Research Before You Buy

I have been an early adopter for many electronic devices, especially mobile ones. I’ve had the dream of walking around with some sort of computing device, ideally connected to the Internet, much longer than it’s been practical.  I went through the HP100LX (which I could hook up to my Motorola Startac phone or my 300 baud modem), the Sharp Zaurus SL-5500 (which ran Linux), and the Psion 5MX.  Then some Palm PDAs, etc.  Unfortunately, the PDA market is pretty much dead.  I really wish I knew why, as it was years between when the PDA market vanished (at least here in the US) and when smartphones became capable of taking their place.

My first smartphone was a Windows Mobile 6.0 phone (bought months before Microsoft declared Windows Mobile 6.x an utter dead end), and eventually an iPhone.  But not the first iPhone.  Or even the second iPhone.  Why?  Because, as groundbreaking and powerful as they were, my research determined they were missing certain key features that I needed to do what I want, and being a relatively closed and restricted environment, those features were not going to be added on by someone else.  I did my research, and said “Not soup yet”.  How do you release a device you say surpasses anything else without cut/copy/paste??!?!?  I am very much NOT an Apple Fanboy, but why, being a Linux Fanboy, would I not go with an Android phone?  because (1) At least at the time, you couldn’t back up or sync any data with an Android phone without surrendering all your contacts, schedule, etc with Google, which is an unacceptable privacy violation to me, and (2) AT&T had modified the phones to be even more locked down than the iPhone!!!  But I wold not have known that if I just simply said “The Linux-based phone must be more open, so let me get that one”.

When the Kindle Fire was announced, I started thinking about getting that device, or something like it (7″ form factor Android device around $200 with a high quality display).  Days later the Barnes and Noble Nook Tablet was announce to be available for sale a week after the Kindle Fire, and I quickly narrowed down my choices to these two.  But the rumors and predicted specs on review sites differed enough I knew I had to wait until they were available and I could play with them.  I ended up developing a detailed, objective comparison between them, and the Nook Tablet won handily (for me. YMMV).  I got active in the Nook Tablet “hacking” community, and even started working on a wiki site on it. My research found that the boot loader was heavily locked down, and while there’s a lot of hacks to load other software and markets and customizations for it, it’s unlikely that a completely new ROM would be loaded on it any time soon.  I was OK with that, because while I wanted to do much more than originally intended with the device, I still wanted it to function as an ereader, too,

I noticed, long after the word had spread that you couldn’t [yet] replace the ROM as you could in its predecessor, that people were buying them and discovering this after the fact, and returning them.  These people had bought this device for $250 or more hoping to load the latest version of AndroidOS on it, use bluetooth keyboards, hook up external hard drives to it, and Skype their friends with it, without spending half an hour finding out whether any of this is possible (none of it is yet, though Ice Cream Sandwich is close)!

This leads to unhappy geeks.  Geeks and hackers, as a group, tend to expect the world to work they way they want it to, or at least be configurable to.  Only big corporations aren’t always on board with this.  In the case of the Nook Tablet, B&N had to lock the tablet down more than its predecessor in order for Netflix to allow streaming on it.  After the security vulnerabilities came out that allowed us to gain root access to the Nook Tablet and load software from wherever we wanted on it, B&N pushed an update to the software that closed those security holes, and that update got installed on Tablets with no warning, and certainly without consent.  There was an endless barrage of flame wars complaining that B&N should not have done that, and “how dare they”.  I would calmly point out each time that B&N was operating in their own best interests (protecting their relationship with Netflix and other companies), and it’s silly and unrealistic to expect B&N to act against their own best interest to enable a small group of people who will never buy books, movies, or apps from B&N to have their fun, any more that one would expect Apple to allow Adobe Flash on the iPhone or Ford to allow you to connect your computer to the diagnostic interface of their cars with a simple USB plug.

So here’s my message: When you’re planning on buying some sort of complicated and/or expensive item:

  1. Make sure you’ve identified exactly what you want to do with it (establish acceptance criteria).  This not only helps you with your research, and help determine when you’re done with it, but it can prevent you from falsely claiming you’ve found “the perfect solution” if you really haven’t.  It also helps convey to others what you’re looking for.  Be honest with yourself.
  2. Make sure you’ve made a reasonable effort to identify all possible items that could meet your needs.  “Premature optimization and/or filtering” can lead to excessive narrowing of the result set.
  3. Make sure you look at both the good and bad features of each item, identifying any deal-breakers.
  4. If you absolutely need a feature, and the device doesn’t have it yet, don’t assume that it will be added in the near future, or ever.  Even barring external influences like regulations and partnerships, their idea of the future of the device may be very different than your own.
  5. If you can afford to wait even a week later, you will benefit from the experience of the others who were not so thorough.  Learning from other peoples’ mistakes is much cheaper than learning from your own.  Learning from other peoples’ successes can save you hour of research.
  6. If you can’t find evidence either way whether the device can do what you want it to or not, don’t be afraid to ask.  And ideally, spread the new knowledge.
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