Legroom Becomes Equal

Benedict Evans, on the characteristics of smartphone buyers at various price and quality points:

Something that people often don’t realise, especially in the USA, where even high-end phones are free, is that high-end Android phones are not what are outselling the iPhone. It’s the mid and low end that’s making up all the volume.

Even the budget phones are pretty good, as was made apparent with today’s announcement by Motorola of the Moto G:

In the U.S., a version of the Moto G with eight gigabytes of memory will be cost $179 without a wireless-carrier contract, while a 16-gigabyte version will go for $199. Motorola says the phone, which comes with a sharp 4.5-inch display, will have all-day battery life and soon be able to run KitKat, the latest version of Google’s Android mobile-operating system.

A high-resolution display, a pretty decent processor, and 8 GB of internal storage for $179 with no contract. This isn’t cutting-edge technology — the processor is an updated version of a year-old design, and a 4.5-inch 720p display isn’t a breakthrough — but it’s a pretty good deal. I certainly find the willingness by Google and Amazon to release products with little to no profit margin intriguing, owing to their different business models.

Apple continues to sell the iPhone 4S and it runs iOS 7 beautifully — take my 16,000 words for it. Consider, too, the iPhone 5C, which is mostly an iPhone 5 in a new shell. The advances made in the past year or two have been immense, but there aren’t a substantial amount of apps that require technology so far advanced. Components which are a year or two old are still pretty damn good at running new apps, and will continue to be pretty good into the near future.1

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to a piece titled “The Extra Legroom Society” by Frank Bruni, as published in the New York Times:

It’s not that pecking orders or badges of affluence are anything new. Our homes, cars, clubs and clothes have long been advertisements of our economic clout, used and perceived that way.

But lately, the places and ways in which Americans are economically segregated and stratified have multiplied, with microclimates of exclusivity popping up everywhere. The plane mirrors the sports arena, the theater, the gym. Is it any wonder that class tensions simmer? In a country of rising income inequality and an economy that’s moved from manufacturing to services, one thing we definitely make in abundance is distinctions.

The smartphone world, by contrast, is remarkably level. Yes, there are budget phones like the Moto G, which cost considerably less than a top of the line iPhone, but both ends of the spectrum are so commonplace that there’s nothing showy about a higher-end product. The iPhone is still cool, but it isn’t ostentatious or vulgar. It’s accessible luxury.

I’m therefore reminded of this quote with which John Gruber closed his review of the iPhone 3G:

“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.” — Andy Warhol

So too with the iPhone. A billionaire can buy homes, cars, clothes that the rest of us cannot afford. But he cannot buy a better phone, at any price, than the iPhone that you can have in your pocket today.

It’s as true today as it was then, if not more so. The Moto G is a remarkably capable product for its price point, even if I’d never own one. The iPhone 5S is a substantially better product — its build quality is superlative, its camera is spectacular, its materials are better, and so on — and it still isn’t outrageously expensive.

Critically, both products are mass-produced goods. The smartphone world, then, is not an exclusive club. That’s not to say it’s affordable for every single person, but it has become more available for more people. These great leaps in technology have levelled the playing field, and it’s benefitting more people constantly.

Need proof? How about the latest report from Ericsson (PDF), which says:

Total mobile subscriptions up to and including Q3 2013 are at around 6.6 billion, including 113 million new subscriptions added during the third quarter. Global mobile subscriptions have continued to grow seven percent year-on-year and two percent quarter- on-quarter. The actual number of subscribers however, is lower, at around 4.5 billion. This is because many people have several subscriptions.

Throughout the world there is continued momentum for smartphone uptake. These devices accounted for around 55 percent of all mobile phones sold in Q3 2013, compared to around 40 percent for the full year in 2012. And it doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. Of all mobile phone subscriptions, 25-30 percent are associated with smartphones, leaving considerable room for further uptake.

Cool, right?

I didn’t write this to cheerlead Apple’s strategy, or to belittle Motorola’s (or the inverse of that). I’m just in awe of how the smartphone has become so settled and common around the world. Owning a high-end smartphone doesn’t feel vulgar and they last for a long time, and affordable phones have become pretty good. It’s extra legroom for everyone.

  1. Consider how far advanced the iPhone 4S was compared to the iPhone 4. Now consider that the 4S runs pretty much all of the features of iOS 7 that the iPhone 5 and 5S do, but also consider how many features had to be omitted from the iPhone 4 build of iOS 7, and what features they were: the 4S boasted a huge bump over the 4 in both CPU and GPU performance↥︎