Photo by Olivier Miche on Unsplash
I’m not an expert when it comes to economics — on the contrary, I’m a rank amateur. To me, it looks like our world is run by gambling addicts — smartphone in one hand, an erection in the other — playing with people's lives and money . So, when my news feed this morning is filled with the impending doom of a stock market blow-out, I’m left scratching my head.
To me, it looks like our world is run by gambling addicts — smartphone in one hand, an erection in the other
Apparently, Wall Street took a tumble last night, and because we live in an interconnected world, so it’s expected that Australia’s stock market will also receive a bollocking. What it means, is a bunch of imaginary money — tied up in the value of publicly traded companies — is going to disappear. Yay capitalism!
Anyway, according to what’s in my newsfeed, the reasons are two-fold: one, US factory data is down, and two, Apple’s going to cut their revenue forecast for the first time in 12 years. Since I know little and care less about what happens in American factories (no offence to anyone who has skin in that game), I’ll concentrate on Apple, a company of whom I’ve been a mostly loyal company customer since 2004.
Apple has a problem, and their claim of Chinese people’s preference for buying homegrown tech is a smokescreen. In my opinion, Apple’s put its eggs in one basket for far too long: iPhone. Wall Street also only cares about iPhone growth; they don’t care about Apple’s burgeoning services business, they don’t care about iPad, they certainly don’t care about the Mac. So, with iPhone growth tanking, Wall Street investors are selling off apples by the barrel.
The slowdown of iPhone growth isn’t new; it’s been happening for several years. Apple’s cunning response has been to increase their prices, and for a while, it worked. The novelty of iPhone X coupled with its high cost, helped keep Apple’s revenue growing, even as sales volume dropped.
The smartphone as a commodity
Let’s face it, smartphones have become a commodity, and not only in developed countries with an affluent middle class. For most people in the world, their computing is done on their mobile device, first and often foremost. In this context, price matters. With more and more services going mobile, smartphones are less a luxury item, as they are a functional necessity of our increasingly online lives — like cars, they are a mundane fixture of modern life. Sure, there will always be people who are keen to buy bigger and better, but for every Audi on the road, I see a hundred Toyotas.
Here in Australia, Apple’s increased prices really hurt. A top-end iPhone Xs Max costs an eye-watering $2369. Even the entry-level iPhone Xr starts off at $1229. Now, I may be cheap, but I refuse to pay more $1000 for a smartphone — a computer, yes, but a phone? No, not when I can get by with a cheaper device. It’s a psychological barrier I can’t cross, and I suspect I’m not alone in that, as a reasonable adult with a mortgage to pay and children to feed and clothe.
Faced with a saturated, commodity market, premium smartphones are sold mainly on the back of gimmicks.
iPhone X is a novel device, but in many respects, the abandonment of conventions was a bridge too far. Face ID, the removal of the Home button and fingerprint reader, the bewildering swipe-based gestures, the notch, and animoji are features of which I have little interest or need.
Smartphones, like PCs before them, have reached the point where they are good enough for most people’s needs. For years I used an iPhone 5s, I only upgrade this last December (2018) when its lightning port failed. Faced with the need to buy another phone, I chose an iPhone 7 because, on balance, it had all the features I need, at a price I was prepared to pay. Nothing in the iPhone X range was compelling enough for me to spend more.
In many respects, Apple’s gimmicks have put me off, and not just in the latest iPhones. My laptop is 2015 MacBook Air. Aside from the screen, it’s the perfect device, and Apple’s given me no reason to buy into their current generation of devices.
Their laptop line across the board features a keyboard design that has compromised both durability and tactile feel. As a writer, this is unacceptable to me. To a writer who spends thousands of hours a year hammering out words, a laptop is its keyboard. The Touch Bar on the MacBook Pro line is another useless, overpriced gimmick. Thunderbolt 3, while interesting and undeniably versatile, is still nascent and lacks wide-spread adoption.
The competition caught up
Another problem Apple faces is the competition has mostly caught up, and in some instances surpassed Apple. For years, Apple only really had one competitor at the high-end, Samsung. In recent years though, we’ve seen smartphones from the likes of Google, Huawei, OnePlus and so on, that are now directly competing against Apple on premium features — at lower prices.
Spec-wise there’s little to differentiate one model from another. They’ve all got great cameras, great screens, decent battery life, multi-core processors and lots of RAM. While I don’t buy purely on specs, I think the average consumer is now more clued into what they are getting. Put an iPhone next to a flagship Android device, and there’s not much between them — except in the one place that increasingly matters to consumers, in our debt-ridden, fragile economies: price.
iOS vs Android
Oh boy, this one might earn me some hate! I’ll start out saying that I love iOS, despite (or perhaps because of its limitations). I like that it offers relatively trouble-free computing, I even appreciated Apple’s walled garden and gated content, for keeping out a lot of the crap and malware that’s in the Android ecosystem.
That said, Android has stuff I envy — at least as a nerd. It has an accessible file system, and many Android phones have SD card slot expansion and USB OTG support. Android — at least newer versions — also has much better notification management and widgets.
iOS is fantastic for creativity and productivity, and it’s that which keeps me on the platform. There’s no Ulysses for Android or even a decent equivalent. There’s also no Scrivener (where I write my books), and no Shortcuts app, which I use to automate a lot of boring crap. I’ve owned both an Android phone and tablet in the past, and the quality and polish of apps are woeful compared to what’s on iOS.
Yet, most people don’t care.
Consider a moment what Jane and Joe Average do with their smartphone, and I’d posit that the device’s operating system no longer matters. What’s important to people is access to services: messaging, social media, video streams, news feeds, shopping and banking, and maybe whatever casual game is the flavour of the month. In the West, Google, Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram dominate people’s usage. In China, I believe WeChat dominates almost every facet of people’s mobile lives.
Across the broad, these services, and the apps that connect us to them are available across iOS and Android. The average user isn’t going to care if iOS has better markdown editors or todo managers aimed at the relatively tiny productivity market.
In fact, iOS apps have also trended heavily towards subscription payments, particularly for productivity. So on top of the iPhone’s inflated price, doing work on many of the platform’s standout apps incurs ongoing costs.
Sustainable mobile computing
I’m going take a stab in the dark, and say sustainability isn’t high on people’s list of priorities when it comes to shaping their actions. I’m a somewhat cynical person, and I believe most people’s attitude towards climate change and declining natural resources is, that it’s somebody else’s problem to fix.
The smartphone industry has been an environmental disaster, not least because of their carbon burden, use of rare-Earth minerals and disposable in people’s minds. While Apple presents itself as an environmentally responsible company — and they are better than most — the reality is their devices are notoriously difficult and expensive to repair.
One of the windfalls of the Batterygate scandal is that people have started to get their batteries replaced, rather than merely updating their phones — something Tim Cook blames for the slowdown in sales. For a CEO of a company claiming to be green, to criticise people for making this choice, is somewhat disappointing. Apple doesn’t want us to fix our phones, they want us to recycle them (through Apple) and buy something new. Again, irresponsible to my way of thinking.
It also speaks to the point I made about smartphones being good enough for most people. Assuming nothing breaks in my iPhone 7, I too am more inclined to replace the battery than throw out the phone to prop up Apple’s bottom line and a bunch of rich bastards on Wall Street who can’t seem to understand our current obsession with growth is killing our planet.
If this has been an overly sombre article, I’m sorry. I’m neither anti-Apple nor anti-capitalist — because I really don’t like the alternatives to either.
What I don’t like is excess — excess in greed, consumerism, and so on. I understand in the economy we’ve constructed that growth is central to wealth, but that same mechanism creates inequality and is killing our planet.
For years, Apple’s been a beacon of modern technology and consumerism. Apple portrays itself as a premium brand selling something that you can get cheaper elsewhere. It’s shackled its wagon to a fickle consumer market where new fads come and go. It’s the poster-child for American capitalism in a time when American power and influence are waning.
Who knows what the future holds, but I wish those greedy bastards in stock exchanges around the world, would chill out and realise that behind those ticking numbers on their screens are people’s lives and livelihoods.