Apple Should Enable The Existing iPhone Feature We Can’t Use

As is customary at this time of year, the iPhone rumour mill is in overdrive. Pundits are expecting a particularly big release this year, as Apple celebrates iPhone’s 10th anniversary.

Already, we’re hearing rumours about wireless charging, facial recognition, and fancier screens. The wireless charging seems like a certainty, and I suspect this feature was originally intended for last year’s iPhones. Had Apple been able to introduce wireless charging at the same time that they eliminated the headphone Jack, it wouldn’t be necessary to carry around clunky adapters to make the Lightning port do double duty. I’m sure that would have muted a lot of the criticism that still persists.

But there is one feature I’d like to see in the next iPhone that is in the iPhone right now, but it’s not enabled. It’s a handy feature that could save you battery life, help you conserve mobile data, and, without exaggeration, potentially save your very life.

In the tech press today, Ajit Pai, the chairman of America’s FCC, has argued that all smartphone manufacturers, Apple included, should enable the FM radio chip that can already be found on most smartphones. I agree.

The argument in favour of enabling the FM radio chip on smartphones has received a bit of a bad rap because it’s been championed in the United States by the radio industry. Clearly, they have a vested interest in putting pressure on smartphone manufacturers to write software for the hardware that already exists on the device. It’s a tough market out there when the traditional radio industry has to compete with streaming music services and devices bulging with personal music collections.

Setting the industry’s vested interests aside for a minute, here are just a few reasons why I, as a consumer, want this feature very much.

In case of emergency

the cellular network is not a broadcast medium. If you get many people in one place trying to use their cell phone at once, you’ll often find that the network becomes congested, and even gets bogged down to the point that it doesn’t function at all. You may have seen this when you attend a rock concert, a sporting event, or a presidential inauguration. In cases like these, the cellular network falling over because of congestion is an inconvenience. What a pain not being able to publish that Facebook video or selfie. But, first-world problems aside, life will somehow go on.

In the case of a disaster, a malfunctioning cellular network could literally be a matter of life and death. Climate change means that we are likely to see many more extreme weather events in coming years. Such events can knock out cellular networks and leave people vulnerable. Those people desperately need information and support.

Back in 2013, I was enjoying an afternoon in town with one of my daughters, when we experienced a severe earthquake while out in the open. Like many people, my first reaction was to try and find out the extent of the damage, and ascertain the best course of action to take to keep my daughter and me safe. I had no idea what the damage was like at our home, and whether it was safer to stay in town or try to get back home if that was even possible.

We have an emergency kit at home complete with a battery operated radio, water, and other important essentials. But I don’t make a habit of carrying a battery operated transistor radio around with me when I go to the mall. So the only option I had was to use the TuneIn radio app on my iPhone to try and find out what was going on.

Understandably, many people have the same idea, because it was impossible to get sufficient data for me to tune into the audio stream of a local radio station. Had the iPhones FM radio chip that I was carrying around with me been enabled, I would have been able to tune into the local radio station I wanted without taxing the already stretched resources of our local cellular network, heard the information I needed, and felt a greater sense of security.

You simply can’t beat broadcast radio for informing a mass audience at a time like that.

We have had more than our fair share of extreme earthquakes in New Zealand of late, so this is a subject dear to many of our hearts here.

Conserving data

 

When I travel, my iPhone is often the only device I take with me. It’s my book reader, my GPS system, my games console, my audio recorder, my notepad, my communicator, and my radio. But since the iPhone’s FM radio chip isn’t enabled, the only way I can make it my radio is to use mobile data if I’m travelling. There are of course some cases where Wi-Fi hotspots are available, but there are security issues associated with those, and some of them can be too slow even to stream audio.

So there would be less congestion for me and the network providers if I could simply use the FM radio and listen to a station I wanted to hear for local news bulletins.

Accessibility considerations

 

Hearing impairments

 

Most of my old Nokia Symbian phones had an FM radio that worked. I was able to take advantage of this by purchasing a low-cost FM transmitter, and connecting it to our home theatre system in the living room. This gave me an easy way to listen to TV at a volume that was acceptable to me through my hearing aids, while keeping the volume at a comfortable level for the rest of the family.

Nowadays, I have to use a dedicated device to achieve this. The one I choose to use is called a TV Link, and it’s manufactured by the hearing aid company Phonak. It’s all digital, which means there’s a tiny bit of latency introduced which as an audio junkie annoys me. This is another example of the lower tech solution producing a better result. The FM transmitter also had longer range, allowing me to do other work while listening to sounds coming from the home theatre system.

Sporting events

 

I am a major cricket fan, although will quickly skip over the match between New Zealand and South Africa that took place last night as I write this. I love going with the family to a cricket match. To fully enjoy it, I need to hear the radio commentary, since I’m totally blind. So when we head to the stadium, I have to carry along my trusty portable radio. Once again, this is something I didn’t have to do during the Nokia days. My smartphone was also my FM radio.

When you’re watching a game at the stadium, you can’t follow the commentary on your smartphone via streaming, because of the delays inherent in streaming technology. The crowd goes wild, and you may have to wait a good 30 seconds to find out why.

Conclusion

 

Many Android devices already offer the FM radio feature. It’s clearly a feature that some people value, and it exists, right now, on the iPhones that are out there even though Apple chooses not to let us use it.

It would be a trivial task for Apple to write the user interface to enable this feature of the chip, giving people peace of mind during a disaster, or simply the additional choice, that the feature would offer. It may not be the kind of feature that sets the tech press on fire, as does such things as wireless charging, but it certainly won’t do any harm, and it could even save lives.

2 Comments

  1. Rick Roderick

    I have one question. If the chip were enabled, would you have anough antenna to get a signal? The Braille Note and Hims U2 have FM radio capabilities, but they don’t work without some kind of antenna. If I try to listen on just the notetaker, I get few stations. I have to have either my neck loop or a connection to a speaker to get it to work.

  2. Mario Gonzalez Jr.

    One problem with listening to sports on the radio is that the broadcast of the game is now delayed. So if you are at the actual event, the commentary is about five seconds behind the actual action on the field. There’s also the problem of reception at the stadium. Sometimes the cell signal is better than the reception of the station that is carrying the game.

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