Early Adoption, Smartphones, and Chauvinism

I stumbled across an MSDN Magazine article from a tweet that pointed out it made the absurd statement that all people with smartphones are early adopters. That was strange enough, but then I found myself disgusted with an apparent attempt to prove why there are so few women in Computer Science.

I’m surprised they didn’t edit out the “if you have a smartphone you’re an early adopter” comment. If you trust Wikipedia, smartphones existed in 1992. RIM’s BlackBerry was out in 2002, and Windows CE was the OS for “Microsoft Windows Powered Smartphone 2002″. iPhone’s been out since 2007. I’m not so sure I’d qualify people buying a 3-year-old technology as early adopters, and I’d certainly avoid saying it for an 18-year-old technology. Are VB6 developers still early adopters? I suppose if you narrow the definition of “smartphone” to “Windows Phone 7″ it works. At least MS doesn’t have Google’s arrogance and didn’t create a lame new term like “superphone”. I understand his point that smartphones tend to employ cutting-edge technologies, but if we apply that as the definition of early adoption then anyone with a PC is still an early adopter.

The rest of the article turns patronizing and downright sexist. I agree with the premise: we need to make smartphones to appeal to the masses, not just for profitability but because smartphones have the capability to reshape our lives. Mr. Platt suggests we should focus on making smartphones appeal to women to accomplish this. I assumed this would be followed with statistics that showed smartphone usage is a male-dominated area; no such data was referenced so I assume Mr. Platt is relying on his experience. What does Mr. Platt believe appeals to the modern woman? Grocery shopping! Managing appointments for the family! Nurturing children! Making sure the husband’s supper is warm when he gets home! I’m surprised the article doesn’t suggest an application that suggests which sandwich my wife should make for me, or sound an alarm when GPS detects her out of the kitchen to remind her where she belongs. Maybe Mr. Platt believes we should make Hello Kitty themed phones in addition to writing apps to help those of the other gender feel less threatened by this manly device. Oh, but he’s not entirely sexist. He did mention that the woman works a job before tending to her domestic duties.

I suppose I’m trying to get offended so I can write something sensational but I think he could have picked a better way to phrase his example. In particular, I think one should be sensitive when speaking specifically about women then focusing on tasks that line up with traditional gender roles in American society. There’s more to the market of people without smartphones than homemakers. To many people, a smartphone is just an expensive cell phone. Others don’t like the idea of being connected to the internet 24/7. A very large percentage of the country can’t afford smartphones even with the subsidized pricing (My smartphone bill could buy me lunch for a month.) The way to open the market is not to appeal to stereotypes. The way to open the market is to showcase how a smartphone can dramatically improve your quality of life by keeping track of menial information and coordinating with other people’s data. Scoble wrote a good post I can’t find right now outlining scenarios where a smartphone can really make life better. I’ll paraphrase from memory the kind of scenario that would get people to buy smartphones:

We’re in the minivan driving to the conference. My kid’s hungry, so I say “Phone, find me a place to stop and eat.” The phone looks at my GPS location and route and finds several restaurants along the way. It finds a Burger King in 2 miles but notices I tend to eat at McDonald’s more and picks one of those 4 miles away. “Does it have a playplace, I need one of those.” The phone checks a database, realizes there’s no playplace at this McDonald’s, and asks if I’d mind visiting one that’s 10 miles ahead instead. We stop and spend 30 minutes; the phone notices this will make us arrive 30 minutes later than expected and that I had a meeting I might be late to; it sends a notification to the participants to give me some extra time.

That’s the game-changing kind of functionality we need. Scoble wasn’t making this point (he was discussing how data islands are preventing this scenario) but it’s the future I want. If I wanted to do this kind of work today I’d have to pull over, check the map, find the restaurants, then start using individual websites to determine which restaurant had a playplace. My GPS can find the restaurants, but it doesn’t know which ones to suggest. It can’t tell me the closest McDonald’s is closed for renovations but there’s another one 12 miles ahead. It’d be up to me to check my route, recalculate arrival times, and pull over (again!) to notify my colleagues I’m running late. Ubiquitous web connectivity enables a device to perform these tasks for me, and a smartphone is the strongest candidate for a web-enabled device I’ll keep on my person at all times.

So I agree that practical apps are what will win the masses over. There is a need for apps that are recipe books, pantry managers, shopping list generators, and train schedule monitors. But it’s wrong to say these apps are important because women need them. Everyone needs them.

I’m additionally disappointed that Mr. Platt is writing about this as if it’s some revelation. When I went to Apple’s online app store, I found categories like “Apps for Cooks”, “Apps for Students”, and “Apps for Working Out”. The “Apps for Students” page suggests a National Geographic reference application, a scheduler and homework planner, and a couple of other useful applications for students. Apple knows real people are using their phones and has created lists that appeal to these real people. Android’s market is a step down from that; their online presence gives me categories, but isn’t searchable and isn’t organized well. I expected some kind of encyclopedia application at the top of “Reference”, but instead it’s “Worship Music”, “Final Fantasy XIV Guide”, and “Black Ops Intel Plus”. That definitely has the “this tool is for geeks only” vibe to it. What of Microsoft’s app store? If I don’t want to download Zune, all I get is “Featured”, “Top Paid”, and “Top Free”. A few of the apps look useful, but it really gives the impression that WP7 is a gaming platform for geeks. (Android’s app store is probably better on an Android too. I think it’s stupid to require your user to download software/purchase a phone to see your store.

It seems Apple’s the only company that’s figured out what Mr. Platt is saying and following up on it. Apple’s the only company that lets me get a phoneless view of their store that makes me feel like their device is intended for normal people. I suppose that’s why the article was written: if you narrow your definition of smartphone to “Windows Phone 7”, you find a world of early adopters and developers that need to write for the masses. This is why I’m waiting a while before picking up a WP7: it’s still going through the “geek app” phase Mr. Platt suggests the iPhone is still langushing in. No, real developers are writing influential apps for the iPhone. If it’s happening on Android or WP7, I can’t see it without buying a phone. They might want to see about that.

Update: Check out Word Lens: an application that translates text in an image from one language to another. Fancy fart app for the iPhone, no?

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3 Responses to Early Adoption, Smartphones, and Chauvinism

  1. I’m a web developer (and a male) and I don’t own (or particularly want) a smart phone, so I agree that it’s not as simple as the “we got the men, now lets go after the womenfolk!” attitude implied by that article.

    I think I’d probably fall into the “don’t want to be connected to the internet 24/7″ category, although I also think that if some killer app came along that I absolutely HAD to have, I’d probably break down and get a smart phone. Thus far, I’ve never seen a compelling use case that actually warrants the price of a data plan.

    So far, every advertisement I’ve seen is essentially one of these features:
    * It’s [newer | got a bigger screen | plays the newest game | uses a faster data network] than your friends’ phones, so they’ll be impressed
    * You can look at [Facebook | e-mail] on it

    The problem with these is that sitting in a chair, looking at a larger, stable screen will always be better for reading e-mail and looking at websites. I can see where in the future smartphones will become indispensable as portable “offline storage” (as posited by this edition of Dinosaur Comics: http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=1854) but the ecosystem just isn’t mature enough yet to move them from luxury conspicuous consumption type items into everyday necessities.

    It happened with regular cell phones, and I’m sure it will happen with smartphones too. Or at any rate, “dumb” phones will eventually incorporate GPSs, motion sensors, front-facing cameras, etc. as the hardware becomes cheaper to produce.

    However, there will always be the next generation of high-priced enthusiast gadget-filled devices (as you said, Google is already doing this with their “superphone”), and the housewives and luddites of the world will continue to ignore them.

  2. John Groft says:

    Hi Brad,
    I read your comment on the above-mentioned article and it intrigued me. After looking at your profile and finding a link to this site (it would have been a good idea to provide a link in the article) I found your blog.

    After reading through it though, it strikes me that you read a lot into Professor Platt’s article that was not actually there. His comment that all smartphone users are, by definition, early adopters may be a bit of a stretch, but that wasn’t really his point. The point was that, until recently, (say with the inception of the iPhone), smartphones were not in widespread use outside of business managers and technology afficionados. Even then, it took a year or so before smartphone usage actually increased dramatically. Most (not all – but most) of the software that’s available for smartphones today is software that was written by and for that group of users – business apps and so called ‘cool’ apps without a lot of usefulness. There’s a definite dearth of software that appeals to the pragmatic user – someone who just wants software that helps them get a job done.

    As an example, Professor Platt uses his wife – a woman with a family. He doesn’t say anything at all about women being under-represented in computer science. He never makes the statement that grocery shopping or putting supper on the table for Hubby appeals to the modern woman. He DOES say that the next wave of smartphone adoption will come from users who do not value technology for its own sake, but for the purpose of making their lives easer. He also makes the statement that this wave is *primarily* controlled by women. He doesn’t offer studies to prove it, but why should he? That’s not his point. The purpose of the article is to drive home the point that we, as developers, need to do a better job of developing software that doesn’t suck. (i.e. software that does practical, useful things and does it well.)

    He’s not trying to profile the modern woman. He’s not commenting on gender roles within American society. He’s not even attempting to address who can and can’t afford one. He’s simply saying that the largest subgroup (i.e women) within the larger group of pragmatic users want software that helps them do the things they care about. And for a huge chunk of them, what they care about is their family and whatever duties they elect to have within that structure. For many of the women he’s describing, they want software that helps them do common, everyday things – like keep track of their own schedule, their kids schedule (if they have them), taking care of their pets (if they have them), getting groceries (we all have to eat), taking care of their parents and in-laws (if they have them) and keeping track of their husband’s schedule (if she’s married.) They tend not to care about farting apps, beer drinking apps or Star Trek tricorder apps, though there are some exceptions.) That’s the only point here.

    It seems to me that you may, with good reason, have a hightened sensitivity to sexism and the large gap between the rich and the poor. That is to your credit. However, I think you’re reading attitudes and ideas into the article that aren’t there. After all, there’s a big difference between saying that women should be kept barefoot and pregnant and acknowledging the fact that many women have families and like to take care of them. It’s a lot like getting ‘all women should be homemakers’ from saying that when a woman buys a blender she wants one that works.

  3. John Groft says:

    Correction: I meant “Owen” not “Brad.” I read Brad’s response and that’s what stuck in my brain.

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