It’s not racist to prefer the iPhone

Aaron Swartz’s mewling paean to the Sidekick smartphone is littered with smug, myopic insights and a salty dash of old-fashioned white guilt. I am compelled to shriek and gawp.

His founding asininity? That compared to the iPhone, the Sidekick is a “superior device” that he’s been using “for the past five years.” (Mouthbreathingly turtlenecked as that assertion is, that’s not the part that really gets my goat, but…)

First, context: At what it was designed to do — be an awesome instant messaging device — the Sidekick excels. It was and is the best IM device out there that isn’t a full-sized computer. But as an all-around smartphone it was a failure: weighted down by a rudimentary web browser, a restrictive “App Store”-like selection of carrier-controlled applications (which could have choked Apple, but did not, in part because the iPhone is a much more powerful and versatile device), and really rough media support, even through the later models. Still, I was a fan. The flip-out screen was great, most models had wonderful keyboards, and the way you could hold multiple IM conversations using all the gamepad-like controls was a joy to use. You could tell the Sidekick was designed by a company who really cared about the experience. (At least until everyone fled Danger and the stragglers were absorbed by Microsoft.)

But times change. The Sidekick had a brief moment in the sun among tech nerds, but the lack of a decent internet experience (not to mention how clumsy it was to use as a phone) sent most adults packing to other platforms, swapping crappy email and great IM for great email support with rough IM thrown in as an afterthought (on the BlackBerry) or powerful hardware easily accessed (Windows Mobile).

Then Apple released the best all-around smartphone ever made.

I don’t care if you agree with me or not — I mean, you’re wrong if you don’t, but that’s fine; you’ve been wrong before — and if you’re happy with your current smartphone, then more power to you. There are certainly areas in which other smartphones excel over the iPhone…the Sidekick excels over the iPhone for instant messaging, you might have heard.

Swartz’s assertion that the Sidekick is a “superior device” only holds water when he cherry-picks certain comparisons: the Sidekick keyboard is superior (so much so that he composed whole articles, he claims); he liked being able to save articles in the browser caches (you can save the equivalent data several ways on the iPhone using third-party applications or email); he found the swipe-to-scroll method “tiresome”. It’s iPhone Critique 101, though, and not ireworthy on its own.

But this is:

But it wasn’t as if the Sidekick was unheard of. As soon as I wandered out of the land of white folks in suits-and-ties, black and latino kids would rush up to me and gab about the Sidekick. During one trip, a latina middle-schooler stopped me on the sidewalk and asked if I’d gotten the latest firmware update yet. “It has JavaScript support!” she enthused. Browsing the Sidekick user forums bore this out — it was all black and latino schoolchildren.

But, of course, neither minorities nor schoolchildren rule the world, so the Sidekick has been written out of history. 2007 was the first time anyone had thought to give a smartphone a decent UI, or a web browser, or an over-the-air application store. Well, at least it was the first time anyone thought to tell white people.

I’ve commented in the past how interesting it was that black and latino kids really got into the Sidekick more than any other group of users. My presumption was always this: that their friends mostly communicated on IM; that the Sidekicks were available at a price they could easily afford compared to BlackBerry and other smartphones (with a more modest monthly charge); and that they really didn’t care about email or browsing the web all that much. Sociologically and culturally it was a trend of note. While I’m positive that consumer electronic choice often breaks down differently over cultural and economic lines, phones are one of the few items that we commonly can observe on the street.

But to presume that there is some sort aspect of ignorance by “white people” in passing the Sidekick by — especially when “white people” almost certainly means “working adults” — is exactly the sort of goofy injection of race into an argument that drives me crazy.

Don’t prefer the iPhone over your Sidekick? That’s dandy. Trying to co-opt some latent street wisdom because you prefer a QWERTY keyboard over a touchscreen? Immature and icky.

And shortsighted: I reckon in a couple of years all those same kids will be using iPhones. It has superior JavaScript support.

The Forgotten Sidekick [AaronSW.com]

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22 Responses to It’s not racist to prefer the iPhone

  1. dculberson says:

    Hating everything is the easy way out; what phone(s) do you like, if any?

  2. Halloween Jack says:

    I think that “white hipster” does not mean what Anonymous thinks it means. Hipsters (and, really, in the purest sense, adding “white” to it is redundant) define themselves as superior to their melanin-challenged brethren by the degree to which they have co-opted various aspects of the culture of people of color, while simultaneously criticizing others who are doing the same. If “white folks in suits-and-ties” started picking up the Sidekicks again, Aaron would absolutely hate it.

  3. styrofoam says:

    Odd- my wife was also learning ASL, and the prevalence of the sidekick in the deaf culture was also noted at the time- it’s slipped from my mind.

    And I want to clarify that my comments about “nebbish white hipsters” was intended a self-deprecating comment, a friendly jest among peers, rather than a pointed attack on Joel.

  4. Anonymous says:

    You seem a bit defensive.

    His argument is, in many ways, perfectly accurate. It’s certainly just as accurate as arbitrarily asserting that the iPhone is the “best all-around smartphone ever made” (unless you like hardware keys, or open software support, or using Asian handwriting recognition, or capturing video, or recieving MMS…)

    Indeed, what you’re calling an “icky” take on “street wisdom” is, in fact, an accurate look at street usage, and isn’t icky at all. You even admit that he’s right about the demographic. But you’re sensitive about being called on white hipsterism. Why is that?

    • Joel Johnson says:

      @Anonymous: I presume your implication is that I am sensitive about race and racism. Which is true: I find it very irritating when people ascribe wisdom or ignorance as a factor of race.

      Why do you presume that ownership of — or even fondness for — the iPhone is somehow “white hipsterism”?

      (P.S. Trying to negate my assertion that the iPhone is holistically the best smartphone by enumerating niche features it may be lacking actually bolsters my claim.)

  5. The Lizardman says:

    @10

    I like the treos I have had over the years (still using one as my primary phone) but I would never say they were the best, just right for me at the time and still one of my favorite form factors

  6. dssstrkl says:

    What’s funny to me is that the very groups that I saw using Sidekicks in years past are now using, *shock* iPhones, Blackberries (all kinds) and cheap WinMo smartphones. Fact is, nowadays people, kids included, care about more than IM, so the Sidekick fell aside. That, and it really is freaking huge.

  7. Anonymous says:

    “Hipsters (and, really, in the purest sense, adding “white” to it is redundant) ”

    I’m sorry, but this is wrong. There are tons of black, asain, and latino hipsters. Please live in a city.

    But on topic, I’d like to say that I’m white and I’m still using my SidekickII. It’s busted to all hell, as I’ve had it for around 4 years now. The earpiece is busted, so when I pick up the phone I have to click the ‘speakerphone’ button and have the volume all the way down. Insurance expired when that happened.

    I’m going to be switching to a G1 soon, but I find it interesting to point out race in this regard. When I got my Sidekick in ’04, it was kind of the iPhone of it’s time. I was showing it to people, and someone said in that infamous white-person whisper, “Isn’t that for…black people?”

    I laughed at him, of course. But remember that alot of that early advertisement campaign had Snoop Dogg in multiple commericals. While they aren’t smartphones, they’re pretty cheap for what you’re getting and hold up a fairly long time. In terms of lower income consumers, I imagine they have a great appeal there- especially if you factor in IM apps will most likely reduce text-message fees.

    Also, with the newer Sidekick iterations wasn’t there some kind of MySpace integration? I read somewhere that MySpace has more of a minority population that Facebook. That could be (small) factor in this.

    But my first idea was that maybe a device that had an ‘urban’ advertising campaign has picked up a legion of brand loyalists?

  8. Anonymous says:

    Joel–different anonymous than the guy or gal above here, and I have to say “mouthbreathingly turtlenecked” is my favorite web phrase of the year. Kudos.

  9. Rob Beschizza says:

    Zaurus 4 lyfe.

  10. zio_donnie says:

    i live in europe and from what i see the iphone is not that big of a deal. actually it’s a pretty niche device. the only 2 people i know that own one is a 16year old that got a 3g for his birthday and a friend of mine that is a plumber and got a 1st generation one by a client instead of payment.

    from what i see in america most people get a phone plan for up to 2 years while in europe prepaid pay as you go sims are more common so the iphone at 500-600euros doesn’t make much sense. but even those who decide to spend that much for a phone usually prefer a nokia like the n95-n96 or a communicator.

    personally i own a 6110navigator and i don’t get the fuss about the jesus phone. i used it for a couple of days courtesy of a friend but i actually hated it. crappy reception, crappy text input, no bluetooth transfers (seriously wtf?) no mms all stuff that even a 30euro phone does better. like most of the people i know i don’t even consider ever buying a phone app on the air (not with the prices they charge for connecting online) or elswhere not while i can get everything symbian free, so i couldn’t care less about the store. i find the iphone to be a shinny toy. i am considering buying an ipod touch though ’cause the media interface part is actually cool and useful.

  11. Anonymous says:

    I’m presuming that you’re sensitive about being accused of white hipsterism, not that it’s necessarily a factor of iPhone ownership. I simply find it curious that someone else points out that A) other smartphones exist, and B) for one reason or another, in situations that aren’t upper-class or white, those smartphones (well, for the Sidekick, smartphone-ish devices) have flourished. This is a pretty mild claim, really, but you seem to have taken it personally.

    I’m not saying you’re a racist. But clearly something about this has set you off. It seems out of proportion. Perhaps, given Apple’s cultural position, you don’t like the perpetuation of the stereotype that the brand does cater to white, upper-class intellectuals. There’s nothing wrong with taking umbrage with that perception, but I’m not sure it deserved as much space as you felt necessary.

    No, enumerating features does not bolster your claim, because we have only your judgement that they are, in fact, niche. And that judgement, of course, is rooted in your personal position of privilege. You and your peers don’t send MMS messages. You don’t spend a lot of time on IM, I guess. For you, these are seen as niche, but for others–those who are not in a predominantly white community, perhaps, I don’t know–they are much more important.

    • Joel Johnson says:

      Fair enough, @Anonymous, and I appreciate your clarification. What I was reacting to, if we can ignore trying to figure out the proportion of reaction appropriate, is Swartz’s claim that the Sidekick is a superior device (it isn’t, but whatever) by dint of its adoption by black or latino children. The implication that they saw an appeal in it that others did not is fine — I mean, we know what that something is: a nice, cheap IM client — but what I’m bristling at isn’t accusations of white hipsterism (I’m comfortable in my white hipsterism, more or less) but that race is somehow proof of anything at all.

      It’s, uh, oh, I’m sure there’s a rhetorical term for it, but I’m rubbish at remember which term is which. All I know is that it’s a false assumption to say that “I like the Sidekick; minority kids like the Sidekick; therefore white people are dumb and the Sidekick rules.” It tries to tie everything into a tidy anecdote about race and age and street use, when instead it’s just one dude who prefers QWERTY keyboards over virtual ones.

      Of course, this is all predicated on the fact that I think the iPhone is going to walk all over all the other smartphones in the next few years. We’ll see!

  12. aaronsw says:

    Wow, that was like longer than my original piece.

  13. styrofoam says:

    The most interesting take on the iPhone that I’ve seen yet is that the VPs and above at my company all jumped onboard with the 3G as soon as it came out (and ostensibly had corporate support.)

    I started talking to a few of them after a month or so, and enthusiasm had faded a bit. Lots of little features that had been taken for granted (sorting by thread within email was a big one) just weren’t quite there. Corporate suit support just isn’t quite there on the iPhone.

    This would seem to indicate to me that the iPhone is certainly a great phone, but it’s not “the best”. But then again, this only serves to illustrate that “best” is really on a function of “best serves your needs” and there’s no set of identical needs out there, so this is one of the most headbangingly frustrating arguments of all times.

    So if your need is to be a nebbish white hipster with a slant towards religious zeal in being “different”, the iPhone is obviously the best phone.

    If you want to be a soulless corporate suit so far removed from the subtle nuances of insanely great technology as to be the most despicable sort of human being on the planet, the Blackberry is a superb choice.

    And the sidekick is apparently good if you’re from a minority group. I’ll start by saying that I liked the feel of the first two sidekicks. The console-like nature of the OS was more rigid and less flexible than I would have liked- but that said, it was superb at what it did. I think the box realized that extending itself much more was only opening the door for more problems. (I’m sounding like an OS apologist, but I’ll admit that I recognize that.)

    So maybe the sidekick really is the best phone out there if you’re looking for something that’s easy to use, is perfect for texting and sending basic pictures, and is relatively heavily subsidized.

  14. arkizzle says:

    Wow, this whole conversation and “Isn’t that for…black people?” points out how huge ‘race’ still is in the US.

    I genuinely can’t think of a single product, other than something specific like hair-care, that I would consider a black related thing. I can’t honestly imagine making the connection between a brand/item and race.

    I can certainly see “street” or “urban” tags being associated with brands, but not race specifically.

    This is not me feeling superior or Euro-elitist. I’m just noticing how big (and conscious) a part race seems to play in the US mental landscape.

  15. Anonymous says:

    @ #20
    “Wow, this whole conversation and “Isn’t that for…black people?” points out how huge ‘race’ still is in the US.”

    It’s because we still can’t bring ourselves to admit how intertwined race and class are, and how class based our society is.

    AFAIC the Iphone is not a “white” thing, it’s a disposable income thing.

  16. billso says:

    I’m a 40+ caucasian male, and I’ve owned a Sidekick 3 for the last 2 years, but I got an iPhone earlier this month.

    The Sidekick is great for text messaging, and the web applications are OK, but I can’t even POP or IMAP messages from my tmail.com account.

    The Sidekick web browser is a sad joke.

    The magnetic closure on the Sidekick is a hassle, too. I always kept the Sidekick away from my wallet, so it wouldn’t erase or corrupt the magstrips on my cards.

    The Sidekick is a durable little beast, though. I don’t see T-Mobile dumping it before 2010. Android is still not ready for prime time.

  17. billso says:

    I’m a 40+ caucasian male, and I’ve owned a Sidekick 3 for the last 2 years, but I got an iPhone earlier this month.

    The Sidekick is great for text messaging, and the web applications are OK, but I can’t even POP or IMAP messages from my tmail.com account.

    The Sidekick web browser is a sad joke.

    The magnetic closure on the Sidekick is a hassle, too. I always kept the Sidekick away from my wallet, so it wouldn’t erase or corrupt the magstrips on my cards.

    The Sidekick is a durable little beast, though. I don’t see T-Mobile dumping it before 2010. Android is still not ready for prime time.

  18. dimmer says:

    I was a happy Sidekick v2 (the color one) user for years, but then they renamed Terminal Monkey to something non-descript and started asking money for it. Being able to SSH in to routers etc. was great, and the keyboard was very, very nice.

    But now I carry a Sanyo POS phone that is pretty much a phone-only device. It’s OK for that purpose, but little else. The MS takeover of Danger saddened me almost as much as the MS takeover of Creature House.

  19. SimeonW says:

    This is funny to me, because I associate the Sidekick with deaf people. When my fiancé was learning ASL (which means I had to learn to sign with her, very useful at loud bars/clubs), we started attending deaf events. There is an amazing amount of tech marketed to the deaf. But, the one gadget I saw most was the Sidekick, just for the reasons #5 stated: “So maybe the sidekick really is the best phone out there if you’re looking for something that’s easy to use, is perfect for texting and sending basic pictures, and is relatively heavily subsidized.”

  20. The Lizardman says:

    Worry less about your possible racism and more about your rampant phone-ism.

    Disclosure: I despise both the sidekick and the iphone regardless of who is using them.

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