A few weeks ago, Henry Blodget wrote an article on Yahoo’s Daily Ticker, casting a critical eye on Apple's outsourcing agreements with companies such as Foxconn. It's worth reading, and essentially makes the case that we're enjoying inexpensive consumer electronics at the cost of terrible working conditions for thousands of people.
It was an interesting article, but what really caught my eye was one of the comments, posted by somebody calling themselves "T Bo R": "iphone a low price...??? where have u been????"
Ignoring the punctuation and spelling issues, this raises an interesting question. Are devices like the iPhone "cheap", or are they "expensive"? And given that these are subjective designations, how do we even decide?
One place to start is to figure out who can afford an iPhone. The median income in the US is $49,909. This works out to $959 a week, pre-tax. A top end iPhone costs $399, plus data plan. Spending half a week's salary on a phone is pretty steep. Paying for food, shelter, clothing, taxes, and everything else doesn’t leave much left for discretionary purchases. It’s not completely out of reach for a median income person, but it is a large expenditure. So if you define "cheap" as "easily affordable by the vast majority of the population", then the answer is "no".
However, that's probably too simplistic a definition. If I find a house for sale on a ten acre lot for $50,000 in Connecticut, I will certainly define that as "cheap", even though it’s many times the cost of an iPhone. So to define cheap versus expensive, we need to establish a relative baseline.
What's a useful baseline?
Let's assume the iPhone is one of the top phones you can purchase in the world. Maybe you're an Android fan, but since they fit into a similar price point, it's hard to argue convincingly that they’re not fairly competitive with each other. Unlike the world of, say, automobiles, there's not another level of phone experience that can be procured for ten or a hundred times the price of your basic iPhone. You can certainly buy phones for those price points, but they're pretty much just iPhones decked out with gold or diamonds. Other than displaying the owner’s wealth, they don't offer a different experience for the money.
This hasn't always been the case. Remember car phones? They used to be the exclusive domain of the extremely wealthy. The first car phone, called the ARP (or Autoradiopuhelin, "car radio phone"), was released in Finland in 1971. It was considered a huge success, reaching an install base of 10,000 users within 6 years. Compare that with the iPhone, which has sold 73 million in the first four years of its launch.
I have no idea how much the ARP cost per user, so it's difficult to compare the relative financial success of these two products. But it's abundantly clear that far more people have access to the top tier of telephone technology today than was the case 40 years ago.
OK, so maybe phones are cheap. Is this an isolated case?
How about supercomputers?
It's true that an iPhone or a basic laptop packs more punch than a Cray supercomputer from a few decades ago. But technology always improves, so that’s not a fair comparison. The real question is, based on what we consider to be a “supercomputer” in today’s terms, how accessible are supercomputer technologies to the average consumer?
The answer: Much more than they used to be.
It used to be that supercomputers were a breed apart. When the Cray-2 became the world’s fastest machine in 1985, it was unlike anything you might have at your home or in your office. It used a proprietary operating system not shared by any other computer in the world. It cooled itself using a brand new inert liquid (Fluorinert). Operating and programming a Cray required a unique set of skills. If you didn't work for the Department of Defense or one of a very few huge corporations, you probably never got near one.
By contrast, not too long ago, the Air Force Research Laboratory constructed a powerful supercomputer, not out of advanced components you've never heard of, but by connecting 1760 Playstation 3 gaming consoles. It may not be the absolute fastest in the world, but it's definitely in the top 50.
Imagine going back to 1972 and suggesting the government build a supercomputer by networking thousands of pong consoles.
Of course, the average person doesn't have access to 1760 Playstation consoles. That doesn't mean that supercomputing capability is out of reach. The Seti at Home project showed that in 1999, when it demonstrated the ability to distribute computing projects among millions of personal computers using fairly simple software. Today there are dozens, possibly hundreds, of similar volunteer computing projects underway. Access to supercomputing power no longer requires vast amounts of cash. It simply takes some competent programming skills and a persuasive message.
If your ethics are lacking, you might even dispense with the persuasive bit. Botnets are the latest form of distributed computing infrastructure, collecting the computing resources (coercively) from thousands of PCs. The Conficker worm controlled an estimated seven millions machines at the height of its infection. It’s a single example of many.
The list goes on and on. Near-professional quality movie cameras are now available for amateur movie-makers at an affordable price. Vast databases of knowledge are accessible for free or for modest subscriptions. High speed networking is now installed in over 25% of US households.
So sorry, T Bo R, by any realistic measure, iPhones, and all sorts of other advanced technologies, are available dirt cheap. Maybe this is good, maybe it's bad, but it's the way things are right now. Instead of complaining that you’d like them even cheaper, I suggest you take advantage of what we have, and figure out how to use it to change the world for the better.