Sep 28, 2017 4:26 AM PT

Apple has a big chance to do the right thing (updated)

When disaster strikes, cellular networks collapse, and electricity supplies fail, your smartphone is useless — unless it has an FM radio.

Cornell University

Smartphone user? What will you do when disaster strikes, cellular networks collapse, and electricity supplies fail?

Smart nothing

The hurricane season has levelled islands across the Caribbean, including the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

People living across the region have seen electricity cut and cellular communications wiped out. Some islands have seen almost every man-made structure flattened. Many have lost lives, many have lost relatives and many more have lost everything they own.

Those who remain in the afflicted regions will be waiting months, perhaps years, for things we take for granted to be restored: electricity, running water, cellular communications, almost every shred of infrastructure.

They can’t watch Netflix. They can’t listen to podcasts. They can’t call their friends. To get news and public information, they have one place to go: radio.

Digital everything

We know that many countries are moving to switch off FM frequencies.

They hope to use these bands to supplement network coverage in support of the Internet of Things (IoT).

The evolution of LoRa networks (low-power networks designed to support IoT machine chatter over large areas) may in the future provide some form of disaster communications infrastructure. However, the reality is that these aren’t fully in place, and it is impossible to guarantee even battery-operated LoRa transmitters would continue working after severe fire or flood.

Digital solutions to help handle emergency situations are evolving, but they are far from providing the kind of universality of access you already enjoy from radio.

Give me electricity

While digital transformation is changing everything, it achieves nothing without infrastructure.

Disable the electricity supply, and it doesn’t matter how much intelligence you’ve put in place across your business — even if you are lucky enough to have your own backup generator. You might have power, but do your key partners? Do your clients have independent solar power supplies designed to provide robust reaction in the event of a disaster?

Probably not.

So, when your community is devastated, when local government infrastructure collapses, when the businesses and other resources around you are leveled — what do you turn to?

Most people dig deep into their broom closet and find an FM radio.

That’s certainly what’s been happening this hurricane season, as ham radio operators are being transformed into the only existing news networks for reports from stricken islands. The populations of those islands had to use FM radio to find out what to do and where to find help — if there was any help to be found.

Listen to the radio

Apple’s iDevices have contained a built-in FM chip that is not enabled by default for years. (The chip was briefly enabled in some generations of iPod nano.)

Apple has declined to allow iPhone users to listen to FM radio, preferring (I guess) to direct them to use of its own media services.

I guess that’s acceptable in a future-perfect world in which climate and political emergencies do not exist and the residents of a progressive and connected planet work together in harmony to solve those problems we face.

I would like to live in such a planet. I don’t.

In this real world, iPhone users involved in emergency situations suddenly find their devices to be as useful as a spare groom at a wedding ceremony. Even if they have solar power, those devices can’t communicate with anything when cellular networks and fixed-line broadband connections collapse.

Fin de siecle

In this fin de siècle in which we find ourselves, while today’s neo-Nero’s fiddle with their TV remotes and social media accounts, it seems to me those who can provide tools to empower people living through emergencies should do so.

That’s why I agree with those who argue that Apple should enable the FM radio inside of its devices. I don't think it would impact iTunes profits greatly. I don't think it always needs to be on — switch it off to save power. 

I appreciate the many charitable contributions Apple is making, has made, and will make to those impacted by all kinds of emergency.

All the same, I feel that enabling the radio already present in its devices may help people endure during a disaster.

Apple is the only major smartphone firm that continues to deny use of the FM chip.

I urge Apple to just do it

It has to be the right thing to do.

Do you agree? Should Apple enable this feature? Please let me know in this poll.

UPDATE: In a statement, Apple said it "cares deeply" about the safety of its users. It took pains to point to some of the things it has done, such as Medical ID, emergency service dealing and so on. It also pointed out:

"iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 models do not have FM radio chips in them nor do they have antennas designed to support FM signals so it is not possible to enable FM reception in these products."

Should Apple enable the older models at least?

Google+? If you use social media and happen to be a Google+ user, why not join AppleHolic's Kool Aid Corner community and join the conversation as we pursue the spirit of the New Model Apple?

Got a story? Drop me a line via Twitter or in comments below and let me know. I'd like it if you chose to follow me on Twitter so I can let you know when fresh items are published here first on Computerworld.