Technology Column

That exciting new phone you’re eyeing might not be worth the risk

Lucy Naland | Presentation Director

Saving a few hundred dollars and buying a no-name brand phone isn't worth losing the security of an Apple of Samsung product.

As a tech columnist and information management and technology major, I love screwing around with new devices and trying the latest app updates as soon as they’re pushed to my phone.

But I know when to keep my habits under control when the risk isn’t worth it. And when it comes to a big investment like a smartphone, it’s worth sticking to a brand you trust.

Back in May, Android’s co-founder and ex-CEO Andy Rubin announced his new startup Essential. It unveiled its first product, the Essential phone — a low-cost, high-end smartphone — at the end of August.

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If there’s anything we’ve learned from similar startups and new products of its kind, exciting new ventures like the Essential Phone typically go out half-baked at best. Skepticism is only fair, seeing as a new company comes with an unexperienced customer service and information security team. A lot could go wrong.

Still, with Rubin’s credentials, the Essential Phone seemed promising. Besides some design quirks and the lack of a headphone jack, the Essential Phone looked like a robust, well-designed and market-ready mobile device. That is, until it launched.

Due to what Dieter Bohn at The Verge called an internal “screwup,” hundreds of Essential Phone buyers were sent an email requesting a driver’s license, state ID or passport for verification. Because it was sent to a listserv of Essential customers, replies went back to all the recipients of the original email, broadcasting sensitive information to every address on the list. Sound familiar?

Rubin apologized for the incident and offered full refunds and a year of identity theft protection from LifeLock as compensation to the 70 customers affected by the data leak.

But incidents like these shouldn’t be surprising. If you’re buying a brand-new product from any company, consumers should know there are certain margins for error, especially with inexperienced names like Essential.

Even the big guys can screw up colossally, as we’ve seen time and time again. When Microsoft first shipped out their Xbox 360 console, the “red ring of death” began bricking consoles in droves, costing the company upwards of $1 billion for repairs and warranties. When Apple released the iPhone 4, “Antennagate” led to mass returns and public outcry over the new device’s cell reception.

Yang Wang, a professor at SU’s School of Information Studies who studies digital privacy and security, said one of the biggest factors he looks at when making a new tech purchase is the company’s reputation.

When buying a product from an inexperienced company, unless its primary focus is security or privacy, “they’re unlikely to have well-established security or privacy protection practices,” Wang said in an email.

With a nearly $700 price tag, buying the Essential Phone is no small investment. But in a world where major product launches are so often met with technical shortcomings, spending this much on any device — let alone one from an unproven company like Essential — is a major risk. Add information like credit card numbers, email addresses and personal ID numbers, and it’s even more of a liability.

I’m not saying brand worship is the best way to live a digital life. Cutting yourself off from new companies, products and opportunities can make life pretty boring, and being the first to try something truly new is undeniably exciting.

But spending hard-earned money on a product is a much safer investment if you truly know what you’re getting into. Andy Rubin, for all his experience in creating and reshaping the world of mobile phones, isn’t going to personally protect you from security breaches or other technological failures.

If you’re looking into buying a new phone, laptop, game console or any other tech product prone to failure, it’s your job as a consumer to do your homework. And if you’re willing to take a chance on that purchase, by all means take the chance.

Just the same, if you’re like me and millions of other everyday technology users of technology, feel no shame in going for what you know. Spending a hundred bucks less on a phone isn’t really savvy if you’re ultimately unhappy with that purchase.

New technology might be fun, but getting screwed by a bad buy isn’t.

Brett Weiser-Schlesinger is a senior newspaper and online journalism and information management and technology dual major. He can be reached by email at bweisers@syr.edu or on Twitter at @brettws.

Read the other side of this argument here.

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