Off and on and from time to time, I’ll come across someone who is looking for a new cell phone asking if it’s worth the money buying an iPhone. Well, is it? Good question.
Although I advocated using a cheap Android smartphone as the basis for a communications device in the Communications Superguide I curate over at the MMM forums, I’m starting to come back around after truly realizing what matters most in an effective communications tool. My conclusion? Android and iOS both are distractions… powerful, overpriced, electricity hungry distractions.
For all the flexibility you get in all the software solutions you might be able to run, they’re not particularly cohesive solutions nor are they the most effective, can be downright buggy at times, and battery life is disappointing at best. They might be useful in a tablet form-factor, but not as a communicator.
As the CDMA era of Platinumtel winds down and I’m looking at the jump back to GSM and the ability to bring my own device again given their switch to the T-Mobile network, I’ve been freer to pursue a phone that truly fits my needs more than I have in years. Instead of being partly at the mercy of the prepaid carrier I was with to try and shoehorn my needs into a model they provide (I did, after all, go from Net10 pre-BYOD days to CDMA Platinumtel after leaving AT&T), I can now choose a device that truly fits my needs best. The great assortment of incredibly powerful new and used phones available on the market now for so cheap isn’t hurting my situation either. Of the things I missed, certain features from my old Blackberry like the QWERTY keyboard were at the top of the list, but I didn’t miss the dependence upon BIS for network access, amongst other things.
Now, the secret and key to keeping your wireless phone service affordable is to ensure of all the functions the phone is built to handle, it functions best as a communications tool in the mediums you need. These are what cell phones are supposed to be designed for, and this is why you’re paying a wireless carrier for service: mobile communications. Overall savings are had with access to WiFi connections for data, ease of text input, SIP/VoIP support, good reception, a good speakerphone, email push, and long battery life. The fewer moving parts, the better, too, from a reliability standpoint. Anyone who needs a phone as a flexible communications tool probably recognizes this list of features as solid. Anything a device does above and beyond this is just gravy and likely can count as a distraction as well.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been pouring heavily over phone manufacturers, phone operating systems, and the features there-in and keep circling back around to the same conclusions: Any modern Java MIDP 2.x feature phone operating system (or even Symbian S40) combined with a WiFi chipset is fine for personal communications usage with such solid offerings as the Samsung Ch@t line, the LG C series, some Alcatel OT handsets, and of course Nokia’s Asha line of phones. They’re so affordable, you can frequently pick many of these handsets up new and carrier unlocked for under $100. You can’t do SIP/VoIP with the things and you can’t really do always-on push notice text replacement apps like Kik, but it’s a small trade-off when most people seem to prefer text-based communications anyway. Also, an SMS nudge if your friend’s offline and they fire up the app if they’re available fixes that last issue.
Even still, these shortcoming are being worked on and is in the early stages of being solved thanks to Nimbuzz Ping and the NIST (amongst others), which is bringing smartphone always-on communication and SIP support to the feature phone crowd. Of course, some people would find those caveats unacceptable, and that’s fine… there’s no one-size solution for everybody, but it highlights the importance of starting from the bottom when looking at equipment and moving up to find the features we need/want, instead of just trying to start at the top and work our way down. You might be surprised by what a phone that’s now dismissed as a cheap beater handset for teenagers and poor people can do these days, especially when you discover that there’s a reasonably decent Java app for Google Voice texting and ringback.
These points, however useful, do not address the more demanding needs of a business use phone where timely communications for professional contact in all forms is necessary, though. Let’s be honest here, as much as I’m a proponent of SMS replacements like Kik to keep personal communications costs down, you don’t really use these things much in business, because nobody’s on the same platform and people only like the native bundled texting solution which doesn’t go cross-platform. As such, true business runs on voice, email and SMS. This keeps bringing me back to the same group of devices since Blackberry is off the table given the need for not having all your internet access dependent upon servers you have to pay extra to utilize. Those devices? The humble Nokia business phone running Symbian S60. You get push email support, WiFi, native integrated SIP/VoIP support, great keyboards, awesome battery life, and good speakerphones. Phones like the e71 are legendary amongst business users, and can be picked up refurbished for reasonably great prices still rocking your face off with their ability to just work. Heck, Symbian s60 even has a WiFi hotspot app if you need it!
This isn’t to say that Android and iOS can’t be effective platforms for a phone as a tool, but for all the added functionality, they frequently become a distraction instead… a costly distraction. If you’re using it for business, being connected in a timely manner to the people you’re doing business with, and that phone acting as a further related tool to aid with business in the field (if those tools can even be met effectively with the same device – frequently, they can’t) is all you should be looking for in a phone. In the end, buying an iPhone will likely result in thousands of dollars of expenditures wasted and weeks of productivity lost to Angry Birds by the time you get out of contract, more than anything else. Now granted, there’s nothing stopping you from buying an unlocked iPhone outright and going with a cheaper provider, but… are you getting this phone to conduct business or to play with?
Now, you’re probably asking yourself why I keep bringing up the subject of business when evaluating the needs of a cellphone? It’s simple: If you treat your phone like a tool, you’re going to use it as a tool. Your phone is a tool to allow necessary communications while you’re out of your office or home. When you buy a phone as a toy or a distraction, it can become a time and money pit… and you’re here because you’re trying to save money in your life, remember?
“But what about personal calls to friends and family?” I hear you say. Simple. If you’re out and about away from home, then it’s because you’re likely working, and you shouldn’t be spending too much of your work time on personal matters. (Vacations and days off out gallivanting are different, but then, heavy phone use would still be a distraction from your task to unwind.) As such, you’re most likely going to be home when you make these calls, and even cheap cell phone service can’t match the price of VoIP service. So you have a home phone number and a mobile phone number. Is that such a bad thing?
It’s 2013 and we have technology in such embarrassing abundance now that feature phones with better battery life and nearly identical communications features to smartphones can do the same job better, cheaper, and more efficiently both in terms of data used and electricity utilized.
Are they as pretty and tweak our lizard brains quite so much as smartphones or provide us with as many distractions? No, but that’s not a bad thing. I think we’ve finally hit a point in time where most people should start to reconsider the humble feature phone again. These things are like cars, all of them are going to make calls and send text messages at the very minimum. I’ve seen people get verbally crucified for buying cars from a top-down mentality with budget, why should phones be given any more of a pass? Start at the bottom, determine what features are important to you, and go up from there.
As for that comment on lizard brain tweaking, you’re probably wondering about my moving farther away from smartphones in general. This change is partly practical and partly philosophical.
From the practical standpoint? Feature phones are cheaper, their resale value is mostly in the tank (great news for frugal shoppers), their battery life is generally longer, their network data usage is inherently smaller, and they’re frequently designed to perform better as telephones or general communications devices.
From a philosophical standpoint? Mobile phone service is pretty much a non-necessity, and the strongest and most reasonable cases for cell phone usage is for communication. You are paying a service to communicate while away from home. Anything spent beyond that should probably be classified as “entertainment” or “tool of trade” expenses. Smartphones frequently fail at their primary function of calling people, and they offer a slew of features that are specifically designed to eat away your time and make you want to spend more money. Then we get into the erosion of society facet… smartphones are destroying social interaction because people would rather respond Pavlov-style to little beeps and tings to stare at a small screen and be entertained than even smile at a stranger or be lost in thought.
And let’s not skirt the behaviors inspired in some people towards the iPhone in general (or any expensive electronic geegaw for that matter)… the “rapture” and “joy” and “elation” they seem to get over buying this device followed by the near constant attachment and attention they place on the item gets into a sort of idolatry and worship. These things are $500 slabs of electronics, not the second coming of Yeshua. Are these people’s lives in such need for purpose and fulfillment that they think a portable communicator and entertainment device is going to fill that gap? I’m sorry, but if anyone thinks that a spiritual yearning of purpose within mankind that has inspired millennia of philosophical discourse can be solved with something that has text bubbles and access to Netflix for $8 a month… they’re crackers.
At their worst, these are tiny little distraction machines designed to fill up and eat away your time. The less you deliberately do with your phone (or can do), the less you will use your phone. That action saves money, time and resources and could be argued that it might even make you more productive with your time. I may sound like an old crank saying all this, but there’s decidedly something unhealthy going on with the first world’s obsession with these tiny little glowing rectangles. You start reading some of the research, and a pattern of addiction and psychological problems emerge. Have a few articles to chew on, re-read some of the staunch support for dropping so much danged money on these devices, and reach your own conclusions:
- Have smartphones killed boredom (and is that good)? (CNN)
- Cellphones Are Eating the Family Budget (Wall Street Journal)
- Light From Self-Luminous Tablet Computers Can Affect Evening Melatonin, Delaying Sleep (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)
- Multiple media use tied to depression, anxiety (Michigan State University)
Even cellphones as a tool have their place, and the core convenience is not a thing I begrudge anyone. I use them myself and have an entire guide dedicated to and countless hours spent helping others save money on these services… but one shouldn’t shift or lose their priorities because of them. Don’t let that tiny little glowing slab of electronics distract you from what you really need.
Anyway, back to the initial question: Are iPhones worth it? Well, I have no doubt that an iPhone can have its place as a tool for some people. It’s also one of the most expensive cell phones on the market, one of the most data hungry, and many of the features it claims are hardly exclusive to its sole domain. So, you’ll have to answer that question for yourself, but keep in mind the true value of a dollar before you do finally make that investment.