Saturday, June 18, 2011

Lessons in my Desire

Ok - the title is somewhat misleading: I just purchased an HTC Desire HD Android phone via Ebay and by doing so I learned a few lessons - some of them investment related - others just about the way the world works.

This phone is (on specification and in third party reviews) an iPhone 4 equivalent - more powerful and does a few things that Apple restricts its users from but alas not quite as user friendly. But the phone I purchased was truly awful.

The Ebay advert said it was "unlocked" but did not reveal the shortcomings. This phone was from the Middle East (possibly Saudi Arabia) and it came with a restrictive set of applications and no Android Market. A smart-phone without an app-store is useless. I was limited to the thirty apps the phone came with. Ugly. I was missing some apps I consider very important (eg VOIP apps).

The solution was to "root" the phone (ie hack the system) and install a decent operating system (HTC Android 2.3). For someone only mildly geeky this was a little harder than it looked. There was a fine YouTube video series here but it did not cover the nuances of using the Android Developer Kit and nothing seemed to work in my virtual-box Windows so I had to hijack my son's computer.

Two and a bit hours later I have a fine phone - one I would prefer to an iPhone 4 (although probably not to an iPhone 5). It was however much harder than it should be and this process would not appeal to a mass audience.

A few lessons:

(a). Whilst phone companies and governments will fiddle around with phones and their operating systems the attraction of walking down to the Apple Shop and buying an iPhone remains. iPhones all work the same way and its hard to imagine an iPhone without the App Store. The Apple slogan is "it just works". My phone worked in a narrow sense - but Apple's worked better out of the box even though my phone beats the iPhone 4 in many surveys.

(b). The whole experience cheapens the Ebay brand. I thought the Radioshack and other shops selling mobile phones and contracts were not long for this world because phones would come without contracts and be purchased online. I figure that will be right in the end but risk aversion sends me to something explicitly local to my jurisdiction for a little longer.

(c). The modifications made by countries and phone companies to Android phones cheapen the product. Non geeky people - say 99 percent of the population - could not be expected to hack their phone. So they are left with the crappy phone they are sold in the first place. If it is full of bloatware so be it. Android is as sleek as IOS. The things done to Android are not...

(d). Big corporations (especially it seems tech firms) are prepared to play ball with oppressive governments. My phone was hobbled to please the Saudi Government. Google may have said no to participating in Chinese oppression but their partners (such as HTC) happily participate in oppression when they sell Android phones. And as they do it they continue to cheapen the Google/Android brand.

(e). For a small proportion of the population - those that can hack a phone install themselves as super-user and get around government communication restrictions modern technology beats oppressive governments - but we are kidding ourselves if we believe this will be a widespread skill.

For thought and comments...


PS. For those that want to know I installed T.B. Fusion 1.1.9 - an Android 2.3.3 system. The complaint on the web about this install is battery life - though I have not (yet) decided that is problematic.


Anonymous said...

The interesting question is why more people who do know how to do this quickly don't buy these phones cheaply, in very large numbers, install a vanilla Android OS and re-sell them to customers. The cost appears to be low, the value, by your own testimony, is high and the process even seems to be legal.

Carl said...

John, I had to chuckle about "the eBay brand". In Germany police stations have ready-made forms to file a fraud case against someone selling on eBay. Though recently eBay managed to stay out of the headlines.

eBay is a platform and as soon as you have an issue they step aside. I made my first purchase there in May and immediately after that canceled my account. Amazon is so much better.

IF said...

Let me say I had the same experience after I broke down to buy the cheapest and sleakest tablet around - the Ipod Touch 4. First thing it did not switch on. It forced me to install Itunes. Now, mind you, I run XP Virtual PC on Win 7 64. (I also have Linux partition our could install another OS if needed.) It refused to work inside the virtual box that I keep for bloatware (sounds like your experience, mh?) Well, ok. Installed on the main OS. I remember some issues about 64 bit but it worked at the end. The bloatware still refused to install the free Skype app until I gave it my credit card number and it charged 0 Dollars on it. (This is a deal breaker for giving my dad or other elderly relatives Ipads as gifts - no way this process works for them and CC is a no, no.) There were a few more bumps along the way, but I easily burned 2 hours on the whole experience and got quite frustrated. So, don't feel alone. Apple can easily outdo HTC if it feels like it.

Rahul Deodhar said...

I agree about the android brand devaluation. I got my wife a Moto Droid and it has massive problems. I need to do a geeky install on it. But all the standard updates have failed till date.

The main problem is it is not my phone and that magnifies the problem - if you know what I mean. So when my sis-in-law asked me for a reasonable budget phone I suggested a blackberry. She is very very happy.

I was hoping iPhone 5 will be announced at WWDC but no respite. So I will end up getting my wife iPhone 4. I am sure it will make her happy because it simply works!

So the lesson is - Android is still young and will take some time before it matures as solid OS ( It took MS till 2001 when it launched XP to get - out of the box solid experience. And till such time I would go with iPhone

Nemo Incognito said...

I'm somewhat surprised that HTC is not just selling stripped down versions of phones direct as yet via an Amazon store or similar. Bloatware normally is only an issue if you purchase it onshore in China vs in HK, though sounds like Saudi is a lot like China in that regard.

It is an utter bitch to install though and I find it hard to short Apple just yet. There is a lot more simplification to happen yet to make Android truly competitive in markets where consumers are not as price sensitive as India, Indonesia etc etc.

PSC said...

Getting back to the more interesting question of how to make money out of this kind of observation:

Microsoft are on a P/E just shy of 10 and have $40bn of cash on balance sheet w/ a market cap around $200bn. Incredible, insane value if they can produce any kind of growth.

So the question is: why are we sure MSFT is a value trap?

Otherwise phrased, will Windows 8 be any good? Will it work on mobiles?

What I find really interesting is this story:

To me, it looks like Microsoft pivoting itself on a pin again, and applying the good old 'embrace, extend, extinguish' model. We're looking at 'embrace' right here. Embracing a standard which will put apps onto phones. Prediction - the next step is an "enhanced" free iPhone/iPad Internet Explorer app.

To me, the interesting thing is that this means that Windows 8 will probably work nicely on tablets.

Key point and question - the development tools for mobile apps are poor. I think MS will bring out a decent Visual Studio for tablet/phone.

I just don't know if MS will produce a decent tablet/phone product. If they do, I think they will be much more savvy than Google on having the "just works out of the box" property. I think they will also make it work nicely with MS office.

The MS business model - a customized OS which is modified in some places but not in others onsold to OEMs - is a better fit than the Google "free-for-all" model. I think a Windows 8 phone will be more consistent than a Google phone. (No idea if it will be better as well as more consistent).

Right now, I'm *desperate* to get my hands on a Windows 8 beta.

John Chew said...

I'm just going to put it out there that convenience/ease-of-adoption trumps capability anytime. Apple's slogan could well be that of Microsoft or McDonalds.

Products and services requiring the least choices between customer motivation and gratification win.

On a different note - are iPhones sold in Saudi Arabia any different from those sold in Australia or USA?

Anonymous said...

Ebay is a flea market - just one where you cannot check the quality of the goods before you buy.

Anonymous said...

Don't know if you read Barrons, but I thought you might find this article interesting if you can get it:
Even Short Sellers Burned by Chinese Shares

Anonymous said...

That sort of mirrors my experience with the Samsung Epic, which some have called an "Epic Fail" although I prefer "Epic Piece of Shit." If I wasn't locked in to a two year contract with Sprint over it, I'd just get the iPhone.

BTW, why is it that so many people are so eager to short AAPL? I don't quite understand it. It's a real company with real products, and looking at that P/E it's hard to say there's any sort of bubble.

There's a lot of garbage out there, why not short that instead?

Anonymous said...

Two posters here could not have said it better about eBay: they are a flee market where you can't check quality beforehand; and they are a platform, where they step aside whenever there are any issues. I figured eBay would go to the ends of the earth to protect consumers and force sellers to act honorably, because it just makes sense as a retailer. Unfortunately it is the world's largest caveat emptor market - any issues and you are on your own. It's more a classified ad forum than a quality merchandising exchange.

Walt French said...

I see the Desire as about $400 on eBay; estimating your time @ $100/hr after tax means you paid over $600 for it.

Let's hope your skill at installing Android is not one that you'll be using much. Personally, I think 2.2 is a good version but the features for 3.x look attractive and I'd feel a bit miffed to have bought a phone that is dead-ended so soon.

Seemingly, you didn't plan on playing systems honcho with this, but almost as certainly, you know that's part of the Android allure/price tag. Were whatever features/freedom you got valuable against whatever capabilities you'll have over the next couple of years?

Walt French said...

@IF, I've long wondered why people label iTunes “bloatware.” It's not a huge program; it doesn't use much of my machine's CPU or RAM; it runs mostly when I simply plug in my iGizmo and get an auto-sync. Meanwhile, it has a wide range of features that I find useful:
- updates my couple dozen podcasts, such as my workout music and various talk shows
- rips my CDs to compressed formats for my iPod, including getting track names, with almost NO effort on my part;
- automatically syncs all my updated music to my iPod and selected titles on my iPhone;
- provides access to downloadable music thru the store, for a lower cost on the album I looked at today than even used CDs on Amazon;
- tracks and performs updates to all my almost 200 iPhone apps
- syncs and backs up all my iPhone contacts, calendars and bookmarks; my playlists; my files.

Yes, many of these functions are available to Android users without a PC, but some, like backup, are not.

So what about iTunes makes it seem bloated, as you so seldom need to fiddle with it?

Keith said...

First, you are correct, tech companies play a pretty significant role in oppression. Cisco apparently viewed China's Great Firewall as an opportunity to sell more routers.
Nokia has been taking to task (visually at least) for its role in helping Iranian authorities squash the revolution there. He's a blog with a number of sad/funny photos on the theme:

Companies are soul-less, conscious-less organizations. When they are small, the heads feel responsible and can hold them in check. When they get large, no one feels responsible.

Ebay is a great marketplace. However, buying on Ebay takes a certain level of skill and sense. If you buy a brand-new Armani suit for $100 and it is coming from China or Hong Kong, it is in all likelihood a fake.

Simple rules of thumb are buy only from people with a lot of transactions under their belts, good feedback, and from product appropriate jurisdictions. Lastly, don't hesitate to contact sellers before and after purchase. Good vendors want to maintain their reputation.

Al said...

I write software for a living, and I would not buy an android handset.
The reason is that there is no point having a smart phone unless you can have apps and there are a lot of malicious apps in the various Android app stores. Also android apps aren't signed by the store so they can update themselves at a future point in time with malware.

So if you buy an android phone, don't install any apps unless they are very reputable (e.g. from google or a port of a massive Iphone hit).
Or install away but be aware that your location, converstations, web browsing, email etc. may all be monitored.

about halfway down the article.

I'll be sticking to my iphone.

Anonymous said...

I'm using a Motorola Droid X purchased here is the U,S, from Verizon. It came with a small amount of bloatware but no restrictions of what I can add. Am extremely happy with it.

Wes D said...

Apologies in advance for the tone of my comment, because I truly enjoy reading your blog.

It seems that your conclusions in regard to HTC/Android and their respective shortcomings stem from your failure to do sufficient research on what you were buying, about which you frequently chastise others (most recently in regard to TRE and Northern Oil).

I realize that it's unrealistic to expect consumers to take every possible contingency of every purchase into account, but in your case the problems stemmed from buying a phone from a source that most other consumers do not. I bought the original Desire on contract in Germany, which provided me with the expectation of an unlocked phone and full market access. This was indeed the case and I have never had the need to root the phone.

I am otherwise in agreement with your point about company cooperation with oppressive governments. However, government control of speech is notoriously reactive and, short of shutting down services completely, ineffective. Despite any number of restrictions on speech or the press, dissidents in recent years have been increasingly able to get their messages out, be it by Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, SMS...

Of course, now that GPS chips are everywhere and usually coupled with audio/video recording devices, the potential exists for the blade to cut both ways. But to date, this does not seem to have been the case.

John Paulson said...


you can cover Sino Forest at 0. Company claims to own 200,000 hectares in Yunnan.

Yunnan senior forestry officials now challenged the company’s statements that it controls more than 200,000 hectares of Yunnan trees, and said they are now investigating.

Expect Sino forest to be suspended in the coming week pending the independent investigation.

Anonymous said...


You have a problem putting things on the phone, I have a problem getting things off of it.

For instance: try uninstalling the pre-loaded Google Talk app. You can't do it without hacking into the system.

So say you're like me. You leave your computer, sign out of gmail and gchat, thinking the only people who can reach you are those who have your phone number. Everyone must send an email.

But no. You're still getting messages on your phone. Then you try and sign out of your Google Talk app on the phone, and even after theoretically signing out people still see you as available for chat.

Absolutely mind-boggling that crap like this should be written into the OS. Google needs to change its motto from "don't be evil" to "don't be annoying."


Sam said...

I've always been a believer that you get what you pay for.

you want to go on ebay and buy something on the cheap, then be prepared to receive an inferior product.

John Hempton said...

Too right I did not know what I was getting. But I did have an advantage: I knew I could root the phone if what I got was not acceptable.

And I considered rooting the phone to be a learning experience (which it was). I just wish I was not so tired when I did it and if someone can tell me how to get an HTC Android Phone to work in Virtual Box on Ubuntu I would be thrilled.


Phil said...

John, I found installing the Android tools on the Linux side to be straightforward: download them from Google, follow the instructions (which includes one config file change in /etc) and it just worked for me.

In my experience the only virtualisation environment that gets USB hotplug working correctly is VMWare sadly. I believe the fully commercial version of VirtualBox (from Oracle) will do USB hot plug too.

Anonymous said...


Just my opinion, but I think you're makinga bit of an unfair comparison--Android's been out for a year, while AAPL's been doing this for much, much longer. In the meantime, Android is developing much more quickly.

Wait another year or two, and then I suspect that most people will prefer the non-Apple brands--even the current cult followers.

Nate said...

More evidence for my hypothesis that professional traders, even--or perhaps especially--very successful ones, are usually extremely cheap in real life.

John Hempton said...

Nate. That theory is dead right.

I knew a billionaire trader once who used to display brochures for high-end yachts he was given as examples of the height of stupidity.

He put them around so he could show how the really thick behaved.


John Hempton said...

Nate. That theory is dead right.

I knew a billionaire trader once who used to display brochures for high-end yachts he was given as examples of the height of stupidity.

He put them around so he could show how the really thick behaved.


John Habermann said...

John, you can just install the Android SDK on ubuntu and connect your phone directly to your Ubuntu machine without worrying about using a windows virtual machine. I haven't tried this myself with a HTC phone but it worked fine with a motorola defy. There are some good documents on the web see and

Anonymous said...

The above comment says it all about what is wrong with android. I am over frigging around with esoteric software and trying to crack this and that. IOS just works well and has tons of apps and therefore functionality. That's what I need.

Phil said...

Anon, without wanting to turn these comments into a pointless Apple/Android flamewar, John is definitely treading way outside the usual user experience here. An analogous path for the iPhone might be the user who cracks the phone & installs Cydia so that they can install a non-Apple approved App on their iPhone.

Dazzla said...

The problem here isn't the HTC Desire (which is by a long way the best phone I've ever owned), but that you cheaped out and bought a heavily restricted version from an oppressive dictatorship.

If I'd bought Enron shares and complained when they tanked, how much sympathy would anyone have? None, which is correct.

Do your research.

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