After Hours

Why I've decided not to be an early Droid X adopter

TechRepublic member dcolbert explains why he isn't ready to retire his Droid and all of the accessories for the arguably modest technology improvements in the latest Android uber-phone that's available through Verizon.

My director decided to exercise one of our corporate "New Every Two" upgrades to get a Droid X, and since my employee is in charge of managing our corporate accounts, they both went down to Verizon to pick up this new uber gadget. I, on the other hand, stayed back at the office with my trusty original Droid sitting snuggly in my belt holster, quietly draining its battery at an alarming rate like it always does.

As the manager of an IT department (and a guy who occasionally takes a stab at writing technology blogs), why would I stay with a device several cycles back in the super-gadget arms war when I could be enjoying a shiny, powerful, new gadget?

Last night, as I was getting ready for bed, I went through my usual routine of putting my Droid into my bedside media dock where it does two tasks: 1) it hungrily sucks another seven hours worth of electricity into its tiny, hot running, misshapen battery, and 2) it doubles duty as my nightstand alarm clock and radio. This simple act caused me to pause and consider a few things.

One of the strengths of the iPhone is that it's maintained the same basic form and shape — a shape largely interchangeable with the iPod Touch PMP device — for a very long time. The industries that have sprung up around these devices to supply accessories are huge revenue generators and economic engines in their own rights.

There's no doubt that the cell phone industry also has enjoyed years of profit by selling car chargers and holsters in addition to the basic devices, but one of my ongoing gripes (and a gripe of many other gadget lovers) is that cases, chargers, and other accessories travel the same "New Every Two" course as your phone, and so an upgrade means that you have to re-buy the same accessories for your new device. It's a great, profit building scheme for phone manufacturers and wireless carriers but not such a good deal for consumers.

The changes in the Apple line have always centered around more tangible upgrade technology paths. It's annoying when your old iPod accessories won't work with your new iPod, but it's generally because of a reasonable change in the technical architecture of the device. Apple didn't arbitrarily decide to make it so that your old iPod docks could no longer charge your newest iPod devices simply for the goal of selling you a whole new set of $30+ accessories — although I'm sure that was a pleasant side effect for Apple and their licensed (and gray market) accessory vendors.

However, the fact that your HTC XV6800, Motorola Razr, and LG 8600 all required different car chargers is an intentional lock-in to their proprietary device interface schemes (which, like Apple, are generally just custom bastardizations of USB). Not only do different manufacturers traditionally use different interfaces, but the same manufacturers often redesign their own custom interfaces between different models of mobile phones they release.

When the Droid was first released, it brought a new paradigm to the Verizon phone ecosystem, one that much more closely matched the Apple iPhone philosophy than other Verizon smartphones. The value-add of the Droid exceeded the expectations of a traditional cell phone — it was a personal media player, a GPS unit for geocaching and mapping, and a social connectivity device.

The Droid offers remarkable functionality in all of these roles, despite the fact that it doesn't have the largest, flashiest, or snappiest user interface on the market. However, many of these features require additional accessories, and I'm simply not ready to retire the phone and all of the accessories for the arguably modest technology improvements in the latest Android uber-phone that's available through Verizon (or any other carrier, for that matter).

I think only Apple really understands the value add of maintaining a consistent, easily accessorized design. It creates a certain amount of brand loyalty and buyer lock-in, and I'm predicting this will be one method by which Apple differentiates itself from competitors in the future. Expect the imminent release of the new iPad Touch design to physically mimic the iPhone 4 and work with the majority of accessories designed for that device (and vice versa). This is a truly critical distinction that most of the other players in this field don't seem to understand.

Except for major upgrades driven by significant technology advances, you can expect and almost count on most of your basic iPod/iPhone accessories to travel with you when you move from one device to another. Even when they don't migrate seamlessly, they often still function in the Apple world with limited or reduced functionality. You may no longer be able to charge your iPhone 4 or place it in the same cradle, but it'll still hook up to the edge connector and play through your car stereo and operate via your steering wheel controls.

Unfortunately, a level of tighter integration and accessory compatibility still eludes the entire Android device ecosystem, and it's bound to become a liability if Motorola, HTC, and other Android handset manufacturers don't get wise to this in a hurry.

The truth is that even outside of a service contract, the features of the Droid make it a relatively impressive and useful personal media and portable computing device that's on par with the iPad Touch. In this respect, it pays for Motorola to carry on the original Droid design in accessory compatibility for their mobile devices going forward.

Really creative design and/or foresight might have allowed the Motorola Droid X to share at least some accessories with the original Droid, but the design differences are almost significant enough that it would be like expecting iPhone cases to be reusable with the iPad. Sometimes, form and function make previous accessories unsuitable for new paths that a product line is exploring.

We'll discover if Motorola sees and wants to leverage this same design philosophy of tying people into their product line by accessory portability when the Droid 2 is released. If Motorola is paying attention (and if they are, hopefully they'll get the attention of the other Android handset and tablet manufacturers), the Droid 2 should be physically compatible with the GPS and Media dock — making it an incentive for original Droid owners to use their "New Every Two" to refresh their hardware while re-using the accessories they already purchased for their original Droid.

As consumers, we can influence these handset manufacturers with our pocketbooks. If we demand certain reasonable standards for mobile device accessories and vote by purchasing from manufacturers that attempt to meet those goals, the competition will get on board or be driven out.

Right now, Apple has a tremendous lead in this arena — one that makes me potentially rethink my position on Android phones and tablets versus Apple. With the current model, I have no incentive to stay with Motorola. If HTC or LG or Samsung or Google comes out with the next greatest Android phone, I can dump my current manufacturer — because even if I stay with them, the next handset or device is going to require largely all new accessories.

On the other hand, with Apple as my sole handset provider, if I spend $200 getting a custom cable installation for my car stereo that allows me to control the device from my steering wheel, the worst-case scenario is that I'll have to purchase a simple adaptor cable in order for it to work properly with the next generation Apple device I buy.

Thinking my way through this has made me decide that Droid X isn't on my gadget priority list. In fact, I might completely rethink my strategy on Android platform devices. What do you think? Are accessories going to be a major defining item in brand loyalty among mobile device users, or does it really matter if you have to throw out all your accessories and buy new ones every time you buy a new phone? Let me hear your opinion in the discussion thread.

About Donovan Colbert

Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...

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