Success and Criticism of iPhones and Movies

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View

This article is ultimately about the iPhone 5, the people who initially found it "disappointing" or "boring," and the people who lashed out at those iPhone critics. In the end, I also offer my own assessment of the new iPhone.

But before I get to all of that…I need to talk about the movies.

Casablanca and iPhone

Movies

The top ten (10) highest grossing movies of last year (2011) were:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Kung Fu Panda 2
Fast Five
The Hangover Part II
The Smurfs
Cars 2

Harry Potter topped the list, pulling in an impressive $1,328,111,219 (that's more than 1.3 billion dollars!). Cars 2 came in tenth with a worldwide revenue of $559,852,396. To me, the first thing that stands out about this list is that all but one of the films is a sequel (the lone exception is The Smurfs, which is almost a sequel, as it is based on a TV series).

Although all sequels derive from movies that were the first of a lineage, the clear message is that, if you want to make a huge profit in Hollywood, don't be original. It also pays to aim for a young audience. In addition to the kid-targeted Smurfs, Transformers is based on a line of toys; Pirates is based on a ride at Disney World; Harry Potter and Twilight are both based on books for young adults; Cars 2 and Panda are cartoons.

Nine (9) films were nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award last year.

The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
The Help
Hugo
Midnight in Paris
Moneyball
The Tree of Life
War Horse

What's the first thing you notice when comparing these two lists? You guessed it. There is zero overlap between them. The second thing is that there are no sequels among the nominees. The financial gap is even worse than you might think. The Artist, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, had a worldwide gross of $133,432,856. That's less than 24% of what Cars 2 raked in.

I know that Oscar nominations have at times been criticized for favoring big studio big-grossing films over higher quality small-profit low-budget independents. That didn't seem to be an issue last year.

Okay. So the biggest moneymakers were not the best pictures of the year. But maybe they were at least good pictures. For a few of the top films, that would be true. Harry Potter, for example, had an impressive Rotten Tomatoes rating of over 90% from both critics and audiences. Mission Impossible also rated well. But the overall trend for the top films is definitely in the negative direction, especially among critics. Transformers weighed in at 35%, Pirates at 34%. Twilight drops down to 25% and The Smurfs gets only 23%.

In other words, the top money-making films not only failed to get any best picture Oscar nominations, many of them were considered to be among the worst films of the year. One reviewer went so far as to call The Smurfs "the worst movie ever." Undeterred, Hollywood is already planning two Smurf sequels.

Much ink has been spilled on the "meaning of all of this." In brief, the consensus is that the box office is dominated by teenagers and twenty-somethings, especially males. While their movie-going choices do not necessarily reflect a film's overall quality, movies are made for this audience because that's where the money is. In Hollywood, money trumps quality every time.

People understand this. We accept the fact that The Artist might be the best movie of the year despite its relatively small box office receipts. Conversely, we are well aware that The Smurfs can be a terrible movie despite making tons of money. Maybe tweens that loved The Smurfs don't get this. But the rest of us do. We understand that popularity is not necessarily an indicator of quality.

When you read a scathing review of a movie, you might disagree with the critic. You might have solid reasons to disagree. If so, by all means say so. However, I assume you wouldn't base a rebuttal solely on box office receipts. That is, you would not offer a comeback like: "To the critic who found Transformers boring and insufferable, you're a moron. While you were complaining that the film was a time-wasting mess, it made over a billion dollars. So just shut up."

Yet that is exactly the sort of immature comment I too often find when reading responses to those who criticize the iPhone.

iPhone 5

Several articles posted after last week's announcement of the iPhone 5 described the iPhone as "disappointing" or "boring" or "lacking in innovation." I believe the same logic that applies to movies should apply to iPhones.

Just as a movie can get bad reviews but go on to box office success, the iPhone 5 can be reviewed as disappointing and yet be a spectacular sales winner. These are not mutually exclusive qualities. One is not a retort for the other.

Sales numbers can define success for Apple stockholders and accountants. But that is not the criteria used by most reviewers. They (at least the good ones) are typically expressing their assessment of the attributes of the iPhone. Whatever is driving up sales can be, at least in part, something beyond the noteworthy new features of the device. Maybe many consumers prefer to stick with Apple, almost no matter what the specs of the product are.

If you're going to come back at those who claim "disappointment," you should have more in your arsenal than faulty logic. That's why I get irritated by snarky comments like (mashing together several comments I've seen): "So, people pre-ordered two million iPhones in the first 24 hours. I guess that makes fools out of those so-called pundits who called the iPhone 5 a 'disappointment.'"

To be clear, my point is not that iPhone critics should be immune to rebuttal. Just as you can disagree with a movie reviewer, there can be legitimate differences of opinion about the iPhone. I'd go even further:

• If a critic predicts sales failure, then it is fair game to criticize him based on the iPhone's eventual sales success.

• If a critic bases his negative assessment on untrue assertions, it's fine to call him on that.

• If it looks like the whole point of an article is to act as "link bait" rather than to make any sound points, feel free to pile dirt on the author.

• I am also skeptical of early criticism by people who have never held or used the new device. To me, that's like reviewing a movie based only on what you've read about it. It's fine to be critical of that.

Just don't use the sales success of iPhones as a hammer to bonk the head of anyone who offers any sort of critique.

My take on the iPhone 5

If you're thinking that I wrote this article to defend my own criticisms of the iPhone 5, think again. I wrote this out of a sense of fairness, defending the "rights" of those with whom I disagree.

My own brief reaction to the iPhone 5 is: "It's marvelous."

I was impressed with the quality of the device from the moment I took it out of the box. The sleek metal design combined with its lighter weight and thinner body make a spectacular first impression. It feels even more comfortable in my hand than the iPhone 4S.

I had been concerned that I would not welcome a larger display, that it would make the device seem too bulky. Nope. While it is a bit more difficult to navigate the screen with one hand (especially reaching from top to bottom with my thumb), it hardly matters. I almost always use two hands when working with the iPhone. And the phone still fits easily in my pocket. The extra screen real estate is a bonus for everything from the added icon row on the home screen to fitting in more of a webpage to watching "full screen" video. Apple's Retina display remains the best I have seen on any smartphone.

As for speed, all I can say is "wow." As expected, LTE flies compared to 3G. But even with Wi-Fi or with features that don't depend on an Internet connection (such as launching apps), the iPhone 5 is significantly snappier. The A6 processor and other hardware upgrades really do make a huge difference.

If the iPhone can be considered "boring" in any way, it's only in the positive sense. When you have a product as successful and well-designed as the iPhone 4S, you don't want to mess with it too much. As they say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." You improve it in increments. Someday, as technology continues to move forward, I'm sure there will dramatic enhancements to the iPhone. Today is not that day. And that's just fine with me.

The iPhone 5 lives up to Apple's PR as "the biggest thing to happen to iPhone since iPhone." My prediction? If you get one, you won't be disappointed.

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Comments

Lee Dronick

Ted do you have the black iPhone? If so are you experiencing the scratching of anodized aluminum?

diverreb

Phil Schiller’s response…  Live with it…  They do scratch…  Hard to believe he actually said that….  But either way, it is what it is….  Get a case or live with the scratches & scuffs….

Peter

Well said.  I usually use the somewhat coarse:  “EAT [$%!&]:  10,000,000 flies can’t be wrong!”

It’s especially galling for people like me who are long-time Mac users and evangelists (and the fact that I use that term shows how long I’ve been around).  There’s a website that’s still around—but hasn’t been updates in 14 years—called MacKido.  There’s a wonderful article I like to point out to people which lists some very popular and best-selling things (circa 1997).  To quote the tail-end of the article:

My purpose in putting together this assortment of “Best Sellers” is not to mock or humiliate people who are fond of popular things [...]. Rather, it was to gather some ammo to poke holes in the blind argument used by the Wintel crowd: “it’s the most popular platform, therefore, you should get it.”

This “blind argument” is used by many of the iOS faithful when they have no counter.  “Yeah, well, Apple sells more than insert name here so you must be wrong.”  And, when that argument fell apart (vis-a-vis Android), “Well, Apple makes more money than insert name here so you must be wrong.”

Replace Apple with Microsoft and iOS with Windows and it’s the same argument.  It was wrong then and it’s still wrong.

[Profanity edited by Bryan]

Scott

I would somewhat disagree with your argument here. I think that if you polled the audiences for those highly grossing films, they would think they are the best films ever. Same with windows/Mac/apple users. The sales figures represent that the product has reached/touched the intended audience and impressed them enough to go back for more or at least to see how the story will end, first hand. Words like best, worst, greatest, greatest flop, etc are subjective to the person using them. The critics of those movies speak from their perspective as do the fans.  I would argue that if you polled the intended audiences of Smurfs they would say that the Artist was horrible.  Just 2 cents from my perspective. Thanks!

Ted Landau

Scott:

Thanks for your comments.

Yes, there is always your argument to be made, any time people are talking about something that is ultimately a matter of opinion. In the same way, I suppose there are people with a “velvet Elvis” hanging in their home that believe it is a greater work of art than the Mona Lisa.

Still, I believe there are objective criteria, or at least a generally agreed upon consensus, that separates the wheat from the chaff.

I also believe that many people can separate what they like from what they believe is “best” or “great.” That is, I can enjoy a movie while at the same time recognizing it is not a great movie. Good critics often take this into consideration in a review…noting that you may well have a great time at the movie even if it isn’t, in some more objective sense, a great movie.

It may also be that “top-grossing” numbers for films are a bit deceptive in that they are so heavily tilted these days to the opening week of the film. Many people see a film these days because they anticipate that they will like it, before getting much if any feedback from people who have actually seen the film. It may be that, after seeing it, they are disappointed. Regardless, their ticket still counts towards the film’s gross.

I also wouldn’t be as confident as you that “if you polled the intended audiences of Smurfs they would say that the Artist was horrible.” Maybe for seven year olds, that are too young to appreciate the virtues of The Artist, that would be true. But I can easily imagine many people who saw and even enjoyed the Smurfs, still enjoying The Artist, perhaps even conceding that it was the greater of the two films.

In the end, I believe time is the ultimate arbiter. Twenty years from now, I think it’s safe to say that The Artist will be remembered as one of the better films of the past 20 years, while The Smurfs will be long forgotten.

Finally, none of this detracts from my main point which is that criticism of a film (or an iPhone) can be valid despite the popularity of the product.

wab95

Ted:

You (and Dominic Basulto of the Washington Post) make a valid argument in your analogy and analysis of films and iPhones. Without doubt, there are objective criteria by which what is now regarded as essential technology by many, namely smartphones, can be measured.

While I take the point that popularity is not synonymous with high quality, I think there is a limitation to this analogy (see below), and that respondents are within rights to counter with sales figures, as the implications by some reviewers, not you but some, implicitly or explicitly is, why bother to upgrade, ergo purchase, and thereby invoking sales.

Regarding the analogy, and where I see its breakdown is that, whereas a cheesy action film chock-full of special effects is a one-off (you pay your money, have your thrill and then its done), a smartphone is a long-term commitment in which the initial thrill is followed by a two-year contract (at least my US phone is) with high monthly payments. This is not a content-poor thrill, but a relationship. Rewarding or painful, it endures over time. And here is where, at least to my thinking, this analogy comes undone. In an age of social media (Twitter), if something is amiss (e.g. The iPhone Death Grip, the scratching anodised black phone), it gets around the blogosphere with the speed of light and influences both Apple and client behaviour (and not just Apple - airlines and US football leagues). No one is immune. In a competitive market, such resulting pressure is not sustainable. 

The point being, sales are not wholly irrelevant to the question of the value of a device to a client in a competitive market.

I see three issues here, but will distil them to two.

First, there are two objective sets of criteria for assessing smartphones; both apply to the iPhone but often only one of these is applied, which renders an assessment incomplete at best. One set is hardware specific, the other set is ecosystem specific. The first includes craftsmanship as well as features and specs; the second focuses on third party apps and supportive services. Too often, pundits and reviewers focus on just the former and contrast this to say, Samsung’s or Nokia’s latest phone. Were the hardware the whole story, it would substantially change the nature of the competition. Likewise the ecosystem in isolation; the user experience is marred if the supportive system is great but the hardware is cheap rubbish. To be complete, the hardware has to set in context of the ecosystem - what is the whole package of product and service to the client that make up the totality of the end user experience. I think it is fair to take reviewers to task for failing to be complete in their assessment, and would argue that before we dismiss consumer purchasing habits as hype-driven herd instinct, we need to appreciate the analytical framework by which, in a rational wold, a review might have suggested otherwise.

The other issue is the tendency amongst some reviewers to confuse and/or conflate product evolution, which should characterise product upgrades for items like the iPhone, and the introduction of the next big thing, which usually only happens once in the lifetime of a product (yes, it can occur more than once; one can argue the original Mac followed by the introduction of the iMac years later). Some reviews give the impression of anticipating or expecting too much of a product upgrade, as if it is supposed to be revolutionary rather than evolutionary; and that if it is only evolutionary, then somehow it is a failure or at least a disappointment.

The incremental changes to both hardware and/or services is often greater than the sum of the parts in terms of end user experience, and can no more adequately describe the appeal of a smartphone than can a list of the ingredients of the human body be used to assess the worth of a human being or their contribution to society.

This gets back to the flaw in the analogy and the distinction between a fleeting, 2 hour thrill vs a longterm relationship (please don’t invoke Freud - I promise that I won’t). I suggest that our interaction with our devices is more akin to a relationship, and as with all relationships, is ultimately subjective in value assessment. What are its effects on us, and are those rewarding, fulfilling, and does it allow us to express our full potential?

What reviews generally cannot do well is anticipate how a product or its upgrade will affect the relationship between a consumer and the device, nor need they try to. In that vein, reviews should be cautious about suggesting how consumers will respond in terms of sales.

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