Can You Hear Me Now?

When I wrote this column almost a year ago, I resolved in print not to throw more money at Apple, and I would have kept my resolution had not my doddering 5s not given up the ghost a few months later.  However, I didn't pop for one of the fancy iPhone 6s or 7s.  Instead I stayed with the smaller screen iPhone SE, mostly because it fits in my pants pocket.  


Hold the Phones


I am typing this in the afternoon of Black Friday. This morning, while in the throes of the mass hysteria that captures so many of my fellow Americans around this time, I went to my local Apple store to trade in my aged iPhone 5s for a newer model. The Apple minion, upon examining my phone, detected a couple of teeny scratches in the bezel which, to my shock, meant he couldn’t accept it in trade. “Then you’ve lost a sale,” I said in a cold fury and stormed off.

On the drive home I pondered why I’d been so angry. The minion’s rejection wasn’t personal; Apple is entitled to whatever trade-in policy it deems best for the corporate bottom line. Hell, I own AAPL stock, so I should want the company to maximize profits, right? Upon reflection, I realized that part of my problem was that although I wanted a new phone I didn’t really need one. Holy Consumerism, Batman!  I get calls and texts and emails just fine on my old phone. It takes great photos. It remembers Sheila’s number and Connie Willis’s address and my dentist appointments. I use it all the time to navigate through strange cities on foot and via public transportation. It reads to me while I jog and tracks where I’m going and how long I take to get there. It plays the soundtrack for my daily meditations. It’s an alarm clock, a compass, a shopping mall, an encyclopedia, a flashlight, and an issue of Asimov’s. Who could ask for anything more?

And yet there I’d been at the showroom. Why? Because of some slick new design? Whoop-de-doo! Because of rumors that Apple’s new operating system causes slowdowns and battery problems on older phones?

So don’t update! Because my phone is four years old and your internet columnist needs to have the latest and greatest hardware? Nah!

I now (figuratively) thank that mall minion for bringing me to my senses. My fellow geeks, I say it’s time to step off the treadmill of planned obsolescence and throw off the yoke of our marketing overlords! According to the CNET, many of you have already moved on; worldwide sales of smartphones have flatlined in 2016. “The reason? The smartphone industry has been hit by ‘phone fatigue.’ Consumers in mature markets have been turned off by a lack of exciting features in new phones, causing more of them to stick with their current smartphones.”

So yeah, I’m sticking with what I’ve got, or at least until Apple releases the iPhone 8, or whatever they decide to call it. Oooh, that OLED display! That glass body! Not to mention an edge-to-edge display!


Snark aside, I have to admit that tech companies have certainly given me compelling reasons to upgrade over the past few decades. When I started writing this column in 1998, the default access to the internet was dial up. According to a 1999 Pew Survey, just 43 percent of Americans owned a computer, 41 percent used the internet, and 12 percent went on line every day. Why? Because connecting was unreliable and freaking slow! Over time the bandwidth increased and access became more robust—and portable. Service providers built high speed conduits that could bridge the last mile from the nation’s telecommunications backbone to our homes and places of business. We connected our devices to networks, at first wired and later wireless or wifi. Cutting the cord meant that ever sleeker laptops could wander away from the desk to places computers had never been, although they still had to be within range of a wifi hotspot. That is, until the rollout of 3G and 4G mobile networks. The arrival of smartphones, beginning with the Blackberry6210 in 2003, but, more significantly, the first iPhone in 2007, and then the swarms of copycat Android Devices that followed, meant you could put the internet “in your pocket” as Steve Jobs claimed in the iPhone announcement video. I found that historic video worth a look, despite Jobs’s preening, if only to remind myself what a revolutionary device that first iPhone was. Reviewers at the time were cautiously wowed . “The iPhone isn’t just the gadget du jour, it’s a fresh new platform, an exceptionally powerful mobile computer that’s still in its infancy,” wrote Lev Grossman in Time. And David Pogue opined in the New York Times, “But even in version 1.0, the iPhone is the most sophisticated outlook-changing piece of electronics to come along in years. It does so many things so well, and so pleasurably, that you tend to forgive its foibles.”

We tend to forget those foibles these days as well, since many of them have been addressed with each new generation of smartphone, which is why, until recently, tech companies have been able to keep us coming back for upgrades. Once upon a time, connecting to a mobile network was a dicey and expensive proposition. Many of us still have to monitor our data usage. And did you know that the first iPhone lacked GPS, so if you were navigating by Google Maps you had to stop and tell it where you were? The App store  didn’t launch until a year after the first iPhone, and it took time for its shelves to fill; now experts predict that it will reach five million apps by 2020. The nextgen iPhones and Androids kept getting bigger screens with sharper resolution, faster processors, and more memory. Improving smartphone cameras destroyed changed the standalone camera business. Speaking of cameras, although mirrors had been around for a while and you could buy a phone with a front-facing camera as early as 2003, the iPhone 4 in 2010 brought the selfie to the masses, ushering in a new era in human misadventure. And yes, selfie is a real word. The Oxford Dictionaries actually anointed it word of the year in 2013!

smartphones r us

Compare that 1999 Pew survey to a more recent look at digital America. Of course, there were no smartphones back then, whereas by 2015 they’d become ubiquitous. Smartphone ownership among certain key demographic groups approaches the saturation point: 86 percent of those ages 18-29 own one, as do 83 percent of those ages 30-49. Meanwhile nearly two-thirds of all adults own a desktop or laptop computer, well up from 1999 but trending downward slightly from 2012 because, I would argue, of smartphones. Meanwhile 45 percent of adults own a tablet, another device that didn’t exist at the turn of the century. As a writer, I find it interesting that the numbers of dedicated E-readers are off. Just 19 percent of adults report owning a reading device in 2015 while in 2014 almost a third had one. Are more people reading ebooks on tablets? I confess that I do, although I have as yet to read a novel on my phone.

What do we use our smartphones for? In descending order, according to the Pew survey, first comes texting, then surfing the internet, making voice/video calls, emailing, social networking, taking pictures, getting news, watching videos, playing games, mapping, and listening to music or podcasts. The vast majority of smartphone users report that their phones make them feel “productive” and “happy”—79 percent and 77 percent respectively. On the other hand, 57 percent say their phones are distracting and 36 percent are frustrated by them. I am not surprised by these statistics from the millennials: 97 percent have turned to their phones to allay boredom and 47 percent have used their phones to avoid interacting with people around them.


I’ve been making up science fiction stories about smartphones and their technological descendants for most of my writing career. I’ve called them thinkmates and sidekicks and tells and imagined them as hardware and software and mindware. And now that we’re well into the twenty-first century, I’m looking for some version of these gadgets to go on sale at my local mall. No think tank is paying me for my opinion, but I’m guessing that “phone fatigue” will continue as long as smartphone makers concentrate mostly on improving their processors and packaging. For example, I’m betting that the smartwatch will be a dead end if I have to peer at it and push buttons to make it work. The interface is too constricted. The interface is the key to the future of smartphones, it says here. I don’t need a computer on my wrist. I’d rather stick one in my ear.

You may remember a previous column  in this series in which I chatted with Siri  and Alexa and their pals. Their conversational abilities, as of 2015, were definitely lacking. And yet they were so much better than AI chat used to be. And yes, I’m looking at you, Tay, Microsoft’s racist chatbot. So I’m optimistic  that someday it will be possible to pop a nearly invisible earbud into my head and have some clever sidekick guide me to the best route from the Hayden Planetarium on New York’s upper West Side to the Asimov’s offices downtown or remind me that I’m having drinks with my agent tomorrow afternoon. And maybe a flesh colored bandaid mic will pick up my murmured questions like “What did the ‘A’ in Robert A. Heinlein’s name stand for?” (answer = Anson) or “Where did I put my car keys?”

Now that would be a smartphone worth trading for! 

Copyright © 2017 James Patrick Kelly