Yesterday's announcement makes the obvious even clearer: the iPhone is, and will be, the market ideal for cell phones for a long time to come.
Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)
"The future is already here," William Gibson once said, "it's just not very evenly distributed." The romance with even distribution of the wonders of modernity is a hallmark of progressive political culture, driven by people who believe their material possessions have improved their lives and want some fraction of it (never all of it) shared. By defining the problem as a lack of access, rather than an insufficiency in the version of the future that some have already have attained, we tame the future and accept that it will be made to fit inside someone else's idea of progress.
Yesterday, T-Mobile announced that the iPhone would finally be available through its network, making it the last of the major American cell phone service providers to offer Apple's beloved phone computer. CEO John Legere made the announcement by promising T-Mobile would be fairer to its customers than other service providers. "Carriers are really nice to you, once every 23 months," he said. "This is the biggest crock of shit I've ever heard in my entire life."
The iPhone didn't make new actions possible, it made the mechanism through which familiar actions happen novel—sending email, listening to music, checking voicemail, making notes, updating one's calendar.
T-Mobile's argument centers around a new self-description as an "Uncarrier," meaning it will offer plans to bring in customers without subjecting them to onerous 2-year contracts. In practical terms, the distinction is mostly semantic. The company will sell customers unlocked phones at full price and provide month-to-month service, or it will sell customers phones for a small downpayment, with the remainder of the phone's price paid off in regular installments over 24 months while service remains month-to-month. An iPhone 5 can be had for $99 with subsequent monthly payments of $20, while the iPhone 4S will require $69.99. The iPhone 4 can be had for $14.99 down and $15 monthly payments. The company hasn't announced what will happen if customers want to cancel service before they've paid off the full value of the phone, but it seems likely there'll be a penalty and a requirement to pay the remaining balance in full.
The announcement makes the obvious even clearer: the iPhone is, and will be, the market ideal for cell phones for a long time to come. Whether Apple maintains its position in the marketplace is irrelevant in a way because all of its competitors are basically variations on the iPhone idea. They are all iPhones. Not every variation can be as efficient and well-implemented as the original, but the elements have become standardized and the competition will now happen in the obscurity of marginal differences. "Un-" is only a virtue if we admit that the system has run out of meaningful alternatives to the dominant model.
The only real counter to the touchscreen/App Store paradigm now is regressive, forgoing the Internet phone for simpler phones like Nokia's recently announced budget candybar phones, built primarily for emerging markets and users who may have had enough of the always online model of telephony. Apple's success with the iPhone comes largely from their vision of the telephone as a crossover device to perform many of the tasks people turned to computers for. It didn't make new actions possible, it made the mechanism through which familiar actions happen novel—sending email, listening to music, checking voicemail, making notes, updating one's calendar.
Though it's hard to see through the fog of Apple's success, there are other views for how the telephone might have evolved, one of which is ironically suggested by T-Mobile. One of the company's newly announced services to accompany the iPhone is HD Voice, which takes advantage of the high bandwidth available through T-Mobile's new LTE network to allow users of a select few phones better quality voice signals and reduced background noise during calls. The addition seems like an upgrade that's barely worth mentioning, but it hints at what potential lies in the cell phone as a non-productivity device, an object defined not for the quantity of tasks it can complete, but for the intensity and quality of one particular experience.
The iPhone says that conversations take up bandwidth in a person's daily work, an interruption of all the other apps you could be using. An alternative approach could present conversations as the sole reason to have a phone, a sensual, detail rich form of connecting with another person, experiencing the minute variations in tone and texture of their voice in the highest possible detail. Consider Edgar Choueiri's work experimenting with 3D audio systems, a simple idea that seeks to make the brain register sounds situated in three dimensional space, something that the "crosstalk" of traditional stereo where sound that's meant for the right channel is often heard by both right and left ears creates a jumble of noise. The ideal of 3D sound is the creation of distinct layers that rely on the brain's tendency to make musical wholes out of simultaneous but separate tones.
3D sound addresses one particular sense, and uses its subconscious absorption of detail to turn telecommunications into a means for non-productive sensory exchanges, something that might offer a vision of the phonecall as disembodied conversation of two people awake in the dark, the sweet summation of a slumber party, or the restorative after-moments between sex and sleep. No thinking person can say a phone that used all of its technology to transmit this moment in full, vivifying detail, to the exclusion of all other purposes, would be less meaningful than one that uses its machinery to provide weather updates and accountant emails—the machine as sensual medium instead of data translator. But we don't have conversations about what the future could bring, and why we might favor one version of it over another. The future is here already, and now it's on T-Mobile, one step closer to even distribution.