Ya know what? After 30 years of spending every free moment tinkering with technology and doodling with devices I have no doubt that if I really thought about it I could come up with any number of interesting stories about technology frustrating the hell out of me. Particularly working in the Enterprise IT industry where it happens on, at the very least, a weekly basis.
Honestly though, one of the most frustrating and frankly mind boggling experiences I've had in a long time happened to me very recently, and it really got me thinking about the power that one company (or at most two) has over a very huge and important consumer technology industry.
Once upon a time I recently got myself a new smartphone. The make and model isn't important. What is important is that the device runs the Android operating system. Version 4.4.2, to be precise. Now, I really like Android. I've had Android phones since the very first HTC G1 came out and I've always loved using them and have been consistently impressed with it's evolution into the excellent OS it is today.
So far so good, right? New phone, Android OS, happy Jess.
Well, as you might expect there is a wrinkle in the tale. I like to listen to music, and I tend to do so on my phone using Google's Play Music service. I have my personal library uploaded there and I use it all the time. Like so many in this position I face the problem of limited resources. Do I eat through my data allowance or do I download my music to my device using most of my precious and limited storage space? One might end up costing me money or throttling my internet, the other might mean I have no space on my phone to record videos of my frankly mentally challenged dog. It's a thorny conundrum.
Luckily for me I foresaw this issue looming on my horizon, and like the good techie I am I put a plan in place to overcome it. What I did was buy a phone with an SD card slot and ordered myself a shiny new 32GB SD card. Problem solved. I could download my music collection to my SD card and play all the live long day with nary a care in the world.
Or so I thought.
Turns out that I can't do that. Why, I hear you cry from the peanut gallery? Well, because Google decided that I can't. It turns out that Google put a 'feature' in Android version 4.4 which prevents 3rd party apps (including their own - like Google Music) from accessing the SD card. Their rationale for this is to do with security. Most SD cards are formatted with the FAT filesystem, which is inherently insecure. Put simply any app you installed would have complete access to every file on your SD card and Google thinks this is bad, so they just switched it off.
And so, when I put inserted my SD card all excited that my awesome solution was imminent, and headed giddy and breathless into the configuration of my Google Music app (and my camera app, for that matter), to tell it to use my SD card I was met with nothing but a greyed out button and the bitter sting of disappointment.
I was left with no recourse. There was literally nothing I could do about it. I called Google support and was told "can you get the money back for your SD card?". This, I feel, entirely misses the point. One of the reasons I purchased the device was it's SD card capability, I purchased myself a card and I want to use it, damn it. Quite apart from the fact that even if I abandon the SD card solution I still have the problem of burning through either my data or storage if I want to listen to music.
My level of frustration knew no bounds, but if we can move from the personal to the abstract it made me wonder about the bigger question. Should one company have this much control? Android, and therefore Google, currently control around 80% of the global smartphone market, and with a single sweep of the hand they can make all those devices do whatever they want, and no one can stop them. If you want a good example of this... well, they turned off my SD card and no one ever asked me whether I wanted them to.
I understand that an individual smartphone manufacturer could change things. Perhaps the people who made my phone could have decided to turn my SD card back on. Perhaps Google's terms for Android use prevent that. All I can say for sure is that in my case they didn't. What they DID do was advertise my device as having SD expandable storage, which while technically true in reality does me absolutely no good at all.
While I realise that Android is open source (although importantly Google's apps are not) and any features we don't like could either be changed or at least highlighted and discussed, for all practical purposes if Google puts something into the Android code then it's going to stay there, and it's effects will be felt in a very large number of the smartphones you can buy here in the US.
Interestingly the same also goes for Apple, the big difference being that they don't show us their source code at all. This could be said to be even worse since the iPhone is the biggest selling smartphone in the world by a large margin, but I'm annoyed at Google right now, so let's stay on point shall we?
Long gone are the days where Google stands alone as the moral light that shines across the American business world, and it is no longer a foregone conclusion that we can trust them not to put anything we don't like into their websites and software, and my little story here was a stark reminder to me that when I don't like everything they decide to do there is effectively nothing that I can do about it.
The story I told you today does in fact have a happy ending, but it is an ending that I should not have had to take refuge in. What I did in the end was to root my phone and turn my SD card back on myself. Worked great, but honestly I shouldn't have to do things like that. Technically I have now voided my warranty and could cause myself problems in the future; such as apps refusing to work or even general instability. In my case it was a risk I was willing to take, but it is most definitely not a solution for all. What this means is that all over America people have bought phones which have SD card slots that they simply cannot use.
The appeal of Android to me was it's open nature, which to me as a consumer meant that if it looked or functioned in a way which bothered me I could, quite simply, change it. That fact failed me recently and made me question Android's position (at least in my mind) as a bastion of open source awesomeness.
Perhaps I'm being too harsh, but when the day comes for Google to put something into Android that irritates you then remember me preemptively saying I told you so.