One side-effect of last weekend’s Great 2018 LJ spelunking was looking at my phone obsession. It’s worth remembering that until about 2005 or so, most phones were on 1-year contracts, not 2, and it wasn’t unreasonable for people to get a new phone every year – because that was really your only window to upgrade, and since you were paying that subsidy whether you got a new phone or not, why wouldn’t you?
For all my obsession, the phone glee didn’t really become A Thing until 2003. Because it couldn’t. You had to pay full freight for anything you bought out of band, you had to get the carrier to register your ESN to activate on your network – the only time you could get a new phone at all is if you broke the contract somehow, either through fiscal insolvency or moving to a different place. And you can track my phone changes that way. Phone in Nashville in 1995, phone in Nashville in 1996, phone in Nashville/Birmingham in 1997, phone in DC in 1997, phones in DC in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001. But then in 2002, when AT&T finally switched to GSM, the gloves were off.
Because, as I mentioned elsewhere, I couldn’t get a reliable signal at work. Nobody could, except for T-Mobile. It’s not like we were underground – we weren’t, we were on the sixth floor of an office building in Washington DC – but the weird overlap of signal and coverage and who had what where made it a challenge to use the same phone everywhere. At the time, there were six national carriers on FOUR different standards, and only two of those had low-band 850Mhz coverage – the ones lucky enough to have the original AMPS licenses. So Bell Atlantic becomes Verizon and Cellular One becomes Cingular, and one goes CDMA and the other TDMA, while Nextel uses iDEN and Voicestream uses GSM on the old Sprint Spectrum network, and meanwhile Sprint has CDMA and AT&T has TDMA and both only have 1900Mhz…
It was a shitshow. And I had a Siemens phone with TDMA and GSM both…which would shut off in times of low signal. Which was annoying. So in early 2003, I made the fateful decision to switch out for a rock-solid Nokia 3590…and the race was on. I would buy three phones and change carriers in 2003, then buy another phone and change back in 2004 when I moved to California (which, traditionally speaking, made sense). But by that point, the gloves were off, and between Expansys and Wireless Imports and all the dodgy Chinese cellphone shops in New York and Silicon Valley and the ability to just take the SIM out and pop it in another phone, I was enabled to develop the syndrome we now know as Phone Glee. It was about finding the most capable device possible, completely separated from service, with the promise of complete separation between hardware and network and not being dependent on either. Over the years, it would come to include things like number portability and maximum international viability as well. Phone Glee, in short, was just one more attempt to forcibly live in the world I wanted to live in.
Phone Glee lasted pretty much straight through without interruption from 2003 to 2010 and was only truly stifled for good by the coming of the iPhone 4. Since then, there have been occasional outbursts, like when work forced a Bold onto me for a couple of months or my one foray into Android with the Moto X or the need to have a working burner phone for shutdown night (like the F3, ultimately replaced by the new Nokia throwback). But mostly, it’s been waiting to see what the iPhone will do next, because that iPhone 4 was the last phone I spent my own money on for four years. Since then, I laid out for the original Moto X in 2014, the iPhone SE in 2016, and the Nokia 3310 3G last November. I went from an average of buying two phones a year from 2003-08 to buying one phone every 2.5 years.
And why’s that? Well, mostly because – as I have said ad infinitum – the modern smartphone has long since crossed the finish line. Once you accept that the phone has to be plugged in every day, everything since 2010 is just gimmicks and spec sheet bumps. The iPhone 4 had front and back cameras and could more or less replace a point-and-shoot for road trips, and the iPhone 4 was the beginning of my photo collection because I finally had a phone worth using for pictures. The iPhone 6 was a little too big, but the Moto X and SE were not, and the SE became my daily driver until I got the iPhone X. Which is as I have said a little too big to be a little too big, and which costs way too much for what you get…
…but here’s the thing: that screen is amazing. And it obviates the need for an iPad in pretty much every particular. And it idles low; I’ve pretty much confirmed it only draws battery power when I’m actually using it (aside from Slack, which does more background processing than any phone app should have to, what the hell Slack). And the processing horsepower isn’t bad either. I’ve used it in place of an iPad, in place of a laptop, in place of a Kindle, all with reasonable success. And then there’s what happens when I pop it into Google Cardboard, fire up Street View, and put myself on the Stage Road somewhere between Pescadero and San Gregorio…and find myself looking around a foggy day on the San Mateo coast in the middle of my living room.
The iPhone X is the necessary leap into What’s Next, into the world of One And Only One Device. It’s worth making the jump from an SE in a way that every other iPhone is just not, where the tradeoff for the ridiculous size of the Plus or the battery sour spot of the non-Plus is more trouble than it’s worth. The SE is everything you need and nothing you don’t, and the iPhone X is tomorrow’s phone today, and there’s no percentage going in-between. Which makes me a lot less enthused about spending money on the notional SE2. If it were the SE-X, that might be different – a 5” version of the iPhone X would be the perfect device – but that looks a lot less likely than an LCD 6.1” phone, which sounds like the worst of all worlds. But that increases the possibility that I slap a new battery in the SE, get the performance improvements of iOS 12, and make 2018 the fifth year out of the last eight that I don’t pay for any phone at all.
And that’s kind of a profound thing. The Moto X was purchased at a time when I was fixated on the prospect of owning an American-made phone, and also thought I was going to be seeking out another job and would have to give my work phone back. $300 on a phone for the new hotness on Android – for the first time in four years – seemed like a good move both financially and in terms of professional flexibility. The iPhone SE was bought two years later with the ill-gotten gain of the legal settlement against Apple, and using that particular found money for the perfect phone felt right and natural. It was the contemporary current chipset in a one-handed device that had killer battery life and was perfect for everything. And the Nokia 3310 last fall was just for fun, to have a shutdown device and phone of last resort that would still work once 2G started to go away. Sure, I still have my SE as unlocked insurance against going abroad or unplugging, but “my phone” has become something I get from my job, which as I’ve intimated elsewhere I don’t see departing anytime soon.
Problem is, the only way I could have justified paying for the X myself would be if I were replacing the iPhone SE *and* the iPad mini 2. Which…there was a good case that I could justify replacing the iPad until the iOS 12 beta, which looks like bringing it ever so slightly back to life. Couple that with the $29 battery replacement on the SE and I’m just as glad I didn’t have to buy the X myself, because it would be $1000 to replace things that don’t really need replacing at present. Which is why it’s a good thing Phone Glee ended, because Phone Glee was about trying to get what you want. 2018 is more about wanting what you’ve got. If nothing else, it’s a lot less money to spend.