The Epidemic of Update Fever

Philip Berne - Oct 22, 2010, 10:06am CDT
The Epidemic of Update Fever

While I was working as a teacher, I got a job moonlighting at an Apple retail store in a high-class mall in the Boston area. I worked as a Mac Specialist on the sales floor, and the most common question I got was whether the customer should buy now, or wait until the next version came out. Inevitably, that laptop or iPod they bought today would be rendered obsolete by a faster version with more memory and a lower price tag. Apple is pretty good about helping you out if you just bought your new kit the day before the newer version is released, but after about a month, you’re boned. This is the way with technology. There are three things you can count on in life: death, the planned obsolescence of the cool gadget you just bought, and taxes.

[Image credit: Matthijs Rouw]

What advice did I give? If you need it now, buy it now. If you can wait, then wait until you need it. If you’re losing money every day because you can’t complete your business projects without a working computer, it is not worth waiting for the next big thing. Rarely is the next big thing a significant leap forward. For all the Intel marketing claims that their newest processors are the greatest things since USB, it’s not really true. The difference will be hardly noticeable.

There was another bit of advice I always gave customers: make sure you’re happy with the product you’re buying now. If it does things you like, it will still do the same things in three years. New features might come along that you wish you had, but if you like burning DVDs, or carrying around 4 months worth of music in your pocket, at least you’re guaranteed that your new purchase will do those things until the day it dies. You might wish for a Blu-Ray burner or an iPod that can hold 10 months worth of music, but that is the way of the silicon. Personally, I try to spend as much as I can afford to buy the best piece of tech available. I could live with a lousy car, cheap furniture, even a smaller house. But I work every day on my computer, and if I’m not happy going to work, I won’t be as productive. I think the only other product like this in my life is my mattress. A good mattress is important for my happiness.

When I read that a Gizmodo editor was refusing to review the Nokia N8 because its operating system was slowly becoming obsolete, I had to laugh. Not out of humor, but out of embarrassment for their other editors. That had to be one of the most boneheaded moves in tech journalism I’ve seen since… well, since they decided to pay for a stolen iPhone prototype.

I’m not going to dive into the specifics. This column isn’t about phone operating systems, it’s about the idea that our gadgets need to improve after we’ve bought them. Now, I’m not arguing that gadgets shouldn’t improve. It would be awesome if we knew every gadget would get better over time. Thanks to a great system update, my two-year-old MacBook Air runs better today than the day I bought it. But the next system update might overwhelm the machine, making it obsolete. My iPod touch is much better today than when I bought it, though many other gadgets are exactly the same. I don’t expect significant improvements for my cameras, for instance, nor for my television. Even my TiVo hasn’t improved in the last few years, though a TiVo is practically a computer at heart, so it could easily be updated.

There are good reasons why Gizmodo might skip a review of this phone. First, it costs hundreds of dollars because it isn’t subsidized by a carrier. Of course, you don’t have to sign a contract, but unfortunately most Americans don’t buy into this logic, and would rather take a $300 price cut up front to sign away two years of their lives. Unlocked phones have proven very unpopular in the U.S., so the low traffic the phone review generates might not justify the resources required to review it. What’s strange is that Gizmodo never mentions this issue as a reason to skip the phone.

Also, other sites have spent time with the device, and it scored poorly in other reviews. In fact, the non-review’s author even cites another Web site’s review as an excuse for why he skipped it. This is the laziest form of journalism imaginable. If an editor who worked for me decided not to review a product because other sites said it was horrible, he’d be looking for a new job the same day. First of all, I don’t read other reviews before I write my own opinion about a product. I want my own unique perspective to come through untainted. Second, some of my favorite reviews have been ones in which I disagree with the general consensus. When I can offer a different take, I know that I’m doing a service to my readers. At best, I might be right where others are wrong. At worst, I’m simply offering a different opinion, and a range of intelligent opinions makes tech journalism a better place.

The reason you review a device that might already be obsolete is because the average consumer shouldn’t have to think two years into the future when they make a purchase. When I buy a laptop, I’m almost guaranteed that it will be updated within its lifespan, but that’s not why I buy it. I buy it because I need it now, and I need the features it offers. If those features work well, I’ll be happy with them. If they don’t, I won’t buy it.

Indeed, a device that has reached the end of its lifespan is the exact device I need to review, because it’s more important than ever that the device work properly and meet the buyer’s expectations. But, as I’ve said recently here on SlashGear, I review a product with a real buyer in mind, someone who is about to spend some money. I suspect that Gizmodo’s editor imagines his readers to be enthusiasts, of course, but not really interested in buying. That’s fine by me, because his readers are eventually going to need to make an informed buying decision, and those readers will know just which reviews to read, and which reviews to skip because they are obsolete.

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