Smartphones Are a Scam (Yes, All of Them)

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Every year, around this time, the Internet becomes a hotbed of rumors, reports, and leaked images of the latest iPhone. And with the next iPhone come the same perennial questions. Will you dump your old iPhone and upgrade to the new? Will you snub Apple entirely and stick with a smartphone from a less-hyped competitor such as Samsung, LG, or HTC?

The question that's rarely asked, however, is whether you should own a smartphone of any kind, from any manufacturer.

Few categories of consumer electronics have become as ubiquitous, and as quickly, as the smartphone. According to the Pew Research Center, 35 percent of American adults reported owning a smartphone in 2011. By last year, that number had reached 64 percent, and a second survey by Pew in 2015 showed that within the space of a few months, ownership had already leaped to 72 percent. That's an astounding rate of adoption. By comparison, over that same period (2011 to 2015), computer ownership declined from 76 to 73 percent, and while tablet ownership rose from 10 to 45 percent, purchases of new tablets have all but flattened out. Smartphones, meanwhile, are still rocketing up the y-axis of every sales graph available.

This is a major success story for the people who make smartphones. But for the general public, it’s also evidence of one of the greatest scams of the digital age.

Consider, first of all, how strangely expensive smartphones are. Most consumer electronics drop in price over time. Not so for the iPhone. When it was first introduced in 2007, the 4GB iPhone cost $499, and the 8GB was $599. Sales were brisk, but not as brisk as Cupertino wanted, so Apple ditched the 4GB model later that year, and dropped the 8GB — which became the base model — to $399.

Nine years later, the default iPhone model, the 6s with 16GB of memory, starts at $649. That's a price increase of $250. And though Apple is often defined by its premium pricing, the competition isn't doing much to undercut them. The Samsung Galaxy S7 starts at $695 when bought through AT&T. Even a supposedly cheap smartphone, such as Google's Nexus 5X, costs $349, or around $50 less than the default iPhone at the end of its debut year.

On the whole, smartphones are bucking a long-standing trend in electronics, becoming more expensive over time, despite also being more common, and more technologically mature. Compare that escalation in cost to the steep year-to-year drop in price for flat-screen TVs. In 2007, a premium 46-inch LCD TV from Sony cost roughly $3,200. Today, a 48-inch from Sony with equivalent features runs $480. And though the newest iPhone is clearly thinner, lighter, and more powerful than the original, the current iPod Touch is $100 less than its 2007 counterpart, despite also being a vastly updated device.

Discounted smartphones aren't hard to find, including some iPhone models introduced by Apple, such as the 5c. But the devices introduced every year drive the overall market, and new smartphones shrug off the price drops that are expected among other consumer electronics. No matter how expensive these things remain, or how much more expensive they get, the public's appetite for them is more ravenous than ever.

But for a scam to properly land, it needs to find a mark. In this case, the grift has found hundreds of millions of them. Since the introduction of the BlackBerry, and then the iPhone, consumers have steadily convinced themselves cellphones are sub-standard, and that smartphones are the baseline, default class of mobile device. What was once a high-priced gadget for early adopters, captains of industry, and the generally wealthy is now considered a kind of utility, a necessity for nearly every American adult. Whip out a feature phone — the ironic term that phone-makers use for non-smartphones — and brace for stares or outright ridicule. If you don't carry around a device in your pocket or bag that costs about the same as a mid-range laptop, you're wandering around the fringes of society. That's a lot of peer pressure to make a genuinely large purchase, and possibly the biggest electronics purchase you'll make in a few years.

But the ubiquity of smartphones has introduced other seemingly default costs, such as data plans. Snapchat clips and Netflix streams have replaced the low-data text exchanges and occasional Web surfing of five years ago. This shift isn't surprising. The main purpose of a smartphone is to transmit and receive more data than a standard handset. What's shocking is the ease with which Americans accepted the additional cost of $20, $30, or more per month for a cellular data plan. This isn't a cost that replaces some existing monthly expenditure. People aren't going to fewer movies in the theater because they can squint at Amazon Video while on the bus. It's simply more money, on top of the higher cost of a smartphone compared to a feature phone. Without any actual collusion or conspiracy, the phone makers, app developers, and carriers of the world have managed to turn cellphones into a laughingstock, and smartphones into a must-have. 

That's despite the fact that roughly three quarters of American adults have at least one device that's perfectly capable of sending and receiving digital content, such as a computer or tablet. And whatever fantasies most have of putting those smartphones to work, and conducting urgent business throughout the day while proudly on the go, let's face facts: We're posting musings about the weather to Facebook, mugging with digital makeup on Snapchat, and fussing over photo filters for throwaway snapshots in Instagram. Some amount of data transfer and display is a clear benefit, but with the exception of a tiny portion of power users, smartphone hardware and data plans are overkill.

Admittedly, there are some people for whom smartphones function as something like a utility. Some 10 percent of American adults have a smartphone, and no broadband access at home. Fifteen percent report that their smartphone is their only regular means of getting online. For these consumers, a smartphone isn't a redundant luxury, but a stand-in for a computer and a broadband connection. Just as cellphones have been revolutionary for the developing world, granting financial freedom and opening up educational resources to the deeply impoverished, smartphones can be a lifeline for poor Americans. But despite how hard these power users are putting their handsets to work, they still don't require the most feature-packed, exorbitantly priced phones, or the biggest data plans. 

When the iPhone 7 comes out, it will be considered the new normal in smartphones, with anything less representing a bargain-bin consolation prize. That's a market turned upside-down. The iPhone 7 and Galaxy S7 and even the Nexus 5X should be seen for the luxury products that they are, the Acuras and BMWs of consumer electronics. Maybe it's time for a shift in perspective, and to stop assuming that everyone needs the best possible smartphone. Just as no one sneers at the existence of a Toyota Corolla, there's no need to laugh at a feature phone, or take pity on the low-cost workhorses of mobile computing. Chances are, it's the average iPhone 7 owner who's a certified sucker, and more deserving of your sympathy.