Your iPhone Costs Too Much

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When I stare at my phone, I feel pangs of regret. For my wallet.

My phone is fine. But I know I paid more than I needed to for my $800 phone. Most of us probably did.

On the road, far more people buy a Toyota Corolla than one of the company’s luxury Lexus cars. Over in smartphone land, the Lexus has been king.

It’s a failure of the market that most of us have more smartphone than we really need.

This is slowly starting to change. My colleague Brian X. Chen has raved about the iPhone SE, Apple’s new, $399 model, which has the body of a three-year-old smartphone and the brains and guts of the latest editions.

“State-of-the-art smartphone technology has finally come down to a modest price,” Brian wrote Wednesday. “It’s about time.”

But what has been unnatural is the pit of despair for the smartphone of the masses. All of the attention has been on the luxury end.

That has meant that what we pay for smartphones on average has stayed stubbornly high in the United States. Yes, we’re getting more for our money, but for most other consumer products, we’re paying less AND getting improved products.

As long as people were splurging on new models, most companies had little incentive to make great and truly affordable phones. At least until recently. Global smartphone sales are on track to fall for the fourth straight year, and the pandemic-related economic freeze in many countries doesn’t help.

And while smartphones below $600, including an earlier iPhone SE, haven’t been hot sellers, Brian’s enthusiasm shows that great smartphones don’t have to cost $1,500 or even $600. We just need the companies to put as much energy and marketing muscle into the Corolla end of their range as they do in the high end.

So you should feel free to buy the Lexus of smartphones if you want to and can afford it. Just know that you don’t have to.

Several years ago, Susan Wakabayashi moved her family into a newly built home in Middleburg, Va. To her surprise, she and some of her neighbors were in a dead zone without fast internet lines.

What happened next was a maddening five-year saga that shows that even people who can afford to get online can’t always do so because of bureaucratic failures.

Wakabayashi tried every trick in the book so she could work from home and get online for one of her children who was home-schooled.

She said she paid $900 a month at times for subpar mobile internet service. Wakabayashi organized the neighbors to try to persuade internet providers to wire their area for fast internet. She said local government officials told her that exclusive contracts for internet and cellphone providers left them with few alternatives.

Wakabayashi said she even briefly considered hiring a lawyer to sue the county under the Geneva Convention treaties, which create obligations between states at war. (Such a lawsuit would have been impossible, of course, but she was desperate.)

Eventually, Wakabayashi gave up trying to work from home and instead drove three hours round trip to the office.

Wakabayashi later sold the house and moved her family further east to a place with fast internet. She said she misses her old home. Kind of. “All those horses, all those kind people — and lousy internet access,” she said.

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