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$40 too far: the real cost of the iPhone 7’s missing headphone jack

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Not being able to charge and listen will cost a lot more than you think

Last year, Kat Ascharya of 2machines interviewed Kelly, a 19-year-old community college student and intern who is fully dependent on her smartphone to access the internet.

"We don’t have an Internet connection at home. We don’t have a large flatscreen TV or a Blu-Ray," Kelly told 2machines. "We don’t even have a dishwasher. We don’t pay a mortgage and rent because why buy when everyone but my parents are gonna move out in a few years? So we spend money on our phones and Verizon bill instead."

Kelly is a "smartphone-dependent" American, a group that has limited or no access to broadband internet other than their smartphones, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. In many cases, due to low-wage jobs, a smartphone is the one device they can afford.

Smartphones are either the main or only way for millions of Americans, largely young and poor minorities, to get online. In fact, 24 million American adults can only access the internet through their smartphones, according to the same Pew report. Fifteen percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 and 13 percent of Americans who make less than $30,000 per year are smartphone-dependent.

24 million American adults can only access the internet through their smartphones

Twelve percent of African Americans and 13 percent of Latinos also rely on their smartphones for internet access, compared to only 4 percent of whites.

If your smartphone is your primary or only method to access the internet, that means they aren’t a luxury, as some would have you believe. And if smartphones are no longer a luxury in 2016, then Apple designing the iPhone to require additional dongles to regain features it once had imposes a disproportionate cost on the most cost-sensitive users.

Take the headphone jack. The belief that killing the most popular port in the world on the most popular smartphone in the world would have no consequences is wholly shortsighted. The removal of the headphone jack on the iPhone 7 may not matter to most people, and it may just be an inconvenience to some, but it will be a much bigger shift for a part of the population without the voice to grab Apple’s attention.

In interviews with over 40 people, the Pacific Standard’s Julia Ticona found that smartphones have become essential tools for low-wage workers:

I found these workers relied on their smartphones — and sometimes free Wi-Fi at restaurants and libraries — as essential tools in their digital hustle. They used their phones to find and coordinate work and care, and to alleviate stress in emotionally draining jobs. For many, making ends meet means constantly checking and participating in online networks and message boards to find work, as well as phone calls and text messages to coordinate their gigs. So why do some people still see smartphones as a luxury for the poor?

This isn’t the early adopter, or the average tech buyer who may have the financial flexibility to buy a two or three new devices per year. This is the student buying a smartphone using public assistance that will help her study and work, or the single parent whose iPhone is the sole internet-connected device in the home.

So removing the headphone jack from the iPhone 7 matters to these people far more than you may have thought. Apple’s Phil Schiller talked about how the company was being courageous and it would "do something new that betters all of us." But Apple didn’t consider the people who can’t afford that $40 dongle to restore the ability to charge your iPhone and use wired headphones at the same. Apple claims that very few people charge and listen to music at the same time, but I’d be willing to bet the people who do so are also likely to be the ones with no other computer in their homes.

Apple didn’t consider the people who can’t afford that $40 dongle

But how many people really aren’t able to afford an adapter? According to the Pew report, 48 percent of those smartphone-dependent Americans referenced earlier have canceled or shut off their service for a period of time because it was too expensive, while 30 percent of smartphone-dependent Americans frequently hit the data caps on their mobile plans. Kelly was one of those people. "We got cut off after a few months of not being able to pay our entire bill, and boy, the reactivation fees killed us too," Kelly told 2machines. "But that’s life when your cushion is thin."

There is a major awareness gap between people who have disposable incomes and can drop cash on a set of new accessories whenever an issue arises, and people who use smartphones as their means to stay connected to the outside world. And when those issues are engineered by the world’s richest company for arguably arbitrary reasons, it becomes problematic.

Not being able to charge and listen means quiet drives to work or taking the kids to school. If you need your phone to last all day on a single charge, you will try and keep the battery close to 100 percent until you get to work. (This means not using the Lightning headphones to make calls in states that require hands-free calls while driving either.) The removal of the headphone jack will cause issues for a number of low-income consumers who will purchase the iPhone 7 or another phone without a headphone jack over the next few years. And those issues will persist until Apple delivers a legitimate charging solution that doesn’t cost more than a monthly payment for an iPhone.

The removal of the headphone jack will cause issues for low-income consumers

Sure, some consumers will hold onto their existing iPhones, or upgrade to the iPhone 6 or 6S, but in two years those phones won’t be on sale. And if you want to stay in the iOS ecosystem with an up-to-date phone, there will be no device with a headphone jack, forcing you to spend money to retain features that have become staples in your day-to-day life.

When you don’t have money, you get enjoyment from the little things in life, like listening to podcasts on your commute or playing your kids’ favorite music in the car when you take them to school in the morning. But soon those events will be filled with worries about phones dying before the end of work or missing an important call from the daycare or babysitter, and they will come to an end.

And for those who think people who can’t afford a dongle should switch to Android, that carries a second set of enormous costs: repurchasing years worth of apps, an entirely new set of chargers and accessories, being left out of the more vibrant iOS ecosystem, and more. Not to mention a distancing from family members and friends who use iMessage — the green bubbles of Android carry a socio-economic stereotype. Switching only serves to solve one problem while stoking the fires of another.

During an interview with Fast Company last month, Apple executive Eddy Cue spoke on Apple Maps and noted that the service’s launch issues a few years ago is the reason Apple opened up iOS betas to the public. "For example, the reason you as a customer are going to be able to test iOS is because of Maps," Cue said. "We were never able to take it out to a large number of users to get that feedback. So, to all of us living in Cupertino, Maps seemed pretty darn good. Right? The problems weren’t obvious to us. Now we do a lot more betas."

Once again, the problem wasn’t obvious.


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