Evolution of the smartphone refresh cycle, planned obsolescence and you

Lately I've had some trouble coming up with story ideas I'm truly excited about.

New smartphones are unveiled every month, if not every week. At the same time, I've never been a writer who struggles for ideas. So I have to ask myself, "What's going on?"

The most telling answer I can come up with is the feeling I get whenever I unpack a new smartphone I receive for review. It's a feeling of skepticism, of anxiety - of yes, boredom - because I know it's probably not going to be easy to come up with a unique angle or explain in a review why this new phone stands out from the pack. Maybe the new phone has a weak camera or bad battery life. Perhaps its display is discolored or pixelated. Does it support memory cards or have a removable battery pack?

If there's no noticeable flaw, it's going to be difficult to differentiate. That's the sad truth of today's high-end smartphone market: Most top-of-the-line handhelds released today provide comparable overall experiences, at least from a hardware perspective. (Personal software preferences and investment in mobile apps or in specific ecosystems can change this equation a bit, but I'm talking hardware here.)

And there's more pressure than ever to buy new phones more frequently.

Newer is Not Necessarily Better

The pace of innovation in the handset world has slowed to a point at which the focus on extraneous pixel counts for smartphone cameras (I'm looking at you, Lumia 1020), fingerprint scanners that may or may not actually be secure (hi, iPhone 5s), cool-but-mostly-useless UI gestures (all of the latest Samsung Galaxy releases) and absurdly gigantic displays (take your pick of today's "phablets") are among the most notable selling points for new phones.

General "newness," is also as powerful a selling point as any, as in "It's the latest and greatest, so it must be better." This last line of reasoning is a common one, especially among people who pride themselves on being tech-savvy gadget geeks. It doesn't matter if it's really a better device, it's newer.

At the same time, there's more pressure to upgrade more frequently: From the people around you, from companies selling smartphones and from wireless carriers.

Everybody has a smartphone these days. More than ever before, the devices are fashion accessories, status symbols and cultural differentiators. It's an unfortunate truth, but harsh judgments are made every day based on smartphone "fanboism." If you're an Apple fanboi, and you see someone in a bar using an older BlackBerry, there's a good chance you'll quickly judge them. (BlackBerrys aren't cool, you heard?)

Turn on your television set during a major sporting event and you're visually and aurally assaulted by advertising from companies including Samsung, Apple, Motorola, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile. It's not just commercials; your favorite sports team's stadium is very likely plastered with ads from one of these companies. Or maybe the stadium is named after one of them. (Off the top of my head, I can think of four stadiums with "AT&T" in their names.) Primetime TV is even worse.

In the never-ending quest to sell more phones, wireless carriers are rolling out new plans that let you upgrade to new smartphones more frequently, and for less money up front. AT&T and T-Mobile are leading this charge in the United States with the Next and JUMP programs, respectively, but the other major carriers can't be far behind. And it's only a matter of time before the idea spreads outside the United States.

Smartphone makers are also coming up with clever new ways to sell more phones to more people in less time. Which spotlights another interesting trend: Smartphones don't seem to last as long as they used to.

Smartphones and Planned Obsolescence

"'Planned Obsolescence' is the production of goods with uneconomically short useful lives so that customers will have to make repeat purchases," according to Jeremy Bulow, Stanford's Richard Stepp professor of economics, who describe the practice in the research paper, "An Economic Theory of Planned Obsolescence"

The term planned obsolescence is typically associated with the early American auto industry, but today it may be making its way into the smartphone and larger mobile device space. There's a level of natural or "unplanned obsolescence" if you will; for example, new features or functionality in software updates that don't work well on older devices, or apps and services that need faster processors and/or data speeds.

But there are also questionable examples. Displays that are made of "Gorilla Glass" but are still strangely fragile or have very little protection on their edges - and are often more expensive to fix than new phones or unnecessarily difficult to repair. Software updates that make your device lag like an obese man in the last leg of a 5K. Incompatibility with new gadgets. (Think: Samsung Gear, which only works with a small subset of Samsung phones, though it connects via Bluetooth, a very common wireless technology.)

Not only has hardware innovation slowed; your next phone might not last as long as your previous one. And that could be just the way your carriers and/or phone maker wants it. AT&T and T-Mobile say they're giving consumers more freedom to upgrade more often, but is it really freedom if you need to buy a new phone every year (or less) or deal with one that's malfunctioning or broken? People tend to want the latest and greatest; that's human nature. Wireless carriers are trying to capitalize on this tendency by giving consumers the illusion of choice and freedom when, in fact, they may be promoting the exact opposite.

I won't say that planned obsolescence is a part of the major smartphone makers' strategies or business plans. There's certainly no way for me to prove or demonstrate it. Many intelligent people have argued that the concept in the tech world is a "myth" perpetuated by conspiracy theorists in tinfoil hats. But it seems like more than a coincidence that, as more carriers make it easier and more affordable to buy phones more frequently, the need to upgrade more often seems to increase accordingly.

Evolution of the Smartphone Refresh Cycle

Let's take a quick look at the evolution of the smartphone refresh cycle.

Samsung released is first Samsung Galaxy S devices in the United States in the summer of 2010, with names like Fascinate, Captivate and Mesmerize. (Oooo, ahhhh!) A little more than a year later, in the fall of 2011, it released the Galaxy SII in the United States. The Galaxy SIII hit U.S. store shelves in early July 2012 and the Galaxy S4 arrived in late April 2013. Note the shorter time period between each update. These are only the Galaxy S devices; Samsung released countless Note, Tab and other updates during these years as well. A quick comparison of hardware enhancements shows mostly minor improvements between generations.

Before Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility bumped it off track a bit, Motorola was rapidly releasing new DROID models, with months separating each update instead of years. Again, with the exception of battery life, which can usually be directly attributed to larger battery packs, hardware improvements were negligible.

Apple released all of its new iPhones almost a year apart from the previous generations. (Check out specifics and details on those releases here.) But its introduction of the "S" model device between each full numeric progression, as in iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4S and iPhone 5S, could be seen as a sort of acknowledgement that true, significant updates don't really come every year, and definitely not every six months. After the release of the last two generations of iPhones, the phrase "evolution not revolution" was bandied about, along with general disappointment from some reviewers due to a lack of new notable features.

To Buy a New Phone or Not to Buy a New Phone

To sum all this up, your current smartphone, assuming you purchased it relatively recently, probably isn't very different than the shiny new handheld that Samsung, Motorola, Google or Apple is peddling - as long as it's still working. In fact, it may be built better and last longer.

Whether or not you care about this truth is one thing; maybe you just want the latest and greatest. That's understandable. Maybe you have money to burn - good for you, if so. Or perhaps your phone isn't performing as well as you'd like, for whatever reason, and you feel like a $200 or more purchase is justified. That's your prerogative.

But it's time to take a step back from all the noise. Just because there's a newer model smartphone, or a phone you're more interested in, that's not necessarily a good reason to run out and buy it. In fact, if you accept that you need a new phone every six months or every year, you fuel the fire and maybe even compel smartphone makers to build devices that will break down faster - or at least assume that you'll pay for another one if you "have" to. That's a slippery slope.

The bottom line is that most people don't really need a new phone when they think they do. They won't truly benefit from buying the latest and greatest smartphone, either. But they probably still will - and the time between that new smartphone and the next upgrade will continue to decrease.

AS

Al Sacco covers Mobile and Wireless for CIO.com. Follow Al on Twitter @ASacco. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.

This story, "Evolution of the smartphone refresh cycle, planned obsolescence and you" was originally published by CIO.

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