Aggregate Regurgitate

Aug 15, 2012 No Comments by

In the Guardian on 13th August Emily Bell wrote about a court case in the US (Google v Oracle) in which the judge had ordered both parties to ‘disclose which writers they pay for consultancy or favourable opinions.’  Bell goes on the cite the case of Michael Arrington, founder of the Tech Crunch website, who invested in companies he wrote about.  Commentators inevitably wondered whether this affected Arrington’s impartiality, especially when it seemed that Tech Crunch was getting access and exclusives off the back of those seemingly paid-for relationships.  Editorial integrity?  What’s it worth?

Most print journalists are paid a pittance.  The marquee names – A.A. Gill, Clarkson, Boris Johnson – who earn a decent amount from their writing are in a small minority.  Life in the blogosphere is even less remunerative and the competition to make websites pay is intense. Tech Fogey can only speculate as to the consequences of a tech reviews website running a damning appraisal of, say, a Sony smartphone, when that company spends money advertising on the same site. The margin between a website that earns its keep and one that is no more than a hobbyist blog can be very fine.  We can hope otherwise but it’s not unlikely that Which? is the only truly impartial reviews website.  But we don’t know who their reviewers are, their personal preferences or affiliations.  They likely adhere to a strict code of conduct but how foolproof is it?  And if you want to access Which? online you will need to subscribe for just under £10 a month.  This might not sound like much but unless you’re buying a ton of stuff can it be worth it?

There are dozens of smartphones on the market but only a handful that anyone with aspirations would want to be seen with: Apple iPhone 4s, Samsung Galaxy S3 or S2 and maybe the HTC One X.  How do we know this?  We read the tech reviews sites.  We don’t know about HTC but we do know that sales of their smartphones are driving Samsung and Apple to record profits.  Both companies market and advertise relentlessly.  Tech websites might not be at the top of this food chain but they should be given the influence a small number of them can have on popular opinion.

When Tech Fogey aggregates reviews scores to get to a Fogey 5 we do what we imagine an interested, committed consumer would do; we collate the best scores from websites we know and trust, add some data based on what people are already buying (Amazon and Google are happy to tell you this) and whittle it all down to a manageable list of five – a consensus.  But it’s quite likely that the phones that are popular with consumers are the ones that have garnered all the 5-star reviews, so let’s discount consumer opinion.  That leaves eight-or-so websites and, in the main, eight-or-so individuals.  In terms of technology, websites such as Mashable, Cnet and Tech Crunch lead the way in both traffic and opinion-forming terms.  Add Engadget, Tech Radar, Trusted Reviews, Which? Pocket Lint, Stuff, T3 and other, more specialised sites such as Digital Photography Review, PC Pro, What Mobile? etc and you’re still hard pressed to get more than ten opinions from people who you can reliably conclude know what they’re talking about.  And if you can understand all of what they’re talking about, bravo to you.  Also, what becomes the acceptable norm for the sharp end of the tech reviews crowd might seem odd to the layman.  For example, Tech Fogey doesn’t think it’s okay that a smartphone battery will run out of juice before the day is done or that contracts for such phones run for two years.  Somehow, though, these factors aren’t seen as important when set against the number of megapixels in the camera or the speedy power of the phone’s processor (which is a major battery-drainer).

But we digress.

Some tech reviews sites certainly seem to have very specific tastes.  When Tech Fogey aggregated smartphone reviews it found that Trusted Reviews thought very highly of three Orange-branded smartphones, all manufactured by ZTE and sold by that company under different names.  Tech Radar liked one of the Orange phones too but they featured in no other top ten list across another eight websites.  And BlackBerry was nowhere.  It’s almost as though the tech press has decided BlackBerry has already crumbled (sorry…).  In most cases smartphone players such as Huawei, Alcatel and ZTE who plough the ‘high-spec, good value’ furrow struggle to imbue their products with any degree of desirability but BlackBerry handsets have never been cheap and it wasn’t that long ago they were leaders in the smartphone/PDA arena by some distance.  Much of the bad press they’ve been getting has been comparative; before the iPhone came along no one knew any better but since then and since the many iterations of the Apple iOS and Android OS and the gob-smacking advances in handset technology the resolutely utilitarian, unsexy BlackBerry has been sidelined.

In one of his recent motoring reviews in The Sunday Times, Jeremy Clarkson discussed the genesis of the current format Top Gear and how the original plan was to sensibly review sensible cars that sensible people actually bought, as opposed to showing films of three middle-aged men behaving like teenagers while power-sliding achingly expensive exotica.  This strategy lasted about five minutes before the likes of Mr Pagani and his Zonda rolled along to spice things up and make Top Gear the most watched TV show in the world.  We mention this only to illustrate that, while there are many, many cars and smartphones out there, only a handful of either will make you moist.  And while few of us have the wherewithal to acquire a Bugatti Veyron or McLaren MP4-12c, an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy S III is well within the reach of even the lowliest serf.  Which is a buzz for the great unwashed; knowing that Mr Fancy Trousers can’t possibly have a ‘better’ phone because such a device does not exist.  Encrust it with diamonds if you must but it’s still a Nokia and everyone knows it.

So there you have it.  The best handsets are within financial reach of the masses, there are only a handful anyone would want to be seen with and that’s because a comparably small number of review-geeks have bestowed their munificence upon them.  Small number of influencers + small number of must-have handsets = kerzillions in profits for the small number of manufacturers who make those handsets and who advertise the most in the tech press.  It’s not so much a closed shop but heaving open the doors requires broad shoulders – broader than Panasonic seem to possess because they’ve either delayed or shelved (depending on who you read) their plans to enter the smartphone fray.

Apple only makes iPhones, whereas Samsung, HTC, Sony (they’ve dumped Ericsson) and LG make handsets for all tastes and pockets. The Huawei Ascend G300 is about the best Android handset for £100 but it’s still a Ford Focus of a phone. The Nokia Lumia 900 Windows phone was well-reviewed by some but if a megalith such as Microsoft can’t put a dent in Tim Cook’s pension plan it’s difficult to imagine anyone else having a pop.  Google bought Motorola’s mobile arm with a view to making their own handsets (previous Google branded phones have been made by HTC and Samsung) and it will be interesting to see how they get on and what they do with their Android operating system.  Part of this Fogey wants them to go boo sucks to everyone else who uses Android and keep it just for themselves and then we’ll be back to the natural order of things: Apple versus Google.

All the websites such as Tech Fogey that regurgitate a small number of opinions about a small number of products feed the monster of polarising opinion in the process.  Perhaps that, too, is the natural order of things.  But as a counterpoint, instead of publishing the collected wisdom of others our next phone review will be of our very own Sony Ericsson W810i.  It’s a classic, don’t you know.  Even Top Gear reviews a classic from time to time.