices since you are using the refurbed price for the iPhone.

For example, you calculated the cost of the point-and-shoot camera as $200. Not likely. You can get a new one that is better quality for $200, and if you do some serious bargain hunting you can probably get it new for down around $150. But, if you go for a refurbed camera, then you can easily find them for less than $80.