Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

SmartPhones to Consider Besides the iPhone

I love the iPhone, and have owned various models since the iPhone was announced by Steve Jobs in 2007. I was actually in the audience at Moscone Center in San Francisco and watched Steve give the MacWorld keynote that year announcing the iPhone. I’m an Apple devotee and Apple fanboy with the scars to prove it.

Just the beginning! by Wesley Fryer, on Flickr
Just the beginning!” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Wesley Fryer

I am also a passionate educator, an engaged citizen, and a critical thinker, and as those other things I can’t ethically have blind loyalty to a single brand if that means ignoring important issues or capabilities. Last weekend I shared a TEDx presentation up in Enid, Oklahoma, titled “Digital Citizenship in the Surveillance State.” I curate a Flipboard magazine on “Digital Security” and another on “Surveillance State, Privacy and Citizenship.” Thanks in large part to my almost weekly conversations with Jason Neiffer (@techsavvyteach) on “The EdTech Situation Room” (@edtechSR) I’m thinking much more about these issues and how they relate to my roles as a parent, school technology director, and citizen. I’m also a HUGE user and advocate for the use of Google’s tools. Two weeks ago I shared an opening keynote at the Kansas Google Summit, along with breakout sessions about GeoMaps and quick edit videos. I’m not just an Apple FanBoy, I’m a Google FanBoy. But none of these things mean I’m afraid to think outside the box when it comes to smartphones or any other kind of digital technology.

With that preface out of the way, I’d like to share several smartphones BESIDES the iPhone to consider purchasing and using. I have not decided for sure if I’m going to upgrade my iPhone 6S to the iPhone 7 or to a model by a different manufacturer. In this post, I’ll review several REASONS to consider iPhone-alternative smartphones as well as specific models to consider.

Reason 1: Most Smartphones are bad for the environment

You might have read that today’s smartphones include a variety of different rare-earth metals which are not only difficult to find, but also challenging to recycle. The way most smartphones are manufactured makes this hard. “How We Think about E-Waste Is in Need of Repair” by Adam Minter (@AdamMinter) provides an excellent overview of these problems. The 6 minute video, “Circular Cellular” also highlights these cell phone recycling challenges but also the hope of manufacturing process changes which can make recycling easier and more common.

Reason 2: Most Smartphones Feed Our Surveillance State

In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re living in a surveillance state rife with government surveillance, corporate surveillance, and hacker-initiated surveillance. While there may be a trend of global inevitability with the rise of these surveillance activities, privacy DOES matter and as individuals as well as groups we can take proactive steps to address these issues. The 30 minute Guardian documentary video, “The Power of Privacy,” highlights many of the risks as well as the stakes of our modern digital age filled with data sharing, data warehousing, and GPS enabled smartphones.

Not all smartphones are equal in the approach they take toward privacy, information sharing, and user vulnerability to surveillance activities by different groups and individuals.

Reason 3: Artificial Intelligence is Reshaping Society

One of the best books I listened to on Audible in the past year was “The Industries of the Future” by Alec Ross (@AlecJRoss). One of the most important articles I’ve read in the past week is The Fourth Industrial Revolution: What It Means and How to Respond from Foreign Relations in December 2015. Both this book and article speak directly to the enormous and transformative power of artificial intelligence (AI), to reshape our society. Governance, economics, relationships and communication are some of the arenas in which AI is going to have a powerful, disruptive impact.

The big technology companies today, including Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft, are all angling to collect vast troves of data from us and about us to feed their respective AI engines. Elon Musk (@elonmusk) has founded Open AI (@openai) as an initiative to both accelerate and democratize access to AI technologies throughout society. Amazon’s Echo and Google Home  are AI powered microphones and speakers designed to bring the power of AI into our personal lives and also harvest data from us to feed the AI engines of these companies. Apple’s Siri Assistant, with the release of Mac OS 10.11 “Sierra,” is now available natively on Apple computers as well as portable (iOS) devices.

While I love using my Apple laptop, iPad, and iPhone, a large percentage of my computing life is now spent in Gmail (for work and home) as well as G Suite applications like Google Docs, Google Slides, Google Sheets, Google Maps, etc. Google has much more of my information for its AI engines than Apple does, since I’m an avid user of Gmail, Google Calendar, the Google search engine, and the Chrome web browser. I “live” more of my digital life within Google software tools rather than Apple tools. While I forsee myself continuing a “blended digital life” using both Google and Apple products, I sense that Google is ahead of Apple in the AI race and may stay there because of the ways both companies have positioned their products and services.

All of these factors combine to encourage me to consider using a Google phone powered by Android, rather than an iPhone, at least for a formative trial period. A few years ago, I sat next to someone on an airline flight back to Oklahoma City who almost convinced me to give Android a try. My children threatened to rise up in rebellion if I defected to the Android camp, however, because devices in our household are inherited and the digital chain of iPhone inheritance would be disrupted if Dad went Android. Their objections, combined with the amazing design and features of the iPhone 6, were enough to keep me in the Apple smartphone camp. The allure of having access to Google’s rapidly advancing AI capabilities through an Android phone, however, may outweigh the predictable protests of my children now.

iPhone Alternatives to Consider

Here are the smartphones I’m considering as alternatives to the iPhone because of the reasons I’ve outlined in this post:

  1. FairPhone 2 (@fairphone) – Manufactured more ethically than many other phones, FairPhone seeks to have specific, postive, global impacts on the smartphone industry which are needed for environmental protection as well as human protection. The June 2014 NPR segment, “A Call For Fair Phones And Conflict-Free Tech,” provides more background.
  2. Blackphone 2 (@silentcircle) – Blackphone is explicitly designed to protect consumer privacy and reduce the potential reach of the surveillance state into users’ personal and professional lives. This 30 second video provides a concise introduction to Blackphone 2. Blackphone runs an Android variant called “Silent OS.” Wired Magazine published a helpful review of Blackphone in September 2015.
  3. Jolla phone (@JollaHQ) – The Jolla phone is an open source project which runs Android apps, but has a very “unlike” design and function as a smartphone. (Thanks @daviottenheimer)
  4. Pixel phone (@googlepixel) is Google’s new foray into smartphone hardware manufacturing. It’s priced comparably to Apple’s iPhone (i.e. really expensive) but has some exclusive features with the Google Assistant (AI engine) not available on other Android phones.
  5. Google’s Ara Phone (@projectara) is an open and modular cellular phone project, which has not shipped a commercial product yet. CNET’s article, “Inside Project Ara, Google’s Lego-like plan to disrupt the smartphone” provides more background.

The incredible speed with which smartphone technologies have advanced in the past decade is represented, in part, by the poor quality (640 x 480) resolution of the photo below taken in San Francisco in 2007. We have reached a point in smartphone photographic capabilities that many people are able to ask, “Do I really need a phone which has even MORE megapixels of quality than my current smartphone?”

Here at MacWorld 2007! by Wesley Fryer, on Flickr
Here at MacWorld 2007!” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Wesley Fryer

While a camera with more megapixels of resolution or a smarthpone with a slightly faster processor may still be appealing to some consumers, I think the functions of smartphones I’ve outlined to protect our environment, protect our privacy, and provide greater access to the constructive power of artificial intelligence (AI) are much more compelling.

I’m not sure if I’ll take a break from my iPhone use and switch to an alternative smartphone, but if I do, I’m most likely to choose one of the five smartphone options I’ve listed in this article.

If you were purchasing a new smartphone today and money was not a limiting factor, among the choices I’ve listed above which one would you choose and why?

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3 responses to “SmartPhones to Consider Besides the iPhone”

  1. Ryan Collins Avatar

    I think part of the problem is that people don’t do the math for the shiny new iPhone and they don’t shop around for the best cellphone package.

    My family is currently on a grandfathered unlimited plan from Verizon, but it’s getting to the point where it’s just not worth it. So I’ve been experimenting with pre-paid packages, and will probably switch all of us to Tracfone in the future.

    I recently bought the $60 BLU phone from Amazon to get acquainted with Android. For a cell phone plan, I went with Tracfone. Fifteen months of service with a 1.2 GB of data, 180 minutes of calling and 180 texts comes to approximately $5.33 per month. Additional bandwidth is $10 a GB. Using Google Hangouts/Google Voice means I don’t need to buy any more calling minutes or texts, I’ll just need to add data every so often. This is the plan we use with our daughter, which gets her an iPhone 5 for about $15-20 a month.

    I’m looking at upgrading my iPhone 6 plus to something in the next few months, but the Pixel is just too expensive, and the iPhone 7 doesn’t offer enough over the 6 for the price. And I’m not totally sold on Android, there a few apps (Workflow, Drafts, and Editorial) that are essential to me and don’t have an Android counterpart. The only reason I’m looking at upgrading is that my daughter’s 16GB iPhone 5 does not have enough storage.

  2. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    Thanks for sharing where you are with family smartphone plans and decisions, Ryan. I did take a look at the Pixel, but I can’t justify switching to it either for many reasons. Functionally my iPhone 6S is amazing, and while Google may advance faster than Apple with AI and it’s assistant relative to Siri, it seems hard to make that comparison now and we’re in very early stages of AI development for all companies. I also continue to read about Android security exploits, and while it seems keeping updated to the latest Android OS would be a good strategy (as it is with any smartphone or other computing device) I don’t think the potential disruption to my own app workflows and digital life would be worth it.

    I’m very interested in what you’ve learned about the tracphone / no contract phone. I’m very glad to see US customers getting better no contract options, as phone customers in many other countries have had for years… At school this year our athletic teams have needed mobile cellular wifi, so we went with the no-contract, pay-as-you-go service – So far after a couple months it’s been great.

    Our family switched from AT&T to T-Mobile a couple of years ago and have been VERY pleased with the cost reduction and service for where we live in OKC. I definitely think it’s a good idea for families to revisit their plans and phones periodically and consider if there are good reasons (financial and otherwise) to make a switch.

  3. Ryan Collins Avatar

    Tracfone works on both AT&T and Verizon’s network. The latter is important for us because it’s almost the only game in town in NW Ohio. AT&T recently came to my area a year or two ago. Sprint has always been spotty, and as for T-Mobile? I don’t know anyone on T-mobile in the area. 🙂

    A lot of the MVNOs resell Sprint service, which limits are choices more. Basically, it’s either PagePlus Cellular (MVNO for Verizon) or Tracfone (does Verizon and AT&T). Do you know what Your Karma uses for a network?

    I’m pretty much going to stick with iPhone for the time being. Android is growing, but the app selection isn’t there yet. Plus, as you mention, security isn’t the best.

    When I do switch from Verizon, I will miss my unlimited plan. 🙁