I watched the Apple Media Event earlier this week with a critical eye. To be sure, we’re at a point where there are few surprises. It’s troubling to think that after years of leaks in the supply chain, Apple still hasn’t figured out to prevent its own team from doing the leaks through bonehead moves. The sitemap XML, seriously?
Tim Cook, after seven years in the big chair, still hasn’t figured out how to appear excited about anything that Apple has accomplished. His cadence is slow and he smiles, but I don’t get a sense of wonder or excitement. Maybe it’s just my read. At least I know that Phil loves photography because he trips over himself trying to get all of the info out. I don’t even need to bring up Craig, who is just a delight to watch and listen to. Overall, the event was boring, which is the new normal.
There’s a deeper problem, though. Every year, the keynote follows the same contours and, in almost every segment, uses the same words, verbatim. The only nuance is the facts and figures that conform to the new device. It’s so much faster, the best iPhone ever, the world’s most popular camera, incredible advancement, our best line up. Trite.
They spent about 25% of the time talking about the truly noteworthy Apple Watch Series 4, and 75% of the time painfully going over details of the XS/XR updates. Reports have been out this week stating that the 6S and 7 are the most popular iPhones. Those same reports conclude that there’s pent-up demand for this year’s models. I’m not so sure.
I see three factors at play.
The Death of Carrier Upgrades
Carrier upgrades presented a nice, stable, and affordable way to handle our smartphones. The carrier picked up the major portion of the tab for the unit in exchange for a two year service agreement. For most of us, that was fine since we weren’t going anywhere anyway. We paid a few hundred dollars and we were set. When that business model disappeared, we had two options: pay in full or subscribe to your phone.
Offering interest free installment plans destroyed iPhone resale value. It used to be that you could sell your unlocked iPhone and get a large share of the cost of your new device. My iPhone 6S+ with 128GB was $949 when I bought it three years ago, and is valued at $150 today. Why would anyone pay a few hundred dollars for a used phone when they can just subscribe to it like everything else. $300 for a three year old phone, or $60/mo for the top of the line new phone? The problem is, if you don’t do the math, upgrading your phone every year or two on an installment plan is financial suicide. Device cost, AppleCare, taxes, and carrier charges, not to mention cases adds up incredibly quickly. You don’t get a sense of that large expense when it’s broken up into little pieces.
Let’s say you want to and can afford to upgrade your phone every year. An honest survey of how you use your phone will reveal that you may never use any of the features of the XS as compared to the X or even the oft-forgotten 8. Yes it’s crazy fast, yes FaceID is faster(?), yes it’s super retina, but if we primarily use our phones for web browsing, music, and texting, you’ll never need the high computational power that was the headline feature. Most of the pictures that I take aren’t for magazine covers, they’re for posterity, so a very small percentage of photos will need the enhancements that the XS offers. I never game on my phone, but if I did it would probably be something simple like Monument Valley or a puzzle. I’m also still waiting for AR to do something actually useful, in spite of Silicon’s Valley insistence that it’s the future for everyone. 512GB, half a terabyte, is huge. I struggle to think about a use case for a typical daily user that would need that amount of space within the 3-4 year window that they’ll use the phone. The only thing that seems to get close is if you’re shooting 4K video daily. Oh, but you’ll need a nice iCloud storage plan to make sure that you can back all of that data up.
The same can be said for the state of apps. In the early days, I was buying apps left and right. Most of my friends and coworkers couldn’t understand why, but they would ask my opinion. I’ve bought one app in 2018 and it was $5. If I download any new app, it’s usually because I have a personal connection with the developer (i.e. I follow them online, or a friend recommended it).
The hard truth is that the iPhone has become an excess. Lisa Jackson was right: the best way to be environmentally friendly is to keep your phone for as long as it works. It’s a pure commodity, a luxury, that holds no monetary value beyond its role in being a personal, mobile computer to the first owner. It’s capabilities far outstrip the typical user’s usage. The upgrade proposition has lost most of its allure.
I won’t be upgrading my 6S+, probably for a few more years, but I have nothing to worry about. Apple will always have the best iPhone ever for sale, in the best lineup that they’ve ever offered, that is an incredible achievement by the whole team. And when I do pay for a brand new phone and Apple Watch, I’ll do so with full knowledge that while the monetary value will not hold, it’ll be supported with updates for years, and in just a few months time, it will no longer be the best iPhone that they said it was. But at least I won’t be broke.