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Should Apple discontinue the 16GB iPhone?

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In the wake of the launch of the iPhone 6S/6S Plus, the tech journalism sphere was awash with outrage about the continued existence of the 16GB iPhone. This bottom tier is "insulting," in an era when most Android manufacturers now sell their flagship phones with at least 32GB of built-in storage. If it wasn't intolerable before, they say, then the addition of live photos and 4K recording to these latest devices have rendered a 16GB iPhone with almost no usable space whatsoever. But is this a real point of concern, or some manufactured anger that masks a culture of entitlement? Devindra Hardawar and Dan Cooper try to hash this topic out without flipping any tables in the process.

Dan Cooper

As much as we may all feel differently, Apple does not owe any of us, at all, jack shit.

Take a look at some of these opinion pieces and the anger all seems to be centered on the idea that Apple owes us a 32GB iPhone when it clearly does not. Do you think it's because Apple is one of the richest companies in the world that people feel so entitled to demand that it discount its most profitable products? I don't imagine too many people being taken seriously if they suggested that McDonald's should replace McDoubles with Big Macs and yet still only charge $1 for it.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that technology companies produce devices for less money than they charge to sell them. That's how you create a sustainable business, and it's not as if Apple is different from every other firm in history for acting this way. There's no definitive figure, but it's believed that the cost to produce an iPhone is roughly $200, with the remaining $449 of that $649 off-contract price going to the company. Does that make it a rip-off? Possibly, but nobody's forcing you to buy it. There are figuratively hundreds of companies who will sell you cheaper devices, including Apple itself.

I guess the one stick that you can beat Apple with is that the Galaxy S6, which was released in March, can be had for $130 on a two-year deal with 32GB of built-in storage. I think that's a false line of argument, since disappointing sales of this six-month-old device forced Samsung to slash the price. When it launched, it cost the same as a 16GB iPhone on a two-year deal, but clearly not enough people found it compelling enough to want to fork over that amount of cash. And yet, they're more than happy to for a device that's somehow inferior?

Devindra Hardawar

It's really not about entitlement -- at all. My hatred for the 16GB iPhone stems purely from the fact that it's a shockingly low amount of storage for a premium device in 2015. Today, 32GB is pretty much the default now on other high-end smartphones, and many even offer expandable storage via microSD cards. Sure, 16GB made sense for the first few years of the iPhone, when apps didn't take up much room and iOS wasn't so bloated. But now that the iPhone has 4K video shooting, a 12-megapixel camera and apps are getting even bigger, it seems like a baffling limit.

Apple, of all companies, should be well aware that our smartphones are now our primary computing devices. And putting 16GB in a high-end smartphone today is like making someone buy a premium laptop with a hard drive smaller than 64GB. It was perfectly fine years ago, but it wouldn't fly today. (Notice that the MacBook ships with 256GB of default storage, and the 11-inch MacBook Air has 128GB.)

The biggest reason I'm annoyed by the 16GB iPhone? It makes for a pretty terrible user experience, which feels very un-Apple. Once you've got a bit of music on the phone and your favorite apps, there's not much room to store 4K video (which eats up 375MB a minute, according to Apple), and larger 12MP photos. Even if you've got around 12GB of space to work with, perhaps the most storage you can eke out of a 16GB iPhone when accounting for the size of iOS 9, that only leaves you around 32 minutes of 4K video. That may sound like more than enough for amateur home videos, but the issue is more about what your experience would be like a few months after you unwittingly snap up a 16GB iPhone, when the combination of text messages, offline media and 4K clips leads to constant "storage full" warnings.

I'm no fool; I understand the importance of Apple's profit margins. And it's pretty obvious that by having a size jump between 16GB and 64GB iPhones, Apple can push more discerning buyers toward more expensive models. It costs Apple around $200 to build a 16GB iPhone 6 (which sold for $649 at launch), according to IHS, and it's just another roughly $20 to build a 64GB model. Considering that Apple can charge $100 more for the 64GB iPhone, that's a pretty significant bit of profit. (CNET has a good breakdown of Apple's build pricing.)

So sure, it makes sense for Apple to eke out as much profit as it can by keeping the 16GB iPhone around. But just because it can, doesn't mean it should.

Dan Cooper

iOS occupies about 4GB of your iPhone's storage, leaving most users with about 12GB for apps and media. For plenty of people, that would surely be enough for a couple of playlists, a movie downloaded from iTunes and a week or two's worth of photos. If anything, I'd say that your ire is misplaced, because it's not the storage limit that's the problem; it's how a lot of apps slowly fill our devices with junk cache data. For instance, Twitter and Facebook for iOS 8 are 63MB and 95.9MB when you grab them from the App Store. On my phone, both have bloated to a ridiculous 563MB and 386MB -- a fault we can lay at the feet of the engineers who built those apps. If iOS apps were built with better cache management, then a lot of people's storage-management issues would disappear overnight. The less said about the dreaded "other" section that pops up when you connect your phone to iTunes, the better.

Also, you say that Apple is making it impossible for users to take advantage of the iPhone 6S' new features with just 16GB storage. If you wanted to use that iSight camera to record 4K video, you'd be able to save around 32 minutes of footage in ultra-high resolution. Now, if you're a professional filmmaker, or someone who is expecting to shoot a lot of 4K clips, you won't be doing so on a base-model iPhone. If you're an amateur, then what exactly are you shooting that lasts longer than 32 minutes and is so important that you need to shoot it in 4K?

One thing I will concede is that I think Phil Schiller's point about iCloud being the savior of 16GB iPhones is farcical. I'm always worried when executives talk about imagined solutions to problems that forget the practical needs of real, "ordinary" people. I can't think of many people who regularly spend $120 a year for extra storage and have a data plan that wouldn't penalize you for pushing and pulling stuff from iCloud on a regular basis. Google tells me that Schiller has a net worth of around $60 million, but telling people to "rely on the cloud" isn't going to fly when your 1GB Verizon plan charges you $15 if you go over your cap by even a megabyte.

I have a confession: Until last year, I always bought the base model iPhone and, largely, that unit has come with just 16GB storage. Most weeks, on a Saturday, I would sync my device with my computer, buy third-party cache clearing apps and generally mother my device to make sure I didn't run out of space. If I had been making more money, then I'd have probably plumped for the more expensive device, but I couldn't, so I didn't. A lot of people out there can't afford to make that upgrade, and Apple produces a relatively low-cost device ($199 on contract) that can do what its more expensive siblings can do -- you just have to be a bit judicious as to how you use it. Maybe that's the point, because Apple's lack of educating users as to how to effectively manage the iPhone's storage is why iOS adoption has slowed.

Devindra Hardawar

I feel for you, Dan, I couldn't imagine sticking with a 16GB iPhone over the past few years. I've got my preorder for the 128GB iPhone 6s in, because I'm already getting warnings about my 64GB iPhone 6 getting full. My usage habits probably aren't very common: I like to keep a large library of personal music on my phone, along with a rotating playlist of offline Spotify tracks (both necessary for listening to music on the subway). Mostly, though, I wanted a phone that didn't feel like it had any limitations. It's just a shame to see Apple stick with arbitrary restrictions when it's trying to convince us that new technology like "3D Touch" and 4K video are worth buying a new phone.

Dan Cooper

You've gotta cut your coat according to your cloth, and if you can't afford that extra $100 (or $200) when September rolls around, then that's that. As much as I'd love it if the world's richest company whacked in more storage into the iPhone, it only really benefits people who are euphemistically called "power users." I'd say that as technology journalists we both fall into that category, but I'd wager that plenty of folks -- the same people who still get use out of the 2GB iPod Shuffle or 16GB iPod Nano -- don't sweat the storage.

The other thing I'll say is that I know that we'll see a 32GB base model iPhone at some point, and maybe 2016 is when that will happen. Apple has, traditionally, always waited until it could divine some benefit to a feature before adding it, like holding off on NFC until the 2014 iPhone 6 -- a feature Android had in 2012. As apps become more powerful and space-hungry, the default will have to increase, but that decision will be Apple's, and no amount of pressure will make that change come sooner.

[Image credit: Chris Velazco/Engadget]

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