The triumphant and woefully short-sighted return of ad-supported gadgets

Amazon has brought back the ad model for gadgets. Run for the hills.

Credit: Amazon

I’m old enough to remember the dark days of the computer industry.

No, not when someone figured out how to spam you for the first time or sold those weird knock-off Macs. For what seems like about a week, companies sold “ad supported” computers that provided access to the Internet and apps as long as you put up with some banner ads. (If you happen to remember the brands for these computers, post in comments.)

Those dark days, like many “innovations” in technology, have now returned. Amazon has decided to sell subsidized phones with an ad that shows up in the lock screen, similar to what you’ll see on a Kindle Fire. For Prime members, the Motorola Moto G costs $150 and the BLU R1 HD costs $50; they will be available on July 12. There’s no way to remove the Amazon app that loads the ads, although I will give this about 14 minutes before someone does just that. Essentially, by agreeing to the ads, you also agree to being a Guinea Pig.

Here’s why this model failed so miserably the first time. I remember testing one of the ad-supported computers and it chugged along like it had vanilla ice-cream spilled all over the motherboard. The Amazon phones in question might not run slower (ads have changed -- they’re now optimized to load much faster) but you will run slower. Every time you go to unlock the phone you will see some flashing and obnoxious ad created by people who know how to get your attention. Your notification screen in Android will also change. You will get the lucky privilege of having to figure out what is a notification and what is an ad all day long.

Ads cheapen the experience of using a gadget, case closed. It didn’t work the first time because people eventually realized they could buy a normal computer for a few bucks more, one that didn’t make them feel like they had sold their soul for $50. One quick check on any used gadget store will pop up countless unlocked phones that don’t have any ads for about the same price. You also have to pay for Prime, which costs $99 per year. It just doesn’t make sense when you realize, for the entire period of time you use the phone, you will see ads.

Of course, this is in addition to the ads you normally see on the phone that load in the browser or come in via email. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a problem if Amazon made sure the phone was ad-free in other ways and you only had to agree to stare at the lock screen ad showing a new truck or some fancy watch that costs way too much on the Amazon store.

I haven’t mentioned the quality of the phones. The Moto G has fallen into that category of a generic me-too models without any of the latest features on offer from Samsung or HTC like super-fast charging or a high-res camera. The Blu is a low-end phone that will make its U.S. debut with this deal, which is always a bad sign. I haven’t tested the first one in a while and I’ve never tested the second one, but you can guess that the phones are not as fast as an iPhone 6s or the latest Samsung models.

Mainly, this ad-supported model is a troubling trend. Back when this first happened, technology wasn’t able to keep up and consumers balked, but marketers are craftier now. They know how to make ads blend into the background. Even if it’s an overpriced watch.

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