15 Aug 2014

The perils of not owning your mobile phone

Got your phone? It’s in your bag, right? Along with all the other things you own. Not quite: in fact, the vast majority of us don’t actually own our phones at all, we rent them.


If you’re on a monthly contract part of your regular payment is the cost of the phone, spread out over two years. Sure, after that time you own the phone, but that’s invariably the time you sign a new two-year contract and start the whole process again.

What about the software? All those lovely free apps that make your photos look vintage and tell you when the bus will arrive? Not to mention the underlying operating system itself, be it Google’s Android, Apple’s iOS and so on? Sorry, they’re rented too: in the case of Android, it’s licensed out to the phone manufacturers who then stick it inside the phone you rent. In the case of the free apps, you pay for them by watching ads and giving over data.

We are gradually turning into a population of digital tenants, increasingly removed from the concept of owning not just the devices, but the very data that makes them so precious to us.

Does it matter? It does once you get an insight into what lack of ownership means. Recently I road-tested a Windows 8 laptop I was considering buying. I used the pre-installed music player, which worked fine for a while, but then refused to play any tracks until it had been updated (turns out that, while I nominally “own” the laptop Microsoft still seeks to exert an unwelcome influence over it). With no internet connection at the time, I couldn’t update the software, and so the music stopped. But the consequences are potentially more serious than just a halted playlist.

Being a digital tenant means being tied to a digital landlord, and as anyone who’s rented a house will know, the power belongs to the property owner.

Bearing in mind how much we now know about the technology companies’ (albeit enforced) cooperation with governments, how comfortable should we be with devices into which those tech companies can delve at any time?

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