Tech by VICE

What You Should Do With Your Phone This Year

Should we all give up and chuck our phones into the river? I asked Jason Koebler about what 2016 holds for phones.

by Brian Anderson
Jan 6 2016, 3:00pm

Jason repairing an iPhone. Photo: MOTHERBOARD

This year, rather than writing our own predictions, we decided to have Motherboard interview each other.

Jason Koebler is opening his electronics. And he wants you to open yours up, too.

That's something I really admire about Jason, a staff writer here at Motherboard. Sitting in an office and staring at a laptop screen is a big part of his (our) day, but Jason makes a point of actively getting his hands right in the shit. He exudes this restless curiosity in just about everything he does. (Remember how he'll open anything you send him in the mail, including a box of thousands of live ants?)

Most recently, he's trained his eyes and grubby paws on cell phones. While Jason has previously set up a science experiment here at the VICE offices to test how gross our phones were, I thought I'd needle him a bit about what 2016 holds for mobile phones. They're something we're all too familiar with but the notion of having one, of using one, is undergoing seismic shifts around the right to repair and owning versus leasing a phone.

What is the average human supposed to do, here? Should we all give up and chuck our phones into the river?

Brian Anderson: It seems like every other time I look up at you in the office here, you're working on your phone. You've got a little screwdriver or something and you're just going to town. Is this a new thing?
Jason Koebler: I'm kind of obsessed with trying to fix things these days. Mostly phones, because that's what people tend to break. Anyways, you are right. I got super into the repair movement last year. It feels weird to say that there's such a thing as the repair movement, because inherently humans have always fixed things if they were broken. But I guess everything has become so disposable and maybe so complex these days that the idea of fixing your electronics if they break is kind of a foreign one? I'm not sure. Anyways, I think the biggest threat to this movement is the new way we acquire our cell phones.

How are we acquiring our phones these days? And why would anyone lease a mobile phone this year and beyond?
2015 was the year subsidized cell phone plans really went away. A couple companies had done away with them already, but all the big guys (AT&T, Verizon) finally made it less terrible from a friction standpoint or whatever you want to call it to lease or finance your phone rather than buy it outright. The deals are essentially pay $700 up front for a new iPhone or Galaxy, or pay roughly $800 for it over the course of two years. Unless you've got a spare grand every time you want a new phone, leasing is now the only way you can afford to keep up with whatever is newest.

So then why would anyone own a cell phone anymore?
It sounds dumb and maybe kind of reductive, but if you own your phone, you own your phone. You can open it if you want, you can sell it if you want, you can paint it purple or break the screen because you think it looks cool. It's not exactly like owning versus renting a house, but I think some of that feeling is still there. If you rent your apartment, you don't do much to it because it's someone else's problem and you don't want to burn money.

What are the terms of the typical lease?
Most of them, you basically pay the phone off over the course of two years. A lot of companies will let you lease the phone rather than buy it, which means you have to give the phone back at the end of it. Other ones are strict financing plans. Right now, you usually don't have to pay much of a premium (if any), but I can see that changing.

The really concerning one, in my mind, is Apple's new iPhone upgrade program. It turns the iPhone into something of a subscription program. You pay a little over $30 a month (up to $45 a month for the 128 GB iPhone 6S Plus) and get the new iPhone every year. Of course, you have to turn your old iPhone in again, meaning there's incentive to stay an Apple customer for life.

Photo: MOTHERBOARD

Who is the sort of person who would be leasing a phone this year? Is there a particular demo that should be leasing phones? Why?
This is a thing I'm not proud of, and I really don't like it, but I am on the Apple upgrade program. I did it because I was sick of my old phone and wanted to try out iPhone for the first time. I didn't have $700 to spend up front, and so I decided to do the financing thing. But I can't help but think that I don't own my phone. If I crack it, I am cracking someone else's phone. If I lose it, I am losing someone else's phone. It includes AppleCare, meaning I can break it twice "accidentally" (There's still a $99 fee), but if I lose it, I'm on the hook for $36 a month, plus I have to pay for whatever I end up replacing it with.

Anyway, I'm not saying you definitely shouldn't lease your phone—I'm doing it, and it's been more or less fine so far. If you really really like iPhones or want a frictionless experience, leasing or financing your phone will probably be fine. I'm saying nothing about it feels good. I feel like I've lost a great deal of flexibility and ownership. When I did switch to iPhone, I went and sold my old phone and I actually got money for it, because it was mine, not some giant corporation's.

What are the costs? Who wins here, and who loses.
Apple and the carriers win. Of course they do. A used iPhone 6 can fetch $500 or so on eBay, and that's coming from some random guy. Under this plan, I'm going to pay Apple $430 over the course of a year, give the phone back to them, and then they're going to do some cosmetic refurbishing and resell it for a lot of money. Verizon and AT&T and every other carrier is doing the same thing with their variations of the program. It's kind of a racket.

Do you own or lease your phone, and will you change that this year? Why? Do you see yourself as "always on the phone"? How does that make you feel?
I am always on my phone and that's why I couldn't deal with my old one any longer. I wish I didn't have to use it so much (in fact, I wrote about not using my phone for three weeks last summer), but the camera on the old one was bad, it was slow, it crashed a lot. I use it for work constantly and want it to be something I don't think about. I am very happy with the new phone, for what it's worth.

Would you ever consider chucking your phone into the river?
This is really the first question you should have asked. The only good phone is one that's buried under a few dozen feet of water, and of course I think about chucking it in the ol' river more than is probably normal. So yeah, do that with your phone this year.