With Tuesday’s announcement of the iPhone X, which comes with an edge-to-edge OLED display and starts at a staggering $999, it’s worth reflecting on how such a once-luxury device could transition to mass-market status and then flow back toward its premium perch. When details about the phone, nearly all of which leaked ahead of the time, began surfacing months back, its eye-popping price was immediately the subject of controversy. Was Apple doing the industry a favor by giving its flagship product a nearly four-digit price tag, or was it crossing a line?
The debate hasn’t changed much now that we know the device’s name, what it looks like, and exactly how much it will cost: up to $1,150 for a 256GB model. We’re all wondering who among us is willing to pay that much for an iPhone, how well it will sell, and what it means for the future of the smartphone business.
Apple wants us to fundamentally rethink the role of smartphones in our lives
But the more pertinent point the iPhone X makes is that Apple, which transformed the smartphone industry 10 years ago, now wants consumers to fundamentally rethink the role these devices play in our lives — and how much value we put on that. Going further, the most likely scenario is that Apple won’t have to work all that hard to do so. The phone might be one of the more sought-after products of the holiday season when it ships in November. It might even remain sold out well into 2018.
It was not so long ago that consumers balked at a smartphone's cost when it was laid bare, minus the cell carriers’ two-year contracts and murky pricing schemes. “Wait, $750 for a cellphone?” was a common expression of disgust just a few years ago. And yet, we kept buying the phones — more every year. In 2015, at the peak of its smartphone business, Apple sold 231.5 million iPhones. But sales have declined since, likely prompting the machinations that would result in the iPhone X today.
The huge number of smartphones Apple sells each year, and the far higher number that Android manufacturers sell globally, illustrates how the dominant computing platform of today is the one in our pockets. It’s inevitable that the product we now use more than any other consumer electronics device would inevitably creep in price toward the device it’s gradually replacing: the PC. Just as premium PCs and laptops hover in the $1,000 to $2,500 range, now smartphones do, too. Phones are now firmly cemented as the centerpiece of our digital lives. Why would they not command a price tag to match, and why would consumers not line up to pay it?
In fact, there are probably few price tags consumers wouldn’t eventually come to terms with in exchange for a device that we sleep next to, check constantly, and rarely let out of our sight. Today, $1,000 for a phone may feel like an inconceivable purchase, but the smartphone of next year, and the year after that, may cost as much or more. That device will be better, and people will likely buy it because it will be even more deeply intertwined into our daily lives.
You could make the argument that Apple, in pricing the iPhone X out of reach for many consumers, might be undermining the cheaper iPhone 8, or further entrenching its reputation as a brand for the well-off and status-obsessed. You could also recall the original iPhone’s $499 price tag and ask why, as the cost of almost every other consumer electronics device has shrunk over the past 10 years, the latest edition of the iPhone is twice as expensive.
The smartphone has radically outgrown its classification
But these arguments miss the point. The smartphone of today has radically outgrown its classification — it is hardly used as a phone anymore. In its place is a device so much more sophisticated than the ones of even five years ago that it feels unfair to even group them together.
The smartphones of today are capable of virtual and augmented reality, DSLR-like photography and 4K video, Xbox 360- and PS3-grade gaming, and data speeds that would have boggled your mind in 2007. When Steve Jobs said the original iPhone was designed to combine a phone and a MP3 player with a “breakthrough internet communication device,” he himself likely underestimated the sheer impact of that third use — even if he, much more than his contemporaries, saw the potential of putting it together in one package. That we still feel like a smartphone should cost no more than a game console or seasonal lift ticket feels naive.
This isn’t meant to act as a defense of Apple, the most valuable company in the world, as it seeks to keep consumers addicted to the thrill of high-priced, tech-addled consumerism. But the iPhone X signals that we’ve arrived at the moment when the most sophisticated smartphone looks, acts, and is priced to fit the role it’s been playing in our lives for quite some time. You may not need the bezel-less OLED display, facial recognition tech, or dual-12 megapixel camera over what you have now. You certainly don’t need augmented reality or personalized emoji animations to live a full life.
But Apple understands that the future of technology — which is to say, its business — remains squarely centered on the smartphone. If you’re someone who’s thrilled by that future, who relishes a life lived closer to the cutting edge, then you’ll pay $1,000 for a phone. And you’ll probably keep spending as much, if not more, long after we’ve stopped calling these devices by that name and have stumbled onto a new, more fitting moniker for the computers of the 21st century.