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Fancy a New Cell Phone? Not So Much

A new report and a lawsuit cast doubt on the supposedly universal love for Apple

Most of us want a better cellphone, but not in the way you might think. We are getting fed up with the ever cleverer ways the big phone brands try to sell dubious upgrades. What we want instead is to be able to say that the best phone is the one we already own.

And yet, Apple has announced the imminent release of the seventh in its line of cellphones. Good timing for them: the corporation’s phone sales diminished 7.7% over the last three quarters, despite armies of i-Thing enthusiasts gushing over everything-Apple in 24/7 ham-radio exchanges of gossip and rumor.

In an industry that can’t figure out how to make a device that lasts—symbolized most recently by Samsung’s recall of fire-prone phones—Apple stands out above all the rest for a particular sort of genius that has nothing to do with making phones: it can manufacture truly sublime moments of mass anticipation in a media-centered world of hyper-consumption.

But even here it might be losing its grip on consumers, as shown in a survey conducted last month across half a dozen major world markets (Russia, Korea, China, Mexico, Germany, and the US).

It turns out that people in these countries own between three and five cellphones. Russians and Mexicans have the most on average, the US and Germany the least. Only a third of people get a new phone simply because a new model is available, another third because they lost their old phone or it no longer functions.

Very few customers have had their phones repaired by the companies that sold them—9% of Germans, for example. Whereas most Koreans and Chinese had their phones repaired by other specialists, just a quarter of US consumers did so.

Recycling also shows considerable variation. Well over half of Koreans reported dispatching their old phones to specialist recyclers, compared to just one in ten Germans.

This was not because users lacked awareness of the ecological damage wrought by Apple and its kind. Very sizeable numbers everywhere insisted that phones should be manufactured without the use of dangerous chemicals.

But the most telling result found that half of those surveyed—and three quarters of Mexicans—believed that too many new models are released, while sizeable numbers would be content to continue with their existing phones if repair were made easier.

With vast majorities in all countries wanting cell phones designed to last, with convenient options for repair, it’s clear that a new consumer consensus opposed to built-in obsolescence and toxic materials is emerging. Maybe it’s time for the tired shibboleths and clichés of consumer culture to get their own upgrade. We don’t need the throwaway values of a fast fashion industry any more than we need the constant haranguing of commercial advertising telling us to shop ‘til we drop.

It’s time Apple caught up with its customers and stopped trying to deal with a saturated market through the sleight of hand of sustained “innovation.” It’s time the firm made it easy for owners to recycle used models as a routine company service, and draw on recovered materials as bases for model renewal.

Consumers aren’t the only ones fed up with these corporate shenanigans. Apple has finally been caught out by the European Union for taking what amounts to a huge giveaway by a small, not especially wealthy country in Ireland that is so desperate to attract the godhead of foreign investment that it foregoes adequate tax revenue.

This financial scheme was set up to avoid paying the taxes in countries outside the US where the company sells its vaunted phones. Ireland hosts the offices of Apple Sales International and taxes its profits at one of the lowest interest rates in Europe. The problem for the EU is that most of Apple’s taxable profits are not reported by the Irish branch but rather moved into a stateless, nowhere (untaxed) entity called the “head office,” an arrangement supported by the Irish government. The result is that Apple’s effective tax rate on profits is a fraction of one percent per year. This is why the EU characterizes Ireland’s deal as an illegal state subsidy that distorts competition within the EU.  

Needless to say, the company is balking at the EU’s requirement to pay the Irish government billions of dollars. The Irish government is supporting Apple in this battle, as is the US Treasury and a bipartisan sampling of the US congress. This is high stakes groveling that illustrates the out-sized power that Apple has to influence politics and policy. They will probably go on owning the future despite the EU’s efforts to make the playing field fair for its competitors.

In a future not owned by the likes of Apple, we not only want better phones but better behavior from firms making the phones. Our list is long, but let’s start by requiring them to reinvest their profits in lasting improvements, not just in the technology but also in the environment and the lives of workers making the phones.

Apple now has enough money to subsidize the meager wages of workers up and down its supply chain; to pay for worker education to help develop careers beyond factory and shop floor; and to invest in green research and development. Hell, they even have enough money to pay their back taxes to the US people on profits hidden overseas.

In the meantime, we’ll wait to see if the great half-bitten fruit in the sky deigns to pay its bill to no-doubt bewildered Irish citizens. They’ve had a rougher time of it since the global financial crisis than the company and its pampered shareholders could ever imagine.

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