Here's a quick digression from global health that I thought might be interesting to to tech-minded folks. nsnippets, a fascinating link blog (found via Blattman) has a post called "China's 65 dollar smartphones" that caught my attention, because I (sort of) have one of these phones. That post is highlighting a Technology Review piece: "Here's where they make China's cheap Android smartphones." And here's more on even cheaper phones.
Before moving to Ethiopia I was stuck in a Tmobile contract that was poor value for money with a glitchy phone. Since I'm only back in the US for about 5 months finishing my last semester of grad school I resolved to get an unlocked phone that I could use in the US or abroad, on whatever network I liked, and at a grad student price. I bought one on Amazon from "China Global Inc." and shipped by some third party directly from China. The exact model isn't available anymore but you can find similar phones by searching on Amazon for "Unlocked Quad Band Dual Sim Android 4.0 OS." It gets some incredible double-take reactions because it looks almost exactly like an iPhone in front, but on the back it has the Android logo and just says "Smartphone":
It cost just $135, and I use a $30/month prepaid plan (also Tmobile) with 100 minutes of talk (which is about right for my usage), unlimited text, and unlimited data -- and I'm not locked in at all. My annual cost for this Android smartphone: $495. If you buy an iPhone 5 on Verizon your annual costs are, depending on your contract, in the $920 to $1400 range! I'm sure for some the differences between what I have and a brand new iPhone 5 with 4G (my phone is 3G) are worth $500-1000 annually, but it works for texting, email, search, Twitter, music, games, and so forth -- everything I want.
I can't imagine that everyone with the latest smartphone actually 'needs it' -- in the sense that if they knew there were good alternatives they would think the difference is worth the value. American phone plans are generally incredibly overpriced, leaving you stuck in a cycle of buying premium products -- which are nice -- but ironically being locked into keeping them until they're well past premium. I think what is happening is that as long as most of your friends have high-priced phones with expensive contracts, that's the norm and the price seems less absurd.