Portable Telephonic Gimcrack: why I gave away my iPhone

The following is a guest post from my excellent friend, Mark Wentworth.

With my Escapological love of transience, I spend much of my spare time roaming city streets by foot and country lanes by velocipede. As such, I have toyed with the idea of acquiring mobile Internet access for over a decade. When Apple Inc. released an intensely desirable portable telephonic gimcrack in the form of the iPhone, it seemed like exactly the sort of gadget I had in mind.

I didn’t rush out to buy one of those sleek black confections immediately. Instead, I exercised Escaplogical restraint and, besides, it is wise to allow technology to mature before investing in it. This February I finally took the plunge and splashed out a not inconsiderable £350 on an O2 Pay-As-You-Go 8GB iPhone 3G.

By the Beard of Zeus, I should be careful what I wish for.

Just buying the confounded thing was a frustrating experience. First I endured a bout of acute choice anxiety as I examined the relative merits of the 8GB 3G, the 16GB 3GS and the 32GB 3GS (inevitably there is now an iPhone 4). Do I need a compass on a phone? Am I comfortable walking around with a package of electronics worth more than an entire Peruvian village? Do I need the video recording feature or can I abstain from happy-slapping homeless alcoholics outside McDonald’s? After much agonizing I girded my loins and joined the queue at the Carphone Warehouse in Wimbledon.

It was a long queue. I passed the time by reading White Man’s Burden by William Easterly. Half an hour later, a sales assistant granted me an audience. She attempted to sell me an 8GB 3G iPhone but the Carphone Warehouse computer system promptly threw a wobbly, thereby blocking all Carphone Warehouse sales throughout the nation. I left feeling frustrated and succeeded in buying the thing the next day.

This proved to be something of a Pyrrhic victory. In order to retain my old and desirable O2 tariff I was required to spend some hours on the phone to various call centre drones, their crushed spirits dragging my own into sympathetic despair. After some days I took delivery of a new SIM card. In total, it was over a week before I could start using the thing—so much for the culture of instant gratification. Thank you, O2, for graciously bestowing upon me the privilege of purchasing an iPhone.

Aesthetically beautiful though the iPhone is, I noticed some physical deficiencies. It is a little large to fit in the pocket of my black leather trousers. The shell is made of fragile plastic and therefore needs to be made even larger by a protective case. At least I was able to find one made of black leather. I also needed to buy a screen protector. Unfortunately, black leather proved to be an unsuitable material for this purpose.

Various technical deficiencies revealed themselves. For example, the iPhone does not support Flash. Mr. Steve Jobs has written a convincing harangue describing the reasoning behind this deficiency. Sadly this screed does not enable me to watch Peep Show on 4oD. Furthermore, iTunes treats the user like a fool: I wrote some software to resize my carefully-ordered collection of 5,000 digital photographs so that they would only take up 0.3GB on my iPhone. iTunes promptly resized my resizing and made the photographs take up ten times as much space as I had intended. My dissatisfaction only increased when I went to the theatre one evening and found myself unable to turn the gimcrack off. I found this out the hard way because I set it to silent and my wife then tried to call me half a dozen times and so I sat with a buzzing sound emanating from my jacket. I thought there was no way to stop this until I found that the setting I needed was called ‘Airplane mode’, the implication being that the only time an iPhone owner wants to be out of touch is when aviation legislation forces the matter. (To be fair, I have since found out how to turn the thing off properly.)

A well-known iPhone gripe is that the battery is sealed into the unit so cannot be replaced by the user. Furthermore, the battery runs down within a day or two unless the user turns off 3G, which somewhat defeats the object of buying the device in the first place.

To cap it all, about six weeks after buying the thing, I determined that the somewhat important WiFi feature was broken. I had to wait two weeks for a replacement unit and lost my screen protector in the process. Like a faltering romance, I didn’t miss the iPhone at all while it was away; indeed, it was a relief to go back to my basic phone of 2001 vintage.

Now, technical deficiencies are inevitable in any device of significant complexity and retail woes are no surprise despite retail being as important to the modern Western World as the Catholic Church was to Mediaeval Europe. My primary objection to the iPhone is not that it performs its function badly. Quite the reverse; my primary objection to the iPhone is that it does what it’s made to do so exceedingly well. I’ll give it to you straight, like a pear cider that’s made from one hundred percent pears: the iPhone is more addictive than crack cocaine.

Should the slightest curious thought cross my mind, I’d whip out the iPhone and consult Wikipedia. Should a fact need checking in conversation, out come the iPhones, several minutes of communal fiddling ensues and the matter is resolved beyond question. Any pipedream is immediately cut short by a compulsion to look up practicalities on the small glowing rectangle. While on a bus I might remember that I need to email Fred and will immediately email Fred. If I’m not sure whether my connecting train is on time I can look it up with an iPhone ‘App’. Is there an App for this? Probably. An App for that? There are almost certainly several of varying prices and quality. I can compare my Apps with those of my friends and this will make me want to buy even more Apps; how cunning to charge people hundreds of pounds for a device that enables them to hand you even more money. If I needed to navigate somewhere then the mapping function would help me. Heaven forbid I should look about me or ask a passer-by. All this is performed with a user interface of compelling slickness and usability.

The effect of the iPhone is to stifle contemplation and initiative in favour of immediate factual gratification. Presented as they are on a 320×480 pixel screen, the facts are bereft of context or understanding. Apple cannot be taken to task for this; like a fast-food chain, they are simply giving consumers what they want and doing so well. Responsibility for sensible use of the iPhone lies with the user and, for me, sensible use is not using it at all. I’ve given the blasted thing away and have reverted to my simple old monochrome phone. Now, if only I can wean myself off that.


Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at wringham.co.uk

4 Responses to “Portable Telephonic Gimcrack: why I gave away my iPhone”

  1. Glenn Dixon says:

    I must take exception to one thing you mentioned. The size of the screen has nothing to do with context or understanding. Specifically, most information on the iPhone is on standard web pages, which you use multitouch gestures to zoom in on. And Wikipedia is an ever-expanding encyclopedia with massive cross-linked context.

    Easy access to information does not equate to stifled contemplation, unless you consider walking around while being fixated on some annoying piece of trivia to be contemplation. To be sure, technology poses problems. But I don’t think that the only solution is to retreat to a monastery, or a Luddite lifestyle

  2. ermine says:

    This is spot on. You can’t go for a beer with people without somebody succumbing to the temptation to fiddle with their iPhone.

    Not everything that can be done, should be. You made the call well – welcome back to the real world 🙂

  3. Joe says:

    Thank you for writing this. A friend who is leaving the country has just offered to give me her old iPhone so we can stay in touch more easily. I haven’t had a smartphone for a couple of years now and this article reminded me exactly why that is. I will be politely declining the offer and my friend will just have to wake up her carrier pigeons.

  4. Cool Joe. Always nice to get a comment on an older post. Tells us they’re still valid.

    I’ve never had a smart phone and for a long time now haven’t even had a non-smart phone. It’s not bad at all. Doesn’t feel as if I’m missing out on anything. I hope your phone-free journey is similarly liberating.

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