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A Populist Critique of “Ladyphones”

Casey Johnston, over at Ars Technica, has a two-pager complaining about how tech companies design and market so-called “Ladyphones.” It’s a quick read that picks up on earlier critiques about how certain colours, and reduced technical capabilities, are associated with derogatory gender perceptions.

That said, there are at least two elements of her piece that fall short to my mind: her analysis of the BlackBerry Pearl and of the LG Windows Phone.

Johnston argues that the BlackBerry Pearl was a device marketed for women, and emphasizes the device’s high costs and pink colouration in the UK as an example of trying to extract more money from a female demographic than would be extracted from a male demographic. She also cites the Pearl’s bizarre keyboard format and limited technical specifications to further reinforce her thesis that manufactures sell second-rate products to the female market.

As someone who owned an original Pearl 8100 I don’t know how fair her critique of RIM’s product is. Pearls were RIM’s attempt to get into the consumer market generally, with the position that a full-sized keyboard was intimidating and offsetting to male and female consumers alike. Moreover, the sizes of RIM’s other smartphones at the time – designed pre-iPhone, let’s not forget! – were offsetting to most regular, non-business, consumers.

The Pearl tried to find a balance between size, consumer market expectations, and traditional BlackBerry functionality. It was also comparatively cheaper than most other smartphones at the time (and, I would note, cheaper than the popular Motorola RAZER phones), though RIM and its carrier partners haven’t necessarily reduced the costs of the phone appropriately in all regional markets. Original colours lacked pink entirely: you could buy them in black or red. New colouring – and targeting – towards particular market segments is arguably more the result of an expanded smartphone market than anything else.

I would note than Johnston is far more generous towards RIM’s marketing and branding departments than, well, any other journalist that I’ve previously read. Her assumption that RIM was so forward thinking as to brand a consumer device ‘Pearl’ to target women is massively overestimating RIM’s (traditionally very, very, very, very poor) marketing and branding departments. Finally, the technical specs of RIM’s devices are criticized from all corners, regardless of the colour or class of device (i.e. Pearl, Curve, Torch, Bold, etc), and regardless of whether the device is targeted at professional, prosumer, or consumer markets.

The other issue with the article is her analysis of the LG Windows Phone. What she’s dead right on: LG ‘partnered’ with Jill Sander to inflate the device’s cost and try to make it appeal to a certain market segment. Yep, that’s attempting to sell a device to consumers interested in or intrigued by Sander’s line of products. Where Johnston is wrong, however, is in her effort to equate low-speced Windows Phones with high cost phones.

Unlike Android and iPhone, Microsoft’s mobile phones almost universally have poor technical specifications compared to the competition. That said, Microsoft has tweaked their devices such that the specifications really don’t matter: you get excellent performance in spite of the device using older tech. As such, I don’t really think that the technical critique rings terribly true – women aren’t expected to purchase crappy Windows phones any differently then men are – though I certainly agree around the ‘branding’ of the LG device to unnecessarily inflate costs and attract a dominantly female market.

Anyways: go read the piece and develop your own opinion. Despite my two bones to pick with her evidence I think that the thesis holds and is well supported. She’s created a piece that’s short and critical, if not as deep or as powerful a critique as I’d have liked. Hopefully we see more tech sites – and mainstream news sources! – similarly take companies to task for their attempts to sell second-rate, unnecessarily gendered, products to women.