Essays on Technology and Culture

On Well-Worn iPhones and Upgrade Cycles

I find myself casting a curious glance at the people on my Twitter timeline trying to decide which color of iPhone 7 to get. Should they get the new Matte Black iPhone, or the shiny new Jet Black iPhone? The Jet Black iPhone is a new color, it’s shiny, and it’s gorgeous, but it’s also a fingerprint magnet and Apple even admits it might get scratched up during regular use. However, it is allegedly better feeling in the hand—less slippery. Matte Black is nice too, and doesn’t get scratched up. And does any of this matter if you’re going to be stuffing the darn thing into a case for its lifespan?

The conundrum is a fascinating one, since it says a lot about our relationship to our devices. A few years back I read a great essay on how our devices age with use. The photos of the well-worn, well used original iPhone are gorgeous, both as photography, and subject matter. There’s something about the way the finish has worn away and scratched on that first iPhone that just makes it feel good to me. It’s like a comfortable, old t-shirt.

Later iPhone models with their different cases and finishes don’t age like that. The closest we’ve come is probably the Space Black iPhone 5. The anodization would chip off on the chamfered edges, giving it a rough-and-tumble look after a while. I appreciated the look while I had mine. John Gruber agrees, saying “it added character — call it a Millennium Falcon look.” It’s possible the new Jet Black iPhone will age well too, with the scratches dings, and fingerprints that mark a well-loved device.

But there’s still a contingent of people, a vocal one, who want their devices to look as good as they did when they opened the box on the day they’re replaced. Why is this? Some people are just paranoid about aesthetics, and wear and tear, but there’s more to it. It’s about the relationship we have with our devices. Smartphones are probably the most personal device any of us own. They are on us all the time, even if we’re not actively using them, we feel their weight in our pocket or purse. They are omnipresent.

They are also transient. Used to be if you bought a computer, or some other consumer electronic device, you would keep it for a long time, and maybe upgrade parts of it. My first personal computer, a 486 with 4MB of RAM lasted me from Christmas 1993 to Christmas 1997, when I finally replaced to a Pentium II machine. In the intervening years, I replaced the hard drive, added a CD-ROM and sound card, and upgraded the RAM. Since switching to the Mac in 2005, I’ve had four Mac computers. Since buying my first iPhone in 2009, I’ve had five iPhones. [1]

The smartphone is an annual, or bi-annual upgrade for many people, and this changes the relationship to it. Many of us fund each new device we get by selling the old one. Devices that look new sell for more, end of story. It’s less of a concern if your phone carrier offers a trade-in program for your old phone. Carriers are less concerned about condition, and more that you extend your contact another year. Still, no matter how aesthetically pleasing it is, nobody wants to hand over a device that looks like it’s taken a beating. God knows what that phone store clerk will think of us. So we keep our phones in cases, baby them, and clean them not because we want to protect them for ourselves, but to protect them for the next owner.

By necessity then, the relationship you have is not with an iPhone, but with the iPhone in each of its iterations. I don’t know if I like my iPhone 6S better than my iPhone 5S. I probably like it about the same, all told. The things I like and dislike are different that what I liked about the previous model, and I can extend this all the way back to my first iPhone 3GS—or to the iPod touch I owned before that. All of these devices exist on a continuum marked by upgrades of hardware and software, but the core experience remains the same. This is one of Apple’s strengths. You can go from an original iPhone to the shiny new iPhone 7, skipping everything in between, and still understand the device.

Patrick Rhone recently published his own, interesting thoughts on upgrades. They serve as a solid counterpoint to the transient relationship we have with our phones, and why we upgrade. Patrick’s relationship to his iPhone is as a tool: if it works well enough, and the new one doesn’t have anything that fits his needs, why upgrade? It’s not worth the cost when what he has works well enough. I won’t be upgrading either, for similar reasons—though I also won’t say I’m not tempted. (That Jet Black iPhone is gorgeous, and I wouldn’t mind water resistance having already lost one phone to water damage.)

It’s a question of priority, in the end. I don’t have an answer, I just find the entire conundrum of upgrading and protecting our devices from use to be interesting. I keep my iPhone in a case, not to protect the looks, but because I managed to break my previous model of iPhone a few times without one. I’d rather not go through the hassle of an insurance replacement or a Genius Bar repair if I can help it. My relationship to my phone is different from Patrick’s, different from John Gruber’s, and different from yours. Let’s celebrate that, instead of worrying about a scratch or two on the glossy finish of your new Jet Black iPhone if you got one.

  1. Though one device upgrade was prompted by having my phone stolen, and that doesn’t count the three 5S devices I went through because of water damage and broken screens.  ↩