Smartphones – End of the Line?

Welcome to the end of the upgrade treadmill.

If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you’d know that smartphone sales are starting to drop – even in the apparently fanatical realm of Apple devices. At the same time, outfits like Xiaomi keep pushing cheap ‘flagship killers’ that gets /r/Android doubly excited. Are we at peak smartphone? Is there nowhere left to go? Are Apple doomed?

Spoilers: Not yet, no, and definitely not.

An interesting parallel: PCs

Everyone’s been claiming the PC is dying – especially desktop PCs – with sales and shipments declining. And yet PCs aren’t dead – far from it, people are still buying them (and that’s including Apple’s overpriced laptops). So why the decline?

If you’ve used computers before about 2007, you’d remember that we were on a constant upgrade cycle – especially if you were into PC gaming. The leap between processor generations, and later video cards, were massive. For anything that needed more than basic processing power, you’d be on an upgrade cycle of about 12 months. The leap between generations was that significant. For kids who have never known anything since about the Core 2 Duo era of CPUs (or the Intel i5/i7 monikers), that might come as a shock. But it’s true – just ask anyone who was there.

Hell, during the 90s the leaps were so far that even for basic tasks you’d be upgrading fairly frequently. As Weird Al once put it: “My new computer’s got the clocks, it rocks, but it was obsolete before I opened the box.” It’s all about the Pentiums, baby! But plenty of readers probably don’t remember a time before Windows XP – which, funnily enough, is also the exception to the rule that we had for over a decade. Windows had a major release every few years – and not upgrading wasn’t really an option. Windows XP just stuck around for ages because Microsoft fucked up, basically.

So why did the cycle break? The reason is simple – CPUs have gotten fast enough that there’s no real compelling reason to upgrade. If all you’re doing is dicking around in a web browser (which most of us are) or typing shit up in MS Office, pretty much any computer you pick will do the job – and it’ll also do most other tasks competently. There’s still plenty of scope for upgrades in higher end uses, especially PC gaming – but even there the cycle has slowed dramatically. If you skipped the 10×0 generation of NVIDIA cards, it really doesn’t matter so long as you had a modern card from the previous generation (and didn’t want to play at anything over 1080p). You can also thank the rise of the gaming consoles with the Xbox 360 and PS3 to thank for slowing the treadmill.

Smartphones are the same

My first true smartphone was the iPhone 3G (in 2008) and I was blown away. Credit where it’s due, Apple did something great with the iPhone. If you’re too young to remember it, the iPhone back then was totally different to the ‘smartphones’ before that – which were usually either clunky Palm devices, or equally clunky Windows Mobile devices. They were awful. The iPhone introduced the idea of a reliable touch screen smartphone to the masses – and it was wildly popular. Google’s first attempt with Android was… not very good. Both were limited devices compared to today’s smartphones, but all things start somewhere.

Since then, both have advanced in leaps and bounds – especially Android, which is one of the most versatile mobile operating systems ever made. But the pace of advancement has slowed somewhat – especially with iOS, where even major releases just add in a few new features and the rest is bug fixing (or stuff for the very latest iPhone). Android updates are a mess so the less said about them, the better.

Phones themselves have slowed in progression too. When I got my iPhone 4, it was vastly superior to my iPhone 3G. The 4S was… moderately better, but the 5 was way better again. The same was true of the 6! If you’re a Samsung fan, you can trace the progression a bit further forward – up to about the Galaxy S7, the leaps between generations was huge. But ever since that point, the advancements have slowed. Basically, each new generation was a bit faster, with a better camera, and as of late higher prices. But that’s about it, really – apart from a few other miscellaneous bits and pieces like face scanning or multiple cameras and stuff like that. In some cases, we’ve lost features – like removable batteries, or headphone jacks.

The fact is that if you buy a flagship smartphone right now, you can conceivably keep it for a few years, and you won’t feel like it’s a useless piece of shit. But before about 2016, if you weren’t upgrading fairly regularly, you definitely would start to feel your phone becoming outdated – because the pace of technology was just that quick.

These days, even midrange phones sport fast processors and ample amounts of storage and RAM. Their cameras are still pretty meh but nowhere near as bad as they were. Go back a year or so and midrange phones were objectively bad – they were clunky and slow, with awful screens. These days it’s harder to justify the price of flagships – and almost impossible to justify a yearly upgrade.

Manufacturers know this

Apple, Samsung, Google, and everyone else knows this is the case. Smartphone sales are on the decline. They all realise that we’ve reached the point where you can’t just rely on saying ‘It’s faster than before!’ because in real terms, that is in actual use and not in benchmarks, nobody gives a shit. Nobody notices.

The problem is even more significant for Apple. Firstly, iOS 12 was a fantastic release that breathed new life into older devices – the whole ‘planned obsolescence’ argument got wiped out with iOS 12, and devices like the iPhone 6S (probably the last truly great iPhone) ran like new phones (especially with a new battery). On top of that, unlike Android, Apple keep deploying iOS to older devices – usually well over 2 years after release. There’s much less incentive to drop cash on a new phone if yours is working fine and isn’t going to run out of support any time soon.

On the Android side, where updates are a colossal mess of whether the OEM and your carrier care enough to deploy it, it’s somewhat easier to justify regular upgrades. But now you’ve got so many options – you don’t need to go with the Galaxy S9 if the price is too high, because there’s a plethora of ‘midrange’ devices that are just as good (though with some compromises) for most people – without the price tag. If you really don’t care about updates, then there’s no reason to upgrade.

As an aside – you really SHOULD care about updates. Yes, I know that Samsung Experience feels just as good as Android Pie, but not getting low-level OS updates isn’t something to crow about. It’s a shitty practice that needs to die. Not everything can be fixed with a Play Store deployment.

Services and addons matter now

So how do they keep you buying new phones? Well, there’s a few ways.

Apple are best positioned to keep taking your money, because they’ve baked in their own services (such as iCloud and Apple Music) while making it harder to use basically anything else in an convenient manner. Want to use Spotify as your default music app? Tough shit, you can’t. Want to ask Siri to play something on Spotify? Tough shit, you can’t. If you want automatic cloud backups, you’ll have to buy iCloud storage. On top of that, Apple sell a bunch of accessories that, to be fair, just work better with iPhones (and iPads). They also have a bunch of excellent little software touches that will keep you in the ecosystem – like AirDrop, or iMessage, or their media empire. That’s where Apple will continue to succeed – if they’d just stop making them so expensive and so… inflexible!

Google aren’t going to die because they’re supplying the software. The Pixel line is… well, it’s something alright. It’s so good and yet so fucking awful at the same time. It’s like if a fucking moron decided to act like Apple without actually being good at hardware or software development. That aside, Google’s online services are second to none. Oh, and even if you don’t pay them a cent, you’re also the product so they’re deriving some sort of benefit either way. Given that they’re shepherding Android and the online services that pretty much all of us are using in some capacity, Google aren’t going to suffer too much if the smartphone market turns down.

Samsung won’t suffer much either for two reasons. Firstly, even if their phones don’t sell well, they’re selling a load of stuff to keep them afloat. Secondly, they’re like Apple in that there’s a sycophantic legion that will buy whatever they shit into a box. Hell, people wanted to keep the Note 7, a phone with a battery that could very well explode and injure you. Outside of that, they easily make some of the best Android phones, and if you want a solid, dependable phone (that slowly gets updates, but has enough features to mildly offset the glacial pace of development) then Samsung phones are a good buy. They also add on lots of extra stuff to increase the appeal – like camera arrays, or a stylus, or DeX, or Bixby. Okay, I’m joking about the last one.

Everyone else has to compete on price. Nobody’s going to buy a POCOPHONE F1 if it’s the same cost as any other flagship. Same with the OnePlus phones. Nobody’s going to upgrade to the same manufacturer’s successors if their phone or support leaves a bad impression. Little fuckups aren’t going to be as easily forgotten now that there’s little real incentive to upgrade. You can churn out a new phone every year, but unlike previous years there’s no guarantee most people will even consider upgrading.

It’s better this way

If you really want to upgrade your phone every year, and you can comfortably afford it, do it. Don’t let anybody take a shit on you for doing that. It’s your money, and if that’s worth it to you, then do it. That same argument applies to if you’d rather be an Apple user or an Android user.

But for the rest of us, we’ve finally reached the point where you don’t need to constantly upgrade just to keep up with tech. You can easily keep your phone for 2 years. You can buy midrange phones and get something that isn’t a complete piece of garbage. This is what the mature smartphone market looks like. It’s supposed to be good for us.

What isn’t good is price creep – and OEMs like Samsung, and especially Apple, are trying to raise the price of their flagships. This is in part due to inflation, but probably also to account for declining sales. In the case of Apple it’s certainly pure greed – but Samsung isn’t really immune either (apart from the fact that their phones don’t hold their value, so waiting a bit after release, or getting a good preorder bonus, yields better value).

So do your research, and pick a phone that’ll still be with you in 2 years.

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