Apple Culture

Putting the iPhone’s expense in context

Ten years ago, I had just started grad school, and the newly-released iPhone seemed like an unimaginable extravagance. Hundreds of dollars upfront, then a recurring bill… forever? It seemed like a device targeted at the rich and foolish.

But by the time I finished grad school, three years later, I had bought the iPhone 4. Since then, I’ve upgraded every two years: iPhone 5, iPhone 6, iPhone 7. And from here on out, I may buy a new iPhone every year, starting with the recently-announced iPhone X.

How did this happen? How did I move from “the iPhone is a ridiculous expense” to “I want a new one very year”?

First, there’s the coincidence factor: the iPhone rose to prominence just as our careers were getting started. My wife and I scraped by during our grad school days, working stints in low-paying administrative jobs to support each other’s studies. Back then, tacking $100+ onto the monthly budget seemed impossible; paying the rent and affording groceries were difficult enough. Now, a decade later, both of us work steady jobs, and we have more discretionary income to apply to gadget purchases.

But even if our financial situation hadn’t changed, the iPhone would have been difficult to resist. The device has grown more capable and usable with each passing year, replacing a variety of standalone devices that we would have otherwise purchased. Consider:

Device Price per year Notes
Camera $200 ($1,000+ every 5 years) Our iPhones have relegated our old point-and-shoot to the junk drawer. And we almost certainly would have bought a DSLR by now, in order to document our daughter’s early years. The iPhone X’s chief appeal is its dual-lens camera system; it’s tricky to capture a toddler’s madcap antics without a zoom.
iPod / MP3 player (x2) $166 ($500 every 3 years) We each owned various digital music players before our first iPhones. My beloved iRiver iHP-120 gave way to the iPod touch, the bridge device that first convinced me how useful a pocket computer could be.
Dedicated GPS $67 ($200 every 3 years) I’m astonished that there’s still a market for these standalone navigators. I’m more astonished that the Wirecutter thinks they’re better than just using your smartphone.
Document scanner $50 ($250 every 5 years) For light document scanning needs, Scanbot does the trick. It’s not as fast as a dedicated device like the ScanSnap, but it easily bests a a flatbed scanner. This is definitely a case where “good enough” wins out.
Portable voice recorder $20 ($80 every 4 years) I would want this to record the Careful Tech podcast when I’m traveling.
Mini flashlight (x2) $10 ($40 every 4 years) In high school, everyone carried the Maglite Mini. Now, for everyday purposes, the iPhone’s built-in flash does the job.

That’s over $500 in annual gadget expenses that our iPhones render unnecessary. And that ignores the new uses that standalone gadgets can’t match—in particular, the iPhone’s portable computing ability, whose value is hard to overstate but difficult to quantify.

In other words, the iPhone X’s $1,000 price tag is deceptive. Yes, that’s a lot of money. But to some extent, it’s money that would otherwise be spent buying less flexible devices.[1]

  1. Most of the functions listed above could be handled by an older smartphone—one that costs a fraction of the new hotness. There is a tax for living on the bleeding edge. But some of that extra expense can be recovered by reselling your old phone to pay for the new.  ↩