A few years ago, I was going down a YouTube rabbit hole. We’ve all done this before, you watch a few videos and then start getting drawn into the recommendations. Well, this particular rabbit hole led to me learning about minimalism as a lifestyle and why it makes so much sense to live certain aspects of life this way. This push to minimalism even extends to my phone, where I like to avoid clutter on my phone and often delete apps that I haven’t used in a few months.
I don’t think that I am the only person that has taken to this sort of philosophy with my smartphone, as Apple and other companies seem to have started to emphasize the more minimal nature of their software and hardware as a selling point. But at what point does minimalism become detrimental to the overall experience? At what point does taking things that are deemed no longer necessary by the manufacturer illogical for the end-user? Perhaps this line is the seemingly inevitable rise of the portless phone.
Piece by Piece
In the early days of smartphones, there were a lot more openings and machinations to the phone that gave the user some sense of control. Batteries were removable, the audio was handled through the 3.5mm headphone port, some phones had IR blasters, and almost every phone had a slot for storage expansion. As time has gone on, these hardware additions have slowly disappeared for a variety of reasons. Let’s go through each and see why they have gone away.
The most obvious is the removable battery. In the beginning, a removable battery was great for longevity in the sense of long term ownership and in having a phone last extended periods by having backup batteries. But the trend became to have sealed batteries that were not easily accessible. The reason? Manufacturers have said that keeping the battery unexposed is better for the overall long-term health of the battery of a phone. That constantly removing it degraded it over time, making it less viable at a more rapid pace. Another factor to consider is smartphone design. Over the years there has been an obsession with making form factors thinner and sleeker. This cannot be properly accomplished with a removable battery. So as a result, the move to something less bulky won out.
The next thing to go was the IR blaster and other video-related hardware such as HDMI ports. These allowed for controlling media on larger screens or connecting to them. As time passed, another solution was created: casting via WiFi networks. This change was one that seemed to be in the direction of pushing people to ecosystems in the smart home. To utilize smart TVs and smart set-top boxes. In the process, the removal sealed another port and further emphasized the minimal design aesthetic that modern smartphones have become known for.
The last two things to go are still hanging on, but barely. Those are memory card storage expansion and the 3.5 mm headphone port. These have been two staples of smartphones for years but have been ushered out by the idea that cloud storage and Bluetooth audio are superior solutions. While it can be argued that they are more convenient (no wire to plugin and files available on any device with an internet connection), the quality received is debatable. While Bluetooth audio quality has improved over the years, there are still latency issues versus a wired connection. And while the cloud adds a layer of convenience for transferring files, there is still the need for an internet connection. What the omission of these two features has also done is create the need for subscriptions and expensive accessories. But again, all has been done in the pursuit of elegance. One less port and one less moving part to create the aesthetic of the minimal beauty of the modern slab smartphone. The closing of the headphone port and the removal of the SD card slot contribute to this. Now, it seems that all that remains is the charging port. And even that might be on the way out.
The MagSafe Revolution
This year when Apple announced the iPhone 12 series, it also announced a new way to charge and accessorize the iPhone: MagSafe. MagSafe is a magnetic technology that allows various accessories to snap to the back of the iPhone to be utilized without plugging anything into the physical phone. MagSafe allows for magnetic wallet accessories and wireless chargers as of now. Wireless charging with MagSafe makes sense as you can lift the iPhone and still use it while it is connected to the charger. This previously was not possible with wireless charging pads as the phone simply rests on it without any secure connection. And while this has potentially changed the way we charge iPhones, it has also been said to be the next step towards a portless iPhone.
As of right now, iPhones have two ports: the lightning connector for charging and the SIM card tray for cellular connectivity. A couple of years ago, Apple started moving towards removing the SIM tray by implementing eSIM technology on the iPhone XS series for carriers that supported the technology. Other companies like Google have also implemented this technology for a couple of years with its Pixel phones. So this becoming the norm seems more and more likely and a proper replacement for the SIM card which can easily be damaged and degraded over time.
This leaves the charging port as the final piece to the portless iPhone puzzle. MagSafe is the potential replacement for this as it supports faster charging than traditional wireless charging on iPhones. MagSafe also solves the issue of using an iPhone while the phone is being charged. In some respects, MagSafe offers a better experience for the user. Faster charging than standard wireless charging, but not quite at the speed of a fast wireless charger, and the ease of snapping it on to charge as opposed to fumbling for a cable are wins for consumers. Where this fails however is in regards to the long-term maintenance of an iPhone. Diagnostics at an Apple Store would be nearly impossible without a proper port unless the company develops a MagSafe connector that can read the internals of an iPhone. This also a problem when needing to do backups with a Mac or PC. It seems that these growing pains are a calculated risk for Apple and companies like Xiaomi that are testing this type of smartphone solution, but it also seems that there are other factors at play.
All About The Add-Ons
Years ago, I worked in wireless sales for a variety of carriers. When I first started, I was shocked to learn that carriers do not care what phone you buy, since most are sold to them without much of a margin for profit. What actually makes money for sales associates in wireless carrier stores are plan add-ons and accessories. This is whenever someone buys a new phone, they are inundated with sales pitches for cases, screen protectors, car chargers, etc. There is a huge markup on these accessories, and this is where the profits for stores and sales representatives come in. For example, a name brand case from Otterbox or LifeProof will often retail for between $60–100. In most situations, these cases will be purchased by the retailer for about $18 or so, which equates to a 300+% markup.
Many phone makers manufacture their own accessories and make a tremendous profit when they are sold. It is hard to imagine that a $20 lightning cable that probably costs Apple $2 to produce. And by moving to a portless design Apple and others are hinging profitability on an accessory ecosystem that would become mandatory if phones have no ports, all for the sake of design and revenue. The removal of the memory card slot has created a market for cloud storage subscriptions. The removal of the headphone jack has created a whole new audio category: truly wireless earbuds. The charging port being removed will necessitate the purchase of a variety of wireless charging solutions. And the removal of the user-replaceable battery creates the long-term need for a portable battery back and battery charging phone cases.
All of these accessories can be attributed to this vision of a phone that is fully unibody. No openings, just a smooth metal rail all the way around. A pleasing design aesthetic that will only increase the cost of ownership. The justification by manufacturers of this is that reducing the chance for human error only makes the quality of life of a product better. Fewer ports mean better water resistance, and also means that inserting something the wrong way and damaging the internals would no longer happen. The flip side to this is that phones would become infinitely more costly to repair, as the construction would almost assuredly become proprietary requiring any repair to be done with an Apple authorized repair center.
Many people criticize smartphone manufacturers and electronics makers in general for implementing planned obsolescence with their products. That software isn’t updated past a couple of years, and even when they are updated they purposely slow down phones. This is a conversation that people have been having for years as smartphone ownership has progressed. While this is a notion that companies refuse to acknowledge, it seems that hardware has entered the realm of planned obsolescence, and it speaks to a disconnect between the wants and needs of end-users and the ambitions of phone manufacturers.
Out of Touch
At a certain point, the tinkering with designs and what is acceptable from a phone’s design comes into conflict with usability. For years, phone manufacturers have been pushing the limits of ergonomics and function in a chase to be a design innovator. For years this meant bigger screens. We saw this with the proliferation of the first Galaxy Note. The success of that device prompted phone manufacturers to keep making phone screens larger. Once this reached a point of ridiculousness with a phone like the Motorola Nexus 6, there was a new frontier. That was one of the camera modules, and in recent years they have done nothing but get larger and disrupting the symmetry and weight distribution of smartphones. We see evidence of this on Samsung’s Ultra line of Galaxy smartphones. And the last race of iterative innovation has been the war on bezels. For years now, starting with the LG G6, there has been a race to make bezels slimmer for a more futuristic all-screen aesthetic in phones. All of these moves have gone against ergonomics for the sake of perceived innovation.
The phone with no bezels and a massive display, in the end, is somewhat cumbersome for smartphone owners in terms of day to day usability. Taking away all of the ports on a phone only further continues taking functionality away from the end-user. By making charging, listening to music, and hardwire connectivity more cumbersome for the sake of futuristic minimalism, there is a feeling of reinventing the wheel for no reason. It also sends a message that the future is pretty but not practical, and in my estimation, most people do not actually want that future. Consider how well the 2nd generation iPhone SE has sold with a design that many have called dated by measures of screen size and screen to body ratio. There is something to be said of a reliable and functional design over a futuristic one that introduces some compromises.
The reality is, however, that the portless phone is most definitely a part of the future of smartphones. The industry and manufacturers have all decided that this is what the next evolution of the phone will be. That everything must be wireless, whether we as a general buying population like it or not. Apple’s next iPhone will probably ditch the lightning port, and if it is not the iPhone 13 then perhaps the iPhone 14 will. This will lead more Android manufacturers to take the lead and usher in a forced wireless standards war that no one is prepared for. While all innovations require the uphill climb of adaptation, losing the option for a different way or a different solution is less than desirable. Manufacturers have determined that this is the future, and we must now accept it whether we like it or not.
Also, if you want to have my articles sent to you as soon as they are available please consider subscribing to my email newsletter The Ozone Letter. All of my articles are available on there and can be sent directly to your email inbox, check it out below: