Apple kicked off 2019 by announcing that iPhone sales are down — way down. Their letter to investors largely laid the blame on China (and indirectly, on the trade war with China) but more astute observers noticed some sub-text: people just aren’t buying the new iPhones they way Cupertino is used to.
Shocking, no? $1000 cell phones that are largely unchanged from last years model aren’t flying off the shelves?
When I was growing up, the effects of Moore’s Law were hard at work. I sold computers in college, and the joke customers would make as they walked out the door was “this thing will be obsolete by the time I get it home, won’t it?” At the time, they weren’t far from wrong. Just look at this chart that I stole from someone on the Internet — CPU speeds were literally doubling every year.
Then something happened: the point of diminishing returns. Just off this chart is our current home computer, a 2011 iMac. Its had a RAM upgrade and a newer OS installed, but 8 years later, that machine still does everything the kids need it to. And its not just the kids — I’m a professional software developer, and I’m typing this on a rebuilt 2008 MacBook Pro. Why? Because there’s no reason to upgrade. None.
Smart phones had their own curve, that arguably really ramped up starting in 2007 (I couldn’t find a chart to steal.) Like PCs in the 80s, there was a rapid evolution of features, capabilities, form factors and speeds, but their point of diminishing returns hit around 2015: Apple’s peak was the iPhone 6s. After that, they literally began removing features, and focusing more on cosmetics than capabilities (the camera being an exception with a slightly offset maturity curve.)
Of course, the drooling public was a little slower to catch on. Apple got 4 more years of grinding semi-annual upgrades out of the masses, but now even that group is catching on. Its not just China, Americans are having trouble justifying paying a grand every year or two for something not materially different than what’s already in their pocket.
This decline forces companies to look for new revenue models — because the “next big thing” hasn’t emerged yet (hint: its not going to be Virtual Reality). And that’s where you and me, and our personal data, comes into play. If you won’t give them money directly, you can be monetized indirectly — through harvesting of your data.
So, what are you going to do about it? I’ve written before about how the Internet could still be good — if we’d all stop behaving like sheep, and acted more like responsible human beings. You can similarly turn the spy you invite into your bedroom back into a reasonable useful tool:
- Don’t buy a new one. If your battery sucks, replace it — even at Apple’s full price of $79, that’s a lot less than $1000 for a new phone. And if your phone breaks entirely, buy a refurb. You’ll love having a headphone jack again, and you won’t need all new charging cables!
- Tame your phone: turn off notifications and location services unless you really need them. A Pebble or a Fitbit are a nice way to get critical notifications without needing to be tempted by the rest of your phone — keep it in your pocket.
- Leave it behind: there’s a trend toward companion phones (my parents call them “beach phones” — but they live on a tropical island) that I really like. Its hard to be completely out of touch, but you can get a “dumb” phone and swap out your SIM when you don’t need constant access to email or Instagram.
- Turn it off at night: “I use it as my alarm clock” is a dumb excuse for having a hot microphone and a radio next to your head all night: you can pick up an alarm clock at Walmart for $8 and you’ll sleep better.
- Don’t use native apps if you don’t need them: when possible, use the website instead of the app — they get a lot less out of you that way.
- Don’t buy one for your pre-teen. Today I learned that children at my kids school aren’t allowed to run on the playground at recess — but they are allowed to have a cell phone. If this isn’t a generational crisis unfolding before our eyes, I have no idea what is.
I’m going to end this with an anecdote, for those who think I’m being alarmist: I worked for a large online retailer with a consumer electronics division, back when Facebook was still a powerful and popular Internet service. We wanted a native Facebook app for our devices, and Facebook couldn’t be bothered supporting us (even though we could have re-used 99% of their existing Android app with only minor modifications.) When we went to the negotiation table to try to change their minds, do you know what they offered? Give us your customer’s buying data, and we’ll give you an app. Not content to know about all your relationships, conversations, photos and travels, what Facebook wanted most from us is to know everything you were buying too. (To its credit, the big retailer told Facebook to pound sand.)
Big tech companies don’t value you as a person, and they don’t make hot new gadgets out of altruism. They build these things to extract revenue from you. No one loves gadgets as much as I do, but be aware that each of these toys and services you add to your lifestyle has a dark side — if you don’t control them, they will control you.