Why the best smartphone is the one you already have

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It’s that time of year when Apple introduces a new iPhone and everyone looks at their phone and thinks about replacing it with the latest model. However Douglas Rushkoff, Professor of Media Theory and Digital Economics at the City University of New York, media theorist and most recently, author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, writes in Digital Trends that The best smartphone is the one you already own. It really salved my own iPhone 7 itch. He is really blunt about it, starting with:

Now that Apple has disappointed early adopters with a mere incremental iPhone upgrade, and Samsung has done even worse by releasing exploding Galaxy Note 7s, the preposterous futility of the smartphone wars should be coming apparent. Those people who are trading in perfectly usable phones for the latest models are the suckers.

He notes that beyond the cash, there are human and climate costs to these devices, with most of their energy consumption now not in the phones but in the cloud. Siri is not in our phone, but in the computers that it connects to. “The lion’s share of processing activity – and energy consumption – is actually occurring on servers streaming all those videos and making all the harder calculations and analyses.” One could quibble that this doesn't change, whether you are using a new phone or an older model.

However he reminds us of all the rare earths and "conflict minerals" that go into making a phone. These include cassiterite from Congo (see our slideshow here) along with gold, tungsten and tantalum. (Apple says it is now auditing 100 percent of its supply chain and claims that "while it isn’t yet declaring its products totally conflict-free, the company said all of its 242 smelters and refiners of tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold are now subject to third-party audits.")

Given how minor the improvements are in this round of upgrades, Rushkoff suggests an alternative approach:

..the only real response – the true techie’s response – is to learn how to make one’s phone last as many years as possible. Instead of buying our way out of obsolescence, we program, adapt, and workaround. What makes a phone great is not how new it is, but how long it lasts.

It is an interesting problem, particularly now that phones are becoming more like computers, with technical improvements seeming to come more slowly. Four and a half years ago I sought advice from a regular Mac user who, like me, earns his living writing on his machine, and he said “buy the very best, pay for Apple Care, and in 3 years when it runs out, buy a new one.” Now, a year and a half over that time limit, nobody has brought out a machine that is demonstrably better and the MacBook Pro is still working just fine. Similarly my iPhone 6 is out of contract now, over two years old, but I cannot see that the 7 is demonstrably better. (But wait, that camera!)

Is the automatic upgrade cycle finally broken?

Why the best smartphone is the one you already have
Douglas Rushkoff explains that the real costs of a new phone are not measured in just money.

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