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Are Smartphones Necessary Anymore?

When I was researching Digital Minimalism, I came across an interesting article written by Vlad Savov for The Verge. It was titled: “It’s time to bring back the dumb phone.”

I’ve both read and written numerous articles about the negative aspects of the modern smartphone, and have interviewed many people who have returned to a simpler alternative with few regrets.

But what caught my attention about Savov’s piece was the following new (to me) argument he made in favor of stepping back from these devices:

“This is not as drastic a regression as you might think — or as it might have been a few years ago. In the age before paper-thin tablets and laptops, your smartphone truly was the only viable connected device you could carry around everywhere.

But nowadays? I have paper pads thicker and heavier than the Apple MacBook…[y]ou can tuck a tablet discreetly into a large jacket pocket, and it can connect to LTE networks.”

Like Proust’s Madeleine, this comment sparked in me memories of the early smartphone era; a time when laptops were large, bulky affairs and accessible WiFi connections scarce. In this context, a “smart” phone that might allow you to send an email or perform rudimentary document edits could significantly improve your productivity when away from the office.

But as Savov notes, there are now many other affordable, portable, connected devices that offer much better productivity experiences than even the largest phone.

So why do smartphones persist in a world where their original rationale has dissipated?

My current theory: Steve Jobs.

When Jobs returned to Apple computer in an interim position in 1996, the company was still competing in the business productivity market. Indeed, one of Jobs’s first actions was to accept a $150 million dollar investment from Microsoft and form a partnership to maintain a Mac version of Microsoft Office.

But starting with the 1998 release of the iMac, Jobs began executing his vision to transform the company into a consumer brand. By 2000, he effectively eliminated the Mac clone market and shut down the productivity-focused Newton and OpenDoc projects.

In 2001, the iPod was introduced. In 2006, the iTunes store sold its billionth song.

It’s in this context that Apple began developing the iPhone: a smartphone conceived from the start as a consumer lifestyle product. The reason people lined up outside Apple stores for this device’s initial release was not because they cared about getting more done on the go, but because they wanted to be a part of the shiny new chrome-case digital culture it represented.

We’re used to this idea today, but it really was radical back in 2007.

This history is important to revisit because it reminds us of the shaky foundation on which our current culture’s compulsive smartphone habits are built.

The original smartphones solved a real problem: how do I check in on work when away from my office computer? This problem is now better solved by more recent innovations.

The communication devices that dominate our time and attention today, by contrast, are mainly used for novel behaviors, like compulsive social media checking, that were developed specifically to exploit the trend of non-business users craving fancier phones.

Which brings us back to Vlad Savov’s article. He asks if it’s time to bring back the dumb phone. If we return to thinking of these gadgets in a more purely instrumental sense — that is, asking what important problems they solve — then, perhaps to our surprise, we might find ourselves wondering why the appropriate answer is not just a simple “yes.”

(Photo by Leon Lee.)

79 thoughts on “Are Smartphones Necessary Anymore?”

  1. I would love to ditch my smartphone in many ways. But even if you don’t use text or email or internet on your phone, the simple combo of GPS + camera in your pocket is hard to beat. I mean, you COULD have those things separately, but realistically most people aren’t going to if they also have a cell phone anyway. A few productivity diehards will ditch it in the right scenario (no spouse, no kids, etc), but … Smartphones aren’t going anywhere (unfortunately?).

    • Doesn’t an LTE-enabled tablet fill the need though? You can even make phone calls, but it doesn’t fit in your pocket so there is an extra impediment to “just gonna check it” when you are on the go. But then again, you have to lug around with at least a small backpack or similar if you want to have a hands free experience.

      I’ve never used a tablet, so I’m not really equipped to give any sort of answer to the question of how this would transform our digital habits, though…

    • The evolution of the smartphone camera is something I’m interested in learning more about. It’s not like in the pre-smartphone era people constantly carried cameras with them, so, to some extent, the behavior of needing to document everything was largely cultivated post facto to help justify the smartphone’s existence. (This contrasts, for example, with music playing. Before the iPhone came out, people did carry iPods with then, so by combining and iPod with a phone the 2007 iPhone was helping people reduce their device load.)

      The question, of course, is now that this behavior is common, is it permanently part of our culture, or, as someone mentioned to me yesterday, is it like recording everything on a camcorder in the 1980’s — a trend that will end up looking weird in retrospect?

      • Great comment and really interesting.

        I know since my kids were born my wife takes a minimum of 1-2 photo’s of them per day. Which works out to thousands per year.

        By the time my children are 18 they will have near on 10k photo’s of themselves *each*!

        And from what I see online, this is a conservative amount compared to other mothers and selfie addicts.

        Is this really even remotely practical or valuable?

        Who needs, or will look at 10,000 photo’s of their childhood when they are older?

        Not to mention the hundreds to thousands of photo’s of other things that we take in general.

        There’s something deeper going on here I think that is relevant to social media and the interaction between photo’s and social media that seems to be driving this obsession.

        One interesting question would be, if social media died overnight, what effect would this have on our obsession with pocket cameras?

        • Just to add to that,

          You have to consider who’s really driving this obsession.

          It is of course in big-tech’s interest to have access to all of these photographs for the same reason they want access to any other data, for mining and research purposes.

          So are we being tricked into thinking smartphone camera’s are important for the same reason we’re being tricked into thinking that social media is ‘important’?

      • Excellent point. My father was addicted to taking pictures by the 2000s standards, but he would typically take only a fraction of the number of photographs an average 20 year old would today.

        That being said, while this paradigm shift might seem shallow and unnecessary, some other cultural evolutions that were born with the smartphone will be harder to abandon now. David Larsson mentioned the GPS; most people could not imagine living without it now, even though we’ve been using it for only a couple of years. In Europe, it’s also common to pay with your smartphone, or to hold public transportation or plane tickets, etc.

      • Oof. This is tough for me. I’m 26, so I guess I’m much younger than a lot of people. However, I’ve carried around a camera (a simple point and shoot) with me since I was 15. I love documenting and taking pictures. Looking back at my photos, I took roughly 20-30 pictures a week throughout high school. I got my first smartphone when I was 18 and the photographs did increase in number. However, for me, it was because the camera was so accessible and it was a habit and desire I already had.

        The smartphone camera definitely cultivated that habit in _more_ people, for sure. I know people who takes 50+ pictures a day that would never have done so if the camera wasn’t in their phone. However, while I was on vacation, the ability to take high quality pictures without having a point and shoot or a DSLR on me was awesome. I got to document what I wanted without friction and extra bulk. That’s incredibly worth it for me.

        • I doubt I’ve taken more than 20-30 photos in my lifetime (I’m 64 as of May/2019) so the fact that smartphones – or feature phones for that matter – even have cameras is irrelevant to me. I still carry around an old Blackberry from 2010. I use it for calls and texting. I don’t even have a data plan so I can’t access email or the Internet even if I wanted to. I also have a flip phone that I’ve been using more and more often. With the flip phone I talk more and text less. All the marketing hype falls on deaf ears in my case. Perhaps I’d be more inclined to buy one of the newer smartphones if I were young and working. Besides the freedom I have, the biggest plus for me is that I’m saving a bundle by not trying to keep up with the technology. Not sure what I’ll do when 5G arrives. It will offer no benefit to me. By that time I may ditch phones … period!

      • My biggest mind barrier to ditch iphone is Maps+Camera also. but the question of mine is not taking too many pictures. I don’t take too many pictures but i take pictures of my customers documents because i work mobile. Is there any alternative for smartphone. I solved audio(podcast+ music) by carrying my old ipod shuffle which is interesting to me. But couldn’t find anything to do GPS+Camera for me without being bulky like digital stand-alone cameras.

    • I’ve had success ditching my smartphone (last spring) and replacing it with a few, thoughtful devices. I have a laptop, and a dumphone, and use a TomTom in my car and an MP3 wherever I like. I’m thinking of adding back a simple digital camera. When I need to get something done I use the WiFi hotspot in my phone. The deep, soothing, clarity and boost in creativity is EASILY worth it (especially because I am a graduate student). I’m much less anxious, more productive, and I don’t think I will ever go back. It’s also worth noting all of this together costs significantly less than an iphone, even if I didn’t have some of it laying around already. People sometimes find it strange, but I’ve had more people say they admired me for doing this than who told me I was a weirdo, and their reactions aren’t as important as the boost in quality of life.

      • Hi, I spent 6 months with a dumb phone last year and it was great. But I missed Uber and some other apps. So I got back to a smartphone. To compensate, I am currently not using my notebook. I found that I use my time better this way, because the smartphone is not so attractive to mindless browsing. I don’t have social media, which makes the use very restrict and when I find I am wasting time, I put it in grayscale. My big time waster is YouTube (I don’t use social features), I am trying to change to podcasts or radio, because images grab my attention. (I do use a desktop at work).

        • I want to say thank you guys for this thread. It made me reflect on the difference of how I felt and how productive I was when I wasn’t using a smartphone and how I feel and how productive I am now. No smartphone was way better. So, I think I’m going to used it as a fixed device (because I still need uber and financial apps) and take the lovely dumby with me.

      • At some point, we all have those things alying around and it just adds to the clutter we find our lives in. The anxiety builds from clutter and the spiral begins. Sad to say, I’ve been able to do so much of my work from by phone that I couldn’t imagine not having it.

    • The GPS-enabled map + camera prevents me from ditching the smart phone. I have cut down on my apps so that I don’t have any content apps save for music and audible. I have disabled the browser, and social media apps. No reddit, or netflix, or youtube. However, maps and an increasingly excellent camera really add value to my life.

  2. It would be great if the newly released Punkt MP02 “dumb phone” wasn’t $350 and full of some glaring bugs that need to be worked out (according to early adopters). It is basic in that it just does calls and SMS BUT has a 4g hotspot built into it so you can jump onto your laptop and do business things when necessary. Nothing beats a proper keyboard for true productivity!

    • The Alcatel Go Flip is a dumphone with a 4g hotspot. It’s UI is a little sluggish at times, but it’s less than $50 dollars. I’ve used it for months as you suggested with my laptop on it’s Wi-Fi to actually get things done. Would not go back to a smartphone.

    • I personally bought an MP02 and the ugs were so bad I sent it back after a week. This was really sad because I was looking for something that “just worked.”

      My phone worked for literally two hours, and then would go completely unresponsive until the battery would drain all the way and the phone would completely recharge – and then it would only work for about a half hour.

      They said it was most likely a damaged sim card and I should order a new one. I didn’t want to spend money on something that was working fine in every over phone and add to the already high cost of the phone so I sent it back and bought a relatively simple used Sony xz2 Compact for less than the dumb phone cost.

      • they did fix that battery bug quickly. mine last several days between charges. the device works great for me. $300 is a little steep, but i have not been gentle with mine and it seems really solid. i also had the mp-01 for two years and found that robust as well. but, yeah some bugs here and there. worth the trade off for me.

  3. Nice article. I have sometimes thought about reverting back to single-use devices that were the norm just 10 years ago: camera, garmin gps, mp3 player, ereader, etc. And of course a dumb phone for just phone calls and texts. There are benefits. Generally, a single-use device excels at the one function it’s designed for. It masters it, whereas smartphones are a jack-of-all-trades. I do still prefer a kindle ereader to a tablet for ebooks. The other general principle I find in ‘dumb’ devices is simplicity and focus via fewer features. For years I yearned for my iPod touch and flip phone to be replaced by an iPhone. Now, I think of going back for frugal reasons or nostalgia, but I doubt I ever would. Thanks for sharing this Cal! I so appreciate your work here not being behind a pay-wall! Looking forward to Digital Minimalism.

    • Along these lines: I bought a standalone pedometer so I didn’t have to drain the battery in my ancient iPhone to track my steps. It’s great! It’s a small plastic rectangle that runs on a watch battery with an energy-sipping, old school black and white LED display. You slip it in your pocket, it counts your steps. It resets the count at midnight. There’s something nice about its focused form and function…a pleasure to use. Which is to say, you’re on to something about the niceness of well-designed single use devices.

      • Thanks Cal. I also considered a pedometer for a while. I figured it would be more accurate than my phone in step counting. I had a free Android smartwatch (moto 360) for a time. It tracked steps fine I guess…in the end it was too much. I was having to charge and maintain a smartphone, a smartwatch, a tablet, and my PC. If I may digress down this rabbit trail: smartwatches, while cool, still seem quite superfluous. So if you argue we may not need smartphones, then I bet you more assuredly would argue we don’t need smartwatches. But let’s go back to Steve Jobs. In his debut keynote for the iPad, he asked if their was space between a smartphone and a computer for a third device: the tablet. He reasoned it must be better than the other devices at a few key things. While I would agree in many ways a tablet is better…I have often considered even it remains somewhat superfluous! Would love your take on all that. -Best regards.

      • In a similar vein, I have recently purchased a Scan Disk MP3 player so I could listen to music on my commute. They’re less than $40 now (and cheaper versions exist), hold 8GB of music or other media, have a simple, old-school display, and can last for days on a single charge. If you ancient iphone has battery life issues bumping tunes, I have been using mine every day for months would enthusiastically recommend it. Just drag an drop tunes from MP3 downloads/burned CDs etc. Buy a few records now and then is well worth being able to get rid of my smartphone while keeping my music.

  4. I only recently got a smartphone (in 2018). I was pushed by the shutdown of the 2G network here. Apart from phoning and texts I use it most for transport related stuff – buses, taxi apps, maps, weather – and financial stuff. I actually don’t check email or twitter on it that much. One of the best uses I found for it though is as a wifi base station for my laptop, because those don’t come with cellphone antennae for some reason… But my MacBook Pro (15″) is still a pretty heavy and bulky thing to carry around and so I avoid that if possible.

  5. I went “back”* to a dumbphone for about a year in 2015-16. Worked out well but it’s nice to be able to have podcasts, GPS, etc. I do wish that phones allowed ANY app to be uninstalled; it seems a bit coercive to force you to have a browser (what if a parent bought the phone for their child?) and some don’t even allow uninstalling of the Facebook and Twitter apps. You can get around it with app blockers if desired, but it still seems ridiculous to be forced to take up your phone’s hard drive with unnecessary apps (some people don’t even have FB/Twitter accounts!) that also potentially waste your time.

    *My phones before this were borderline as to whether they could be called smartphones.

    • My productivity at home has gone through the floor (yeah, yeah, so I lack self control).

      I’d love to be able to have device that performs as a phone and a camera and allows me listen to podcasts and music.

      Why can’t I get this?

      • I turned my small iPhone SE into a simple phone using the Screen Time Settings. To accomplish this I removed all apps except Messages, Camera, Calendar, Reminders, Notes, Photos, Maps, Photos, Podcasts, Calculator, Weather, and Clock. The last ones you can’t delete Wallet, Health, and Find my Phone go into a Utilities folder. Then in Screen Time Settings you set your app restrictions to block Email, Browser, and Installing Apps. Also, remove all notifications except calls and messages. Finally, set a 4 digit passcode that you will never remember or have someone be the gate keeper for you. I chose the latter so there is no temptation. Finally, drag all apps onto the second screen. Leave only Phone, Messages, and Camera in the bottom dock. It is the best “dumb phone” I have every owned. Even the Alcatel GoFlip and new Nokia 3310 have a basic web browser with no restriction controls so the temptation lingers a bit.

  6. I would love to have a dumb phone with WhatsApp. I bought my first smartphone when I went to live in another country, as it was cheaper. Nowadays, WhatsApp is the main mode of communication among my family and friends.

  7. Or… maybe the problem is not smartphones, but our cultural development.

    We are only defined by our smartphones, depending on how we decide to use them. If there is no other fascination than interacting with social networks, the argument makes sense. But I believe in the cultural development we get from daily learning and analog social media. If smartphones can help, they will.

  8. I never switched to a smartphone, although I got one on my birthday last year, I use it only to listen to podcasts or audiobooks when I do chores. Whenever I go for a walk I put in my bag: the old phone, a book or the kindle, ipod + earphones, a heavy photo camera, sketchbook and pencils and…. I must admit: sometimes my back really wants me to embrace the smartphone mania and carry just one thing. I think it`s so popular because it`s a very small, so affordable, all-in-one device. Plus a very common gift, it does not matter if you want it or not. You`re stucked with the damn thing.

  9. I sometimes dream of ditching the smartphone.

    In this dream I would be free from the distractions the phone possibly adds yet still able to communicate with my family.

    The reality though is that I would get frustrated by having to carry another device for podcasts and music on the road. I would probably miss many of the moments I capture of my kids on camera and I would get lost while driving much more often.

    For the time being I’ve tried to be ruthless with uninstalling apps on the phone. I’m still amazed by how many I’ve deemed “necessary”. I just realized I still have 13 apps just for various fitness/outdoor GPS tracking activities. I still have some work to do…

  10. Even if you’re not compulsively checking social media on it, a pocket-sized device that is a phone, camera, audio player, and GPS at the same time is irreplaceable. Those four functions are the ones that keep me backing away from the ledge of dumbphone nostalgia.

  11. Why not both?

    I have a smartphone and a dumbphone. Only close friends and family have access to the dumbphone number.

    During weekends, I keep the dumbphone with me for emergencies. When I want to avoid using my smartphone, I’ll often default to the dumbphone, but leave the smartphone in an portable place which is hard to access.

    I’m sure fellow readers can imagine several other permutations of this arrangement. It works well for me personally. I hope that phones like the light phone become popular too.

    • I cover this option in my new book — presenting case studies of people who definitely use both types of phones, depending on the circumstance. There are also tethered dumb phones that connect to your smartphone and use the same number, so you don’t have to maintain two separate numbers.

    • Yes, same here. I use an old iPhone 5s like an iPod touch, with wifi only and no phone number. Then use a dumb phone for calls.
      As a photographer, I have to say the camera in the iPhone is incredible, as they are striving to make it a ‘replacement’ for the DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) cameras. Though the photo editing apps for the iPhone are all coming out with an iPad version, which is good because I’ve been toying with the idea of transitioning.

      On a similar note, the Point and Shoot cameras are about the size of a dumb phone now, and the sensors have come a really long way in the past decade, similar to the iPhone camera though the sensors are larger (which is more important than more megapixels), so this carries weight with regards to single devices that do a better job.

  12. At some point Cal, you are going to have to write a post about how porn addiction is intertwined with smart phone popularity. There are millions out there secretly addicted to porn causing damaged relationships. The smartphone allows one more layer of security for the addicted because it’s always in hand or pocket versus a tablet or laptop.

  13. Cal, where would you say the Blackberry (crackberry) fits into your argument? It was THE kinda-smrart-phone before iPhones. Wasn’t it all about email on the go, and appealed to the productivity/business crowd? I think the idea of easy email on the iPhone was one of the reasons it became popular to some consumers. But an LTE iPad or similar can now be used instead…

  14. Part of Steve Jobs’ massively irresponsible combined smart phone/iPod innovation was to disconnect authorship and personnel information from the content sold on the iTunes website. DRM in the early days was a temporary sop soon to be jettisoned for indiscriminate untrammelled downloading and copying.

    The smartphone is not to blame.

    Jobs’ legacy continues to serve only corporate power and undermines composers and musicians one of whose major marketplace assets is for their name immediately identifiable with a recording ( with implications for copyright tracking , performance royalty and reputation so enhancement).

    Downloading and listening to music from headphones connected to a small portable device should remain a feature of any dumb phone innovation.

  15. The reason I bought my original iPhone was its GPS capabilities. Having that bundled with phone, camera, calendar, and music player was a HUGE improvement in my quality of life. If I had to go back to my dumbphone + Palm Pilot + paper maps (or paying for a separate GPS unit) + an iPod + a camera, I’d be very sad and loaded down.

    I see what you’re saying, and I agree about Jobs targeting the consumer market, but the reason we bought them is because they filled an actual need, and they still fill that same need. If there were no facebook or twitter apps or iphone games on the app store, it would be easier to use the phone as a tool rather than a timewaster, but I still think that the basic thing itself is really a useful item.

    • I don’t know where my comment disappeared to, but Heath summarised what I was getting at way more concisely: “the reason we bought them is because they filled an actual need, and they still fill that same need”.

      Yes, my life could be better without my smartphone (or at least using it more wisely) and that’s a large part of why I read your blog. But it’s worth pointing out not everyone needs a dumbphone. I don’t have family who need to reach me by phone (I live abroad, have no dependents). I do need a phone number to get SMS authentication messages for various websites, but I don’t call or send SMS messages. If it weren’t for that, maybe some of us eschew even having a phone number altogether!

  16. But I’m content with my Samsung Note 3!

    Okay, okay, I also own an over 10 years old notebook (huge) which we upgraded a few years ago. And a “normal” old times telephone. I don’t need anything else.

    Won’t get rid of one of them to buy a new something, however small. Seems like a waste of resources to me.

    Cal, anyway, Thanks for the work you’re doing!

  17. I’m not convinced. I think smartphones have become so indispensable because they offer so much in a single, easy-to-carry item: phone, camera, music, pedometer, podcaster, newspaper, uber app and so on. In this way they parallel one of the signal requirements for the success of public spaces: create spaces that offer ten things or more (cafe, movie theatre, gallery, restaurant, bank, park, etc). When you do so, people will be attracted to those spaces and keep coming back. I’m not sure what the solution is and I’ve many times tried to limit my smartphone use, but I “keep coming back” because I miss the range of options (frustrated by not having my uber app or camera, for example). I don’t have any of the other tech items noted here, but if you can’t put it in a *small* pocket, it’s not going to work for me. I should also note that I don’t use social media, so that’s not part of the smartphone draw.

  18. I think that it is much more than work email. The smartphone integrates with your home, giving you valuable information about what is going on and the ability to control devices when you are away. It integrates with your car, giving you directions and other possibilities (I play audiobooks while driving for example and manage to finish what I consider an impressive number of books in this lost time).
    The problem, in my opinion, is determining what apps will add value to your life. There is a wealth of sophistication where the ideal candidate to provide an interface is the phone. It is small and on all the time.
    As a rule of thumb, I measure how much time I spend on the phone daily. There are apps that do this, but I see how much battery charge I have at the end of the day.

  19. There’s another aspect, you haven’t mentioned: privacy. Thanks to smartphones you can use apps like Signal to communicate the right way. For me it’s the crucial thing.

    Aside from this I find smartphones as a real advantage over dumbphones. Probably, because I have good habits, can control myself and I use any piece of hardware mindfully. I believe some people may need dumbphones to get their lifes back, but smartphone itself is not a root of a problem – in my opinion.

  20. If I were to carry around separate gadgets for everything that my smartphone does — an MP3 player for listening to music, a camera for taking pictures, a GPS tracking device for helping me navigate and a metronome for practicing my ukulele playing — I’d have to carry around a purse and look like a transvestite. I’ve experimented with feature phones to see if I could ditch my smartphone altogether for a feature phone, but unfortunately to no avail. I now use Lock Me Out on Android. It only allows me to use the apps that I’ve selected (phone, GPS map, music player, metronome) and blocks everything else. I can only disable this lock if I erase the memory on my phone. I schedule the locks for the entire week at the end of the week, so that my whims don’t get the better of me. My screen-on time has reduced to 30 minutes on days that I don’t use the metronome and 1.5 hours on the days that I do. LMO is probably the best free productivity app one could download on Android.

  21. I had a wonderful experience of not having any phone for 3 months two years ago. I broke my phone at a Spring Fling and decided to hold off on buying a new one. I still saw my friends regularly. And if my family or friends needed to get a hold of me, they called my wife (my girlfriend at the time). I was surprised for feeling so peaceful during it.

  22. Great posting Cal! I gave up my smart phone a year ago and switched to a dumb phone. You can find many dumb phones with MP3 players and blue tooth capabilities. For the camera, I was fine with a $150 point and click Canon camera (with WiFi for easy transfer to my computer).

    I even wrote a book about my experience. Check it out here:

    If your thinking about ditching a smart phone for a while, my book may help.


      • Thanks Luiza, it was a very rewarding experience! I was (am still am) amazed how easy it is to live without a smart phone. I actually had the thought today that my main reason for giving up a smart phone is that I don’t want to spend the rest of my life having my attention, mind, and thoughts hijacked by a 5 inch screen. Though admittedly I am considering ‘going back’, as I have a wedding to help plan and the GPS/mapping features are truly a productivity booster. I am keen to read Cal’s book – in addition to the comments I am reading on this post – to see if there is an ideal solution.

  23. I definitely don’t think my smartphone is *necessary.* Do I really need to look up the title of that book I’m talking to a friend about at the exact moment that we’re talking about it? No. That’s the kind of thing I use my phone for. That and Spotify. Which, again, I don’t *need.* I do feel antsy at the idea of giving up maps. I was trying to remember how I found my way to new places before my smart phone (and I definitely did—I’m almost 45, so most of my time as a driving member of society has been smart phone free). And you know, I really think I just asked people for directions. Even more incredibly, they gave them. Talked me through it and I wrote it down.

    I admit I do prefer the eyes-on-the-road experience of listening to a voice giving me real time directions rather than glancing at my notes as I drive, but on the other hand I prefer the simple connection of getting directions from a person rather than a phone.

  24. I bought a Kindle reader device to increase the amount of reading I do. This versus the reading/browsing I do on my smartphone Kindle reader app. An easy hack and reminder of the amount of time I waste on smartphone.

  25. This depends on the type of problem one has.

    I average 14min a day of smartphone usage (thanks, Apple’s new screen time app, for giving me a weekly report!). This is reasonable for me. I don’t stare at it when standing in line, or riding the elevator, or play games on it (because I have no games on my phone).

    For me, it’s worth having a notepad/GPS/camera in my phone.

    That said, if I were someone on my phone for hours a day, it would be worth it to “downgrade” to a dumb phone. I know, for instance, that I can’t successfully ratelimit my Facebook usage. Some people can! But I cannot. I will get sucked in. Result? I don’t have a Facebook account. I haven’t in years.

    As with all tools, do the pros outweigh the cons? Do the cons cause unacceptable loss? These answers will have some variance, person-to-person.

  26. My favorite phone was the Nokia n9. Compact design, beautiful hardware, great UI, wonderful camera, and slick navigation. The Nokia App store, which was mocked for it’s paltry selection, now seems to be an ideal situation: a smartphone that offered the basics, and did it very well.

    I miss that phone. If Nokia would resurrect it tomorrow (with Meego, not Android) I would buy two.

  27. I’ve intentionally handicapped my iPhone by turning off Safari (web-browsing), email, and the App Store (so I’m not tempted to install a different browser or email app). I don’t have YouTube or any social media apps installed.

    This removes the main smartphone distractions, so I hardly ever waste time on it—and yet I can still use the camera and genuinely useful apps Google Maps or Music when I need to.

    I’ve removed the temptation to turn these apps back on by asking my wife to set the passcode for “Content and Privacy Restrictions” in the Screen Time settings (where you can disable these apps). As a result, I have to ask her to enter it if I ever need to restore full functionality (e.g. when travelling overseas).

  28. I’ve thought a lot about this over the past year.

    The only thing that dissuaded me from switching to ‘dumb’ phones was the lack of uber/lyft. Taxis exist but they’re more expensive, and the metro system suffers from the ‘last mile’ problem a good number of times. I can even get myself around not needing a maps app (99% of the time I’m driving to the same locations, the other 1% I’ve become pretty good at navigating myself when lost) and podcasts (spotify is already on my laptop). Every other app on my phone has an alternative!

  29. Smartphone and dumbphone are just tools that we use difference only smartphone has more tools. In your book Deep Work you made a good point about choosing rigth tools for work/life. About a year ago I was choosing new phone as my Samsung Note 3 started to miss calls because operational memory was always full. I sat down and wrote what I needed from a phone and then I bought new one. Crucial to me was viber/whats app, taxi, maps/transport and banking/pay apps.

    When I got my hands on a new device, I disabled all notifications, except banking/taxi/messages. I turned off all social apps and use browser for reading mainly blogs or books.

    My point here is that there is really no difference between smartphone or dumbphone. Much more important is how we use it.

    • Not exactly. The purpose of getting rid of the smartphone is to avoid distraction. This doesn’t work due to limited capability – it works due to limited accessibility. I can check my Facebook on just about anything, but it is more immediate on my phone. By carrying a tablet and a dumbphone, you force an extra layer of inaccessibility that means you only get it out when you need it, rather than getting it out through habit.

  30. One thing I find interesting is the number of people who need to be constantly entertained, and thus feel that the apps on their smartphones are essential. Before the age of the smartphone, people would carry a portable phone for emergency use, if necessary. Otherwise they would use their brains to think their own thoughts while enroute or waiting in line, or they might read a book or newspaper if on a longer train or subway journey.

  31. Great post. You talk about Steve Jobs in your book So Good They Cant Ignore You, written a few years back. I wondered how your views on him changed over the years.

    We need to somehow change the culture around phones. The norm is to be addicted. The norm is to take 1,0000 pictures per day of your kids and post the pictures on social media. (without childrens consent, but that’s another issue…)

    I would like to see more embrace of occasional ‘no smart phone’ moments in life, ya know? Like the old days…in 2004.

    Something like this phone could be the start, but we’d need some hip celebrities to start carrying the phone around.

    • Julie – I actually just ordered the Light Phone 2 and am really looking forward to trying it out. Was a little expensive, but ultimately I think it will totally be worth it.

      I’m also very curious to see if any celebrities/influencers start a backlash against smartphone addiction – I’m guessing no, but we’ll see.

  32. I found myself compulsively checking news on my iPhone, and I’d just reinstall the app or use safari in moments of weakness. So, I spoke to my wife about it, and we turned restrictions on. No installing apps, no safari, its basically dumbphone+.

    My apps:
    – Waze
    – Todoist (i like having a digital to do list)
    – Email (I’ve never had a problem checking email, or if i do, its that I forget to check it, so ymmv on this one)
    – Pocket Casts
    – OneNote
    – Spotify
    – MarcoPolo (videos of baby for grandma)
    – Quizlet (I’m in grad school, I like flash cards)
    – Weather

    And then a few utility apps. Basically the rule for apps on my phone is that there needs to be a real, concrete benefit to my life by having it on there. The nice thing is that an old phone works just fine for all these apps.

  33. Why not just delete the social media apps and keep your smartphone? Why not?

    Why buy and carry additional equipment around with yourself when you can carry them around in a single smartphone?

    Why not?

  34. I was probably the last one among my friends to own a portable phone. Simply because I don’t like to be disturbed. When you have a phone with you, people just don’t respect your privacy and they can call you or text you any time anywhere, and they get angry when you don’t reply immediately. I eventually got one because it’s easier for traveling in case of emergency. Then the smart phone came. I was again the last one to own one. However I still use it more or less like the original phone, for emergency call, txt, getting verification code, use map when traveling, take snapshots for records and check websites occasionally. I don’t install any unnecessary apps. I think I must be an old soul. I like to finish things on my computer then I don’t want to be distracted and disturbed that much. That said, I am not perfect. I also have time when I got trapped in cute cat videos on youtube and forget about time (on computer).

  35. I kind of disagree with Cal on this (a rare thing for me). I think the device that is no longer needed is the tablet. I have gone down to just two primary devices – a large smart phone (IPhone 8 plus) and an MSI GS65 laptop (which is fast enough to do anything I need it to – even create software in the Unreal Engine). I have docking stations in my home office and work office and the laptop are the brains I hook-up to these docking stations.

    My fast giant phone means I don’t need a tablet or kindle anymore.

    One caveat: I try not check email on my phone because it is inefficient to answer on the phone – so I’d rather wait until I am at a real keyboard.

  36. Cal, I’m very fortunate to have stumbled upon your website and blog. It’s been a gem in a galaxy of internet websites out there for my own self-development.

    I’m hoping to learn a bit about your design of this blog, which I hope you don’t mind answering

    How are you creating your comments section?
    Are you using Disqus?
    Are you using GitHub pages?
    Is there a link to the HTML/CSS code you use for this website?

    I know the probability of you reading this comment is small, but I would be much obliged to have the opportunity to learn from you. Thank you dearly.

  37. I spent a full year contemplating whether or not to get a dumb phone after enjoying my exit from social media. A couple months ago, I finally got a dumb-phone on a whim. Within 72 hours, I was confident that I wasn’t going back. I feel so dumb for having wasted so much time wondering about it, rather than just trying it. All of the good things I wanted to happen, happened, and all my concerns were VASTLY exaggerated.

    Frankly, I am starting to think it’s unethical to use a smartphone. If we know that smartphones make people less productive (i.e. helpful) and empathetic, the idea that using a smartphone is unethical isn’t a stretch.

  38. In my opinion its up to yourself. Its your attitude to your phone. The smartphone is not the problem, its you. Treat your smarthphone like a tool. A Hammer is also a tool. You can kill someone with it or build a house. Its up to you. You hate facebook, Instagram, etc.. dont join it. People must become calm about their tools. But for much people the tools are their live. And thats the problem.

  39. Nice Cal, but I think the first iPhone had actually a stronger use case apart from being an office device.
    At that point in time, it was the only beautiful and technological powerful enough device to connect a camera,iPod and phone. I think that was the real innovation, blackberry’s were around way before the iPhone (now dead).

  40. Well, no.
    I don’t think it’s Steve Jobs.
    If the question = Why aren’t people going back to dumb phones and using better connected devices to accomplish their business/productivity tasks?
    The answer = Because people aren’t actually mainly using the phones for business/productivity.

  41. The reason I needed to use a smart phone after trying the dumb phone:

    Group messages don’t work on any dumb phone which is so frustrating. With many different school work groups group messaging was a must.

    I tried using Google voice to text from my computer (texting on there was a huge time saver) but the voice calls were so poor nobody could understand me.

    Maybe if dumb phones could handle true group messaging id consider one again.

    • I use GVoice from my Chromebook laptop direct mic/speaker (no headset) very frequently and the phone quality is pretty good.
      I would be interested to use GVoice to receive incoming calls to a Light Phone 2. Only problem would be that outgoing calls would not be able to show your Gvoice #, only the LP2 #

  42. Nuts. I’ve never had a smartphone for EXACTLY the reasons stated. If I needed 24/7/265 internet access – and I don’t – but if I did, it’d be a laptop with a 4G card. The smartphone is the stupidest, most useless, and GROSSLY overpriced gadget ever invented. I felt that way in 2007 when the iPhone came out, and haven’t seen anything to change my mind since. Too small to be a computer, too big to be a phone, crippled user interface, brain dead “apps” (most of which can be replaced by a simple webpage), etc, etc.

    No thank you.

  43. You can just put your smartphone into dumb mode. It’s called extreme energy saving mode on my one. Ultra power saving mode or whatever it might be on yours. Just activate it, delete a every single app other than essential ones and never turn the Internet on it…. there you have it.


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