It Never Gets Better

Why you should never buy a mediocre piece of technology expecting that it’ll be more amazing tomorrow than it is today.

There’s an update waiting for you. For your apps, for your computer and phone and tablet and the box attached to your TV. Updates are so routine that when you buy a smartphone or a tablet, you don’t just hope it will be better tomorrow than it is today, doing new and wonderful things that it doesn’t already do — you expect it. That’s the magic of software.

You might buy a new phone that’s missing something, thinking, “It will get better.” No, it won’t. If I were to tell you one thing about buying technology, it is this: Buy something because you like what it is right now, not because you think it’s going to get better, or that one day it’ll be what you really wanted it to be. It’s kind of like marrying somebody and thinking you’ll change them and they’ll get better. They might. But they probably won’t. Over time, you’ll just hate them even more. And yourself, at least a little.

Everybody’s still wondering why the Nexus Q — Google’s $300 Death Star-shaped media streaming orb — exists. It doesn’t do much of anything right now. It streams movies and music from Google’s Play service. That’s it. It’s incredibly tempting to think that since it’s got a quad-core processor full-blown Android device inside and a marketing campaign behind it that Google will unleash a software update in the near-future that will magically make it worth $300.

But an update was going to let this BlackBerry tablet reach its full potential; make this Android phone great; make this tablet an iPad contender; and make that other Google television box into something incredible.

The update never came, or it took forever, or it sucked.

These aren’t isolated cases. “Just wait for the update” or “just wait for the apps” or “there’s more launching soon” has became so pervasive that when I was at Gizmodo we had a badge for it in reviews. Do you know how many products I reviewed that evolved past the “half baked” status into “must buy”? None. Ever. Ever.

Phone contracts last for two years and cost thousands of dollars in the end. It’s perhaps not unreasonable that you hope that the life of a phone is also two years from its release date — that it’ll get two years of “best effort” software support and development. Even in the best possible case, the iPhone, whose software Apple updates every year like clockwork, feature updates can be spotty for current devices. Apple still sells the iPhone 4 and iPhone 3GS, but neither of them are getting iOS 6’s turn-by-turn navigation from the upcoming iOS 6 update. Not for any obvious reason from a user perspective. They just won’t.

Searching Google News for “Android Update” is the fastest way to find the motivation to hurl yourself into an abyss lined with new Android phones running old software. There’s a veritable cottage industry around the question of which Android phones are going to get the latest updates, and when they’re going to get them, like some strange technologically dystopic form of Calvinist divination. Short answer: Not your phone, and not anytime soon. Eight-and-a-half months after launch, just 10 percent of Android devices are running Android 4.0. Motorola, which is owned by Google, won’t be updating the majority of its devices to 4.0 until later this year. Some of Samsung’s Galaxy S II phones, its flagship Android devices until a month or so ago, didn’t get updated to Android 4.0 until very recently. You know, just as Samsung announced its successor, the Galaxy S III. And just before Google announced Android 4.1. Would you like to guess how long it’ll take your phone to get Android 4.1?

I suppose it’s better — sort of — than what Microsoft announced: that no current Windows Phone will be updated to Windows Phone 8 when it launches this fall. Even its flagship phone, the Nokia Lumia 900, which launched just three months ago. That’s right, Microsoft is officially dead-ending a three-month-old phone. I hope you like the present, because your phone has no future.

At least it still works, though. The even grosser, hairier underbelly of update culture is beta culture: Companies releasing products that aren’t finished because they can “finish them” after you’ve paid money for them. Because you expect updates, and well, simply because they can, releasing not-quite-finished products is all part of the plan. Whether it’s finally optimizing software to run as fast it should, adding in basic features like multitouch, fixing a show stopping bug right after launch (oh wait, I guess the Lumia 900 didn’t work), smoothing over a hardware bug, refining essential features or — and this is really amazing — promising to add new hardware after launch. You might be shocked to know that most of these released-now-fixed-later products weren’t exactly amazing, even after their update.

And sometimes updates, if you get them, don’t just not make things better, they make them worse. They can make your phone slower. Ruin your router. Take away features. Or break your console.

If there is one glimmer of hope that the gadget you’re buying today is going to be better tomorrow, it’s that the gadget is already good, and the same company makes the software and the hardware. The Xbox 360, for instance, is a radically different device than it was six years ago, a full-fledged entertainment powerhouse that’s (really) only going to get more awesome this fall. A six-year-old box. It’s practically unheard of. (It’s actually unheard of.)

More often than not, though, gadgets don’t get better. They just get obsolete.

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