Apple plays to the middle market with colourful iPhones

A play-safe appeal to Apple fans with a traditional, higher-specification upgrade.

Seasoned Apple watchers will have successfully predicted nearly all the hardware in the two new iPhones that have just been unveiled by CEO Tim Cook in a hotly anticipated presentation. But while one model conforms to the tried-and-tested tech upgrade trajectory we have seen in recent years, the other is a bit more of a mould-breaker – not least because it’s made largely out of plastic.

Sticking to the familiar two-year lifecycle in iPhone designs, Apple has upgraded the iPhone 5 to the 5S. This comes with a few hardware tweaks – most notably a significantly increased performance thanks to the newly developed A7 processor which is as powerful as that found in a desktop computer. It has tapped into the burgeoning market for health and fitness add-ons by including a distinct M7 chip, designed to efficiently (continuously) measure motion data. Until now, this had been a big drain on battery life.

The tradition of Apple bringing what were once expensive professional level features to the consumer market continues. Following on from face and voice recognition in iPhoto and Siri, we now have the introduction of a fingerprint reader on the phone. This combines high security with ease by allowing the phone to be unlocked with a single touch from the right person’s finger. Whether this is just a fad will be for the market to decide.

Security is at the forefront of many minds these days when it comes to technology purchases. Apple made no promises about stopping government security agencies from reading all your tweets and emails, but it has promised that fingerprints will not be stored on its databases, which should allay concerns about the NSA getting its hands on even more personal information about you.

The 5S also has a better camera lens, and flash and camera software are combined to offer better pictures, slo-mo video and better low light pictures. For a touch of glamour, you can get your 5S in gold as well as the traditional white and black.

But the foray into colour doesn’t end there. The iPhone 5C, announced alongside the 5S can be yours in green, yellow, blue, white or pink, if you’re willing to overlook the slightly odd Connect Four-style cutouts on the back of the case.

The iPhone 5C is significantly different. Some of the prestige hardware has been replaced with polycarbonate to cut costs so Apple can sell a 16GB version for $99 (although you’ll be locked into a two-year contract). Apple’s previous strategy entailed selling last year’s model at a cheaper price in order to maintain demand for the newer product. Whether there is a big enough differentiation between the 5C and the high-end product is difficult to predict, but the price tag suggests that they will sell.

Observers like to carry out “teardowns” of technology products to work out profit margins based on the cost of a device’s component parts. Teardowns of last year’s cheaper iPad mini seem to suggest that although profit margins may have been down on earlier models, Apple maintained its 50-58% margin on each device. It would be no surprise to discover that Apple has found a way to apply these manufacturing techniques in this cheaper iPhone while maintaining the same build quality and margins.

The 5C seems to be directly targeted at the midrange sector and emerging markets, which are currently dominated by Android phones. In a nod to the importance of emerging markets, Apple will release the new phones in China on 20 September, at the same time as launching them in the US and the UK, meaning Chinese Apple fans won’t have to wait any longer. That said, phones that have succeeded in the Chinese market before now typically have a wider screen size than Apple is offering.

Are the new features of the iPhone 5S enough to make it worth upgrading? If you currently have an iPhone 5 then probably not, although you could sell on your old device to offset the cost of switching. Many consumers will be coming out of an 18-24 month contract soon and may be sitting on iPhone 4 or 4S models – the longer screen, better battery life and camera may be enough of an inducement to switch to the new versions.

Alternatively, owners of iPhone 4 4S and 5 models have been promised an operating system upgrade at the end of this month, which will be like getting a new phone. This will be the first software that Johnny Ive has had a hand in designing following Apple’s reorganisation. The upgrade radically changes the interface, refreshes the apps and offers different features, something which has not occurred in any previous update. Anticipating that this degree of change may be a shock for some consumers, so Apple is reportedly prepping its online and instore support for those suffering from iOSTSD (iOS Traumatic Stress Disorder).

So, it’s nods to the middle and eyes to the East with the new iPhone launch but also a play-safe appeal to Apple fans with a traditional, higher-specification upgrade. Which version of the new iPhone is the bigger success may dictate future directions for the company.

Barry Avery does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.

Apple chief executive Tim Cook praises the new iPhone 5S as the most refined model the company has ever introduced. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Barry Avery is a Principal Lecturer in Informatics and Operations at Kingston University.
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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?