A lot of what can be done with a personal smartphone can also be done in other ways. Some of these ways have drawbacks, which may or may not be deal breakers for particular people. In my case, these drawbacks have led me not to have an account on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Cash App Taxes, Apple Music, Pokémon GO, Auntie Anne's, or OpenAI.
Desktop or laptop computer
In many cases, native desktop applications or web applications can be used instead of mobile applications. From about 2008 through the end of 2012, companies sold "netbooks": laptop computers with a low-end CPU and a small display intended to fit in a reasonably-sized bag. Netbooks connect to the Internet through home Internet or public Wi-Fi hotspots. Though they were intended mostly for running office applications and browsing websites, I found them ideal for hobby programming projects. I used an ASUS Eee PC 900 running Ubuntu for NESdev from November 2008 through March 2010, and replaced it with a Dell Inspiron mini 1012 from then through mid-2017 when its second replacement battery stopped holding a charge.
Netbooks eventually became unsuitable in two ways.
- Laptop makers stopped making netbooks in fourth quarter 2012 in favor of touch-driven tablets running locked-down smartphone operating systems, which at the time had a greater profit margin than entry-level compact laptops capable of running a desktop operating system better suited to lightweight software development.
- Some applications that had previously been web apps pivoted to mobile apps, with desktop and laptop users stopped at a "Download the app to sign up!" notice. Instagram's use of such an app wall early on and WhatsApp's continued use of one is how I managed to avoid ending up with an account on those Meta-owned services. Continued use of "Download the app to sign up" is why I still lack an account on Venmo or Cash App. When Credit Karma sold its income tax return preparation business to Cash App's parent company, I had to switch to a free file service that I could use from a laptop but which is means-tested based on income.
To run many apps without a recurring bill, I started using a tablet in 2013, soon after Google belatedly started trying to compete with Apple's iPad tablet. This has worked for some purposes, such as keeping me occupied during plasma donations, and proven unsuitable for others.
- Because of the mobile telephony requirement in versions of the Android CDD prior to fourth quarter 2011 when Google released Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich", Wi-Fi-only tablets lacked access to Android Market (now Google Play Store). This deterred device manufacturers from introducing a tablet with a 4- to 5-inch display analogous to Apple's iPod touch.
- Banking apps require a rear-facing camera for deposit of paper payroll checks, and my first tablet (ASUS Nexus 7) lacked one. I've worked for some employers who switched me from direct deposit to paper once they downsized, causing me to speculate that businesses need a minimum employee count to keep direct deposit active. I have worked around this by cycling to an ATM, which has become less convenient as my bank has closed ATMs. Later tablets, such as Galaxy Tab A, alleviated this particular drawback by added a rear-facing camera.
- Early versions of the Apple Music app for Android deliberately required a small screen size or telephony, so as to work on phones and exclude installation on tablets. Google Play Store didn't tell me why Apple Music was incompatible with my Galaxy Tab A at the time, just that it was incompatible. I speculate that Apple was trying to shut out use of Android tablets in order to promote iPad sales.
- Anything requiring a continuous data connection while the device is in motion, such as the game Ingress or Pokémon Go, or loyalty apps of restaurants in locations without a public hotspot, such as that of Auntie Anne's pretzels.
- Anything that uses SMS for human verification or 2-factor authentication.
Previously, my household had a landline. To lower the phone bill, we ported the number to a voice-only "Wireless Home Phone" line from a cellular carrier. The advantage of a shared voice line over a personal mobile phone is that an incoming call rings on extensions on all floors of the house. We're thinking of porting it again, this time to VoIP provider magicJack.
My bank uses 2-factor authentication through either voice or text. Google likewise allows either voice or text to verify an account. They have an option to text-to-speech. This fails for services such as Twitter, Discord, OpenAI, and which deliberately eschew voice lines in favor of SMS lines. I speculate that these services consider a user with SMS to have more disposable income and therefore be more valuable to advertisers (which are the real customers of communication platform companies) than a user with voice.
Shared mobile phone
One might port a house phone's number to a mobile phone on an unlimited plan in order to use things that require SMS authentication. This has two drawbacks. First, it doesn't ring both upstairs and downstairs (or, in the case of a ranch house, at both ends). Second, a lot of services, such as Facebook and OpenAI, require specifically a unique mobile phone number per user. This means that if my roommate uses a service, and I want to use it as well, I would need to buy another handset and set up another line of service. I speculate that this too is driven by attracting and retaining advertisers, even though some sites requiring a unique mobile phone number claim that it's to discourage overuse of computing, storage, or network resources. This is why I lack an account on Odysee or OpenAI. It's also half of why I lack a Facebook account, the other half being that I graduated and lost my .edu email address in 2003. (At the time I checked, users could skip the phone verification roadblock by adding a .edu email address.)
Personal mobile phone on pay-as-you-go plan
Starting sometime in the mid-2000s, I used a pay-as-you-go mobile plan, initially on an Audiovox 8610 flip phone and later on a budget Android phone by Coolpad when water damage from a spilled beverage made the flip phone no longer usable. Mostly the switch from a flip phone to an Android phone meant I could do "tablet-ish" things on businesses' guest Wi-Fi, such as reading backlog on Discord while on break at work, without needing to carry a separate laptop or a tablet. Previously, this was not possible because carriers such as AT&T would automatically upgrade a line from a pay-as-you-go plan to a far more expensive plan if the SIM were ever inserted in a smartphone. I was pleasantly surprised in third quarter 2016 to find that T-Mobile wasn't doing that.
In my country, carriers offering pay-as-you-go plans charge not only for outgoing voice minutes and text messages but also for incoming voice minutes and text messages. A $3 per month plan from T-Mobile came with 30 units of usage (voice minutes or text messages) per month, and each additional unit cost 0.10 USD. This was ideal for me when I was using my phone mostly to arrange a ride home and for "tablet-ish" things on Wi-Fi, such as reading backlog on Discord while on break at work. However, it meant that every time a website uses SMS 2-factor authentication to log me in, it would end up costing me a dime. A dime here, a dime there, and pretty soon, I've exhausted all 30 units.
When I first looked into upgrading circa 2016, T-Mobile quoted me $37 per month for the upgrade (for a total of $40 per month). This appears to have since come down once mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) such as Ting and Mint decided to actually compete for the business of low to moderate users.
And even handsets don't last forever. Smartphones stop getting operating system updates, which reduces compatibility with updated applications and eventually leads to security vulnerabilities. Moreover, the lithium-ion rechargeable battery stops holding much of a charge after three or four years, and smartphones usually aren't built to allow end-user replacement of the battery. Even for a flip phone with a replaceable battery, a new air interface comes out every 10 years, and carriers tend not to keep more than two generations of air interface running at once. Carriers ended analog and first-generation digital mobile phone service (D-AMPS aka "TDMA") to free up spectrum for third-generation UMTS and CDMA2000. Then they ended second-generation service (cdmaOne and GSM) to free up spectrum for LTE. And most recently, they've been phasing out third-generation service (UMTS and CDMA2000) to free up spectrum for 5G NR. This habit of rotating out an air interface before the 20-year life of its essential patents ensures that there'll never be a royalty-free air interface compatible with networks in operation, unlike with landlines.
I think it's dangerous and exclusionary to get in a habit of taking for granted that all prospective users of a particular service already own an iPhone or Android phone on a service plan with unlimited incoming SMS and unlimited or high-volume data. For this reason, if a service requires each user to verify a unique mobile phone number, I feel a need to calculate and state the total cost of using a service in my country. This includes the price of a suitable handset (a smartphone for app-walled services or a flip phone for other services) spread over 48 months plus the price of a mobile phone service plan with unlimited incoming SMS.