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Why I won’t buy another subsidized Android phone (geekwire.com)
43 points by scholia 1424 days ago | hide | past | web | 56 comments | favorite

How is the phone "subsidized" anyway; Apple or Android? Consider, say, buying a 32gb iPhone 5 in Australia on Optus, for a 4GB unlimited plan is $3,120.00 over 24 months [1].

Or, you go and buy the phone from Apple for $899.00, and use Optus prepay for 4gb @ $70/month == (899 + (70 *24)) = 2579 [2] (I noticed this expired after 28 days; so maybe add another month cumulative).

Of course, as Scott Adams says the only reason all these companies exist is the "confuseopoly" they create with various different plans that are the same but slightly different with no clear benefits. So maybe my maths is wrong, but good luck figuring it out in clear terms anyway. In Australia with all the "$20 for $275 value" bull-crap it's especially bad. At least in the US it's just plain "minutes" and M/B.

I think really it's the same with Android phones ... deliberate confuseopoly. I agree with the author; after getting a cheap, underpowered, bloatware, never updated Android piece-of-crap I have a simple rule -- Nexus or nothing.

[1] https://smb.optus.com.au/opfiles/Shop/All/cis/Cis%20Document...

[2] https://www.optus.com.au/shop/prepaidmobile/prepaidoffers

When I bought my iPhone 5 here in Australia, outright, amusingly a few people seemed shocked because of the cost, apparently. They wondered why I would do that instead of getting it for 'cheap' through a plan. I quickly did some calculations like you did back then and it worked out a lot cheaper and I have more freedom—I still have a contract though it is at least half the length! I'm less tied to my provider and more able to change depending upon who is offering the best service/price. I can't imagine any reason why I would go back to a subsidised phone and so far a few friends have done the same as myself.

What I want in a phone is the same thing I want in a computer or in calculator: the ability to use it on any problem I choose. It just so happens that subsidized phones typically come from businesses with incentives towards lock-in (so you can expect what you will get). In the case of a phone, not being able to change the software that comes with it (upgrade the OS or remove bloatware), means I can't use it for every problem and it is a substantially less useful tool for me. The solution at the PC level was providing a user-accessible boot process. For a phone, this means an accessible bootloader is a minimum requirement for me to make a purchase, at least at the computer-equivalent ($100+) price-range. But, in general, I would not recommend buying any computer that treats you like an appliance operator instead of an owner and full user.

I'm not saying single-purpose software (or the idea of a walled garden) is necessarily a problem, just that the inability to re-purpose is.

To play the devil's advocate, why should I treat every appliance that happens to have a microprocessor in it as a general purpose computer with root access? Personally, I want some of my devices to have some of the same traits as appliances. I like my phone to just work, always. I don't want to even be able to misconfigure my phone in such a way that it doesn't work right.

Don't get my wrong, for my PCs this isn't the case. I still like to be able to tinker, even if it means I can screw stuff up. But it's not that unreasonable to be offered a phone without full customization (or without it being easy), just like it is with microwaves, TVs, automobiles, etc.

Granted, this is a very subjective issue. Some people want little Linux PCs with root access in their pockets, and for good reason. I'm just not one of those people. End devil's advocate.

OK, let's say you don't have control of your phone (or similar computer-like device) that's designed to run only one software application. If you discover that your phone is spying on you, or contains another defect, you have no way to repair it. You can only throw it away - that is the highest level of ownership/control you can exercise... That's your only reset button. You cannot reuse the general platform within. I would call that a waste, and certainly a reason to expect better. (Reset buttons are highly under-rated.)

Different people are happy with different levels of control that largely depend on their level of expertise and resources. For example, to someone with a flash programmer, many devices are already very open. To someone with an SD card or a USB port, a bootloader is more empowering.

Again, while I can see the case for single-purpose software, there could be a hardware override. For example, important/necessary firmware for the primary use-case could ship on an SD card with a write-protect switch, but be replaceable. Most desktop owners never replace their own hard drive, but that feature comes in quite handy to the computer techs who are expected to, or if the included software eventually fails and needs to be reset.

That all applies to appliances, right? If your microwave is spying on you, all you can do is crack open the case on your own (analogous to hardware hacks or jailbreaking) or throw it out. My point is that, for some people (even some technology enthusiasts), configurability/extensibility is a low priority for certain devices. And as for the people for whom configurability/extensibility is a top priority, I would just recommend they not buy the locked down devices unless they're hoping to find or invent a way to circumvent the locks.

Yes, I am also recommending to people to not buy devices that they do not feel come with enough control. Phones are at the forefront of the convergence, but I will invariably want to be able to override (and audit) the software in my microwave too if I have any reason to believe it could harm me. For example, if microwaves started coming with voice interaction, requiring a microphone and an Internet connection, I would want to control the whole stack to be confident that it was not being used to invade my privacy (or overcook my meal), and to feel in control.

Edit: I should also note that adding the possibility of control doesn't cost anything extra from the perspective of those who wouldn't use the higher levels of control. The same simple interface would only have a "more control" (aka settings) button, as usual, and as platforms converge the low-level support pretty much comes for free (for example, if phones used x86_64 instead of ARM, USB boot would be implied). The desktop is a pretty good model actually.

This is exactly what we're trying to get away from with "appliance as a computer". The desktop is a good model for creators like most of us but it's horrible if you're selling it.

The issue is, if you provide a "more control" button there will be a lot more people who imagine themselves competent enough to use than actually are. And they're going to break their appliance. What do you think happens when they do something stupid and break their appliance? Simple; they blame the vendor being an incompetent piece of garbage.

This is the main reason that Windows, even today, has a reputation of being unstable while OSX has the opposite. I suspect OSX probably has a higher bug-per-loc but Apple tries to create a culture that doesn't "tweak" so they strip out most of the "user doing something stupid" crashes.

Personally, as long as I can do whatever I want on my desktop, I'm fine if I can't run a web server on my smart phone.

> Reset buttons are highly under-rated.

I would say they're overrated by the tech crowd. They cause a lot of support trouble for anyone who provides one.

Actually, resetting a device solves most problems, as was repeatedly made fun of by the appropriately-named (for your comment) "IT Crowd":


If I may only have one button in life, please, please, let it be reset (I think it already is).

"They cause a lot of support trouble for anyone who provides one."

I can't picture anyone working int tech who's ever had support trouble because of the existence of one, unless the end-user chooses to use it during a firmware update.

I agree with you on feature phones - but if you have a smartphone and use it as such, not having control on it can be really frustrating.

It's not just about gaining root and tinker, it's about using it as a smartphone. Then again if you use your phone like a feature phone (smartphone or not), it's probably fine for you.

Ok, excellent points there.

Do you mind clarifying how you feel about Samsung phones in particular? They do have a semi-usable bootloader (cyanogenmod, clockwork mod, etc. work pretty well) but getting the graphics, touchscreen, accelerometer, sound, camera (pictures/video) and any other drivers to work in cyanogenmod can be just as much work after that first initial success (the bootloader).

Without good drivers, a bootloader is only half the solution, in my opinion.

I'm picking on Samsung because their phones are very, very common. But HTC is no better at publishing drivers. In fact, only the Google Nexus line has published drivers so that the software stack can be replaced to a degree.

Yes, opening the boot process while providing no drivers, or binary-only drivers for a specific kernel, or blob-based firmware, are common tactics to deflate the expectation that control is a necessary feature of ownership. I can understand that sometimes the NDAs weave all the way down to the silicon manufacturers though, so it can be like pulling teeth to get anywhere at times.

Notably, Google and Apple are both in good positions to promote control-in-ownership, if not FOSS, but only Google has taken that stance.

Even without drivers, if hardware manufacturers were serious about delivering control with the hardware, they would prioritize providing as much of the same documentation they would have needed for internal development as possible, along with the device, to speed up community efforts to support hardware they may not be able to support themselves.

I can understand it if their hands are tied (they could say if so, for example), but I consider the the HTC and Samsung (and Archos) bootloaders half-hearted. They are selling Android devices, and the early Android community was very excited about the prospect of a Linux phone (like they are about an Ubuntu phone or a Firefox phone, and were about the Neo Freerunner). They are understandably disappointed and vocal (and persistent, hacking them every which way)... It feels like the bootloader efforts from most manufacturers is more an attempt to deal with the negative PR than to deliver meaningful control, but I'd love to be proven wrong.

Sony have also been very engaged with the open source community, with their own developers contributing on the XDA developers forums, participating in the AOSP[1], and they were the first outside Google to let anyone (not operator-locked) to unlock the bootloader with an official tool[2]. But everyone seems to ignore Sony phones for some reason. "Open friendly" does not seem to be a priority to customers, even ones who want to hack their phones.

[1] https://github.com/sonyxperiadev/device-sony-c6603

[2] http://unlockbootloader.sonymobile.com

I have had a very hard time trusting Sony since the removal of the OtherOS/Linux support on the PS3 (which was not their first hard-line opposition to owner control that came to my attention by then). Since then, I have tried to avoid even simple Sony wares (headphones, etc) - even if the hardware was sexy - on the theory that they were the sort of company that would sue the sort of person I consider myself to be (specifically, someone who is likely to hack any phone or game system I buy).

Maybe others feel that way too. I don't know how much that would matter to the average phone user, but it might uniquely matter to the sort of people who are looking for an open boot process.

I never understand this blind hated for Sony. The OtherOS thing was a reaction to the Geocrap clown. The people who design the phones have nothing to do with that anyway. The Xperia phones are awesome and Sony is actually one of the few well behaved manufacturers in the Android ecosystem.

Respectfully, it doesn't make me feel any better to lose a major feature because it was a reaction to Geohot (who can be obnoxious). It's probably also too long a conversation to get into in-depth however, but I don't actually think what Geohot did warranted that reaction. Like I said, I am the type of person who would do exactly that, so Sony - based on observation, not malice - does not appear to be the kind of company I would prefer to support. I appreciate what the phone crew is doing too, and that's worth acknowledging, but I still recognize that their work, while immediately interesting to me, also puts food in the mouths of people who do not have what I consider to be my long-term interests at heart. That is not blind hatred, it is rationality and voting with my dollar. I have a strong desire to reward people who reward me. If the Sony execs convince me they have my interests at heart, I will put my money on the table again. For now, I think they've got enough from me, and I'd rather not fund my prosecution.

> I appreciate what the phone crew is doing too, and that's worth acknowledging

Isn't it better to vote with your wallet? If you don't buy it, they'll think "well that open strategy didn't work, so let's try the closed thing Apple and Samsung are doing, those sell like hotcakes"

Having spent money in the past, I have voted for Sony and regretted it. I am still washing the taste out of my mouth. Trust is earned, and we are not square. My threshold has not yet been reached (maybe others are more ready to forgive). If they interpret my distrust as you say, that would be unfortunate and inaccurate - but if I were to ignore the history of my encounters, I could make the corresponding argument: they might interpret it as acceptance of those behaviors. I can only guess about the future, but at least I can learn from the past.

Blackberry user here: Can't you just root the subsidized phone and install a clean version of android?

Each phone may have different hardware and need different drivers, so hardware support can be hit-or-miss. If the phone manufacturer provides an acceptable version (possible), and the carrier allows their update (never seen it personally), then that might be an option, but even then (assuming the equivalent of root access) - in all likelyhood - it would still be half a phone (from incomplete hardware support). A lack of drivers is only slightly less immediate an obstacle than the lack of an open bootloader. In fact, it's often the bootloader that prevents that type of side-loading (won't boot something not signed by the carrier, even with the right drivers) and development of alternatives (chicken vs egg), so it usually amounts to the same obstacle. If I could truly reset the software, I could replace it... I blame Djikstra for bad-mouthing GOTO. Resetting hardware is just an unconditional jump. :)

But for the major, "headline" devices, like the Samsung Galaxy series or the HTC Nexus Whatevers, surely Android has good support for those already, right?


"All configurations of Nexus S and Nexus S 4G can be used with Android 4.1.2. On those devices all the hardware is functional."

That's the only compatibility I've seen offered by on the vanilla Android.

The problem with the US is that if you get a phone from the carrier, your plan will be $X a month with a 2 year contract but if you BYO phone, the plan will still be $X a month with no contract. This significantly reduces the incentive to provide your own phone as you're essentially giving up on a $30 a month subsidy.

Other countries (and T-mobile) have much more reasonable pricing models where BYO gives you the option to avoid the subsidy.

Well, this is a bit of a stretch, but if you already have the unlocked phone, you could still pay the subsidized price for a new device and instantly sell it for a hefty profit. I say it's a stretch because it is still fairly annoying, but I always do it for every upgrade on each of my family plan's phone lines. We're going to keep paying for service for the foreseeable future and not changing carriers anyway, so we might as well take advantage of the subsidies that are built into the monthly bill. Plus, I can always have the newest device if I so choose.

Why would the other guy buy it from you at a hefty profit instead of getting a subsidized unit from the carrier? They have the same issue - if they're on a mobile plan with a US carrier, the price of the plan won't change for them.

I never asked them, but plenty of people certainly do (you can check eBay to verify this, but I've experienced it numerous times in person). I can speculate a few reasons: someone on contract broke or lost their phone and needs another, someone simply wants the newest best phone but isn't eligible for a device upgrade (AT&T's upgrades come every 18 months, which is too long to even stay on the latest iPhone, much less Android flagships), or someone actually wants to use the device without a contract (I think some carriers have prepaid plans that will work with their locked phones).

I've only ever owned 2 smart phones - both android, both on tmobile, and both unsubsidized. Those phones are 1) the Nexus One and 2) the Nexus 4. Cyanogenmod let the N1 remain relevant for nearly 3 years. The N4 has 4x the cores (each clocked at 1.5x the N1's single core) and 4x the memory. It's also much faster on the network. All of this and I paid $200 less for the N4 than I did for the N1. Google has proved to me that it's possible to make a kickass phone that is affordable without the need for subsidy. If course, there will always be a market for seeking people what they can't afford, but I like the fact that the choice is there and that the community can decide how long a phone is relevant/supported.

Also, tmobile is the least evil, large carrier IMO.

And nobody should. With Nexus4 available for 300$.

There is a huge potential market for "cheap" smartphones particularly in developing countries, and because of the nature of iOS, Android is the only viable game in town. So people will continue to buy subsidized/cheap smartphones for a long time, atleast outside of the US.

Bloomberg recently published a very informed article [1] on the subject where one company, "Micromax increased shipments to 633,000 smartphones in the last quarter of 2012 from 9,990 a year earlier, while [another], Karbonn grew to 304,000 from zero."

Because of the price disparity of phones from Apple/Reputable Android manufacturers, there is a very large untapped market for sub_$100 smartphones in China and India.

[1] http://goo.gl/PHKIH

I know you're mostly talking about cheap phones, but I'm still going to quibble with the other half of your "subsidized/cheap smartphones" point. Subsidised phones are much less common in developing countries because the credit system is less developed. Even where they do exist, they're structured as "buy the phone for $x then get $x/24 off your bill each month for 2 years" rather than the "get the phone now and pay it off over the contract period" system in the EU/US, so they're not a way of getting a phone you couldn't afford to buy outright.

And with a phone as beautifully-designed and high-end as the N4 selling for $300, someone could certainly sell a perfectly usable Android phone for much less.

(Unless Google is selling it at a loss.)

> Unless Google is selling it at a loss.

Not sure about the loss, but I am sure they are not making much money from it.

So what if they aren't? Let's say the N4 really does cost close to $350 to produce. There are tons of ways to make a cheaper, but still usable phone: smaller screen, lower-res screen, less expensive glass, slower SoC, less RAM. Hell, the customer cost bump for 8GB->16GB flash is $50; the cost bump for Google/LG is a small fraction of that.

Let's remember that the N4 is Google's flagship phone right now. I'd be astonished if they couldn't make a low- to mid-end phone for $100-$150 less.

What makes you so sure about that? The estimations I have seen of Apple's insane profit margins on mobile devices suggest that it's entirely possible. Granted, Apple produce at a much larger scale than the Nexus 4, but I still think there is plenty of margin for Google to be making reasonable profits from the Nexus 4.

Google certainly stated that there is zero margin on the Nexus 7 (http://www.knowyourmobile.com/google/17658/google-says-there...). I'm sure I read the same about the 4 but can't find any sources, so maybe I just confused the two.

The display & digitizer are probably the highest-cost items on the N7, so the smaller N4 would likely be significantly cheaper, assuming the rest of the costs are the same (which they likely aren't; hard to compare).

My last phone came re-skinned and with default apps replaced by branded, pretty poor carrier specific versions. After a few months some of these apps stopped working and because they ran in the background I was inundated with failure notifications for processes I didn't want and could not stop. It's madness for a mobile phone operator to apply their control so uselessly.

Fortunately being a nerd has its benefits and I installed Cyanogen to avoid the horror, but I can't see how the non-geek user would be able to sidestep the bloat and bugs. The process for rooting and wiping the phone was extremely long. If in future there is the possibility that the engineers of such mods could create a one-click route there would be many more happy users.

In some cases, a subsidised phone does make sense. I've got an S3 for £26/month * 24 months, so £624 lifetime. Even six months later, the phone costs £320 new, and the closest equivalent sim-only contract costs £13/month. That's £632 lifetime, and requires a significant upfront cost.

The phone was more expensive to buy new when I took out the contract, and you can get it with no up-front payment on a £21/month contract now, so in both cases it's actually a better deal than presented above.

Android 4+ allows you to disable the bloatware, so that's not an issue either.

While I have switched to Android because I don't like the way Apple locks down their platform to the user, this article kind of validates the way Apple has treated the carriers - disallowing branding and the installation of crapware from the start.

I just wish Google would be more forthcoming with their security releases for older platforms (notably 2.3) or had struck a better deal with device manufacturers so that they could directly provide 4.x for smartphones from the Nexus S era.

I'm not a cellphone expert - is it possible to buy an unsubsidized & unlocked phone, and then reload Android direct from Google? So you don't get the bloatware & "service monitoring" apps. What about device drivers?

Direct from Google, yes, but only the Nexus 4 currently (and historically a few others). On other popular devices, no, but there are extremely well-supported community distributions of Android for them (usually CyanogenMod or AOKP). (Note that your phone has to have an unlocked bootloader for that option, but most can be officially unlocked these days.)

The lack of LTE on the Nexus 4 isn't a deal-breaker for me. Having an unpolluted OS is more important. Thanks for reminding me of this phone.

So which Android phone do you buy if you want unsubsidized on Verizon/LTE? Sincere question.

I don't think it's really an option at this point. The point the article is making is that you won't get stock android from anything but a phone sold to you by Google, and since the Nexus 4 isn't offered on Verizon, you're kind of out of luck in that department. Personally I'm an iOS guy, but isn't conventional wisdom to stick with the Galaxy S at this point on Verizon? They do seem very solid.

I'm perfectly happy with my Galaxy Nexus -- while it was subsidized, its not locked down in any way. I've had it for about a year and a half with no problems.

Correct me if I'm wrong, I thought the Galaxy Nexus wasn't on Verizon? I also thought that it didn't support LTE? Is that correct?

You're wrong. I'm on Verizon, and I get excellent LTE speeds with the GNex. (It's possible you can't currently buy the phone on contract, but it certainly works!)

Yup. I was a phone addict. I look back now with Android 4 and my Galaxy Nexus CDMA and feel silly for caring that much. My phone is so good now, I have no need for "faster", I'll get the Android updates via CM anyway and the phone has held up physically spectacularly.

I never buy subsidized phones as the cost and contract can run into a couple thousand in the long run. Generally, it is a lot better to just buy it up front and go with one of the unlimited plans that run for $50 a month. The savings are huge over time. This applies with all types of bills as well. I even pay my car insurance in full as they generally charge $5-$10 a month if you opt for the monthly payment.

You can buy Nexii subsidized... (like my Galaxy Nexus Vzw, but I suspect that's the last time we get Nexus on Vzw).

Also, you can disable built-in Android apps. Please! How do we raise awareness about this! It's been possible for sometime! Long press the app in the drawer -> drag it to App Info -> Disable. Or Settings -> Apps -> All Apps -> [App] -> Disable. [Or choose a notification, long press "App Information" -> Disable (I think this is a 4.2 addition)].

Lots of ways to get there.

The app disable feature has been around since 4.0 (ICS). Note that you may need to un-install any updates first, and then you'll be offered the ability to disable the app. That doesn't help the journalist who had a v2.3 phone though.

It's kinda funny. 3 or 4 years ago, all the rumors were: advertising based free Android phones. But everyone thought Google was going to do it directly. Instead, it turns out to be "free" via subsidy (and via subsidy, advertising): carriers and their partners load cheap midrange Android phones up with their apps/ads.

I'm happy to have always purchased Nexus or something I knew was well supported by CM. As long as that continues to be true, I don't care what Verizon sells, I'm happy.

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