If you’re thinking of buying a new smartphone, you have that in common with 1,5 billion other consumers this year. For the environment, this is bad news. Not only does smartphone production contribute to massive CO2 emissions, it also leads to the fastest growing waste stream worldwide: E-waste — So it’s worth considering if it’s really necessary to buy a new phone.
The first thing that many people are drawn to is the specs of the phone. That is the camera, chipset, memory, operating system; the list goes on. ‘Good’ specs justify the price range from low end to high end and also are selling points — why, after all, would you buy a phone, if it didn’t add anything to what you already have?
Here is the catch. There is a reason why marketing campaigns now zoom in on details like the number of cameras on a smartphone (why do you need 4?). Most users are not benefitting from the incremental changes that are made every year anymore and increasingly, big companies struggle to distinguish themselves from each other. Over the last years, there has been a trend towards convergence of technology. Even mid-range devices now provide far more CPU power and memory than most users will need. The same goes for cameras or any other part of the phone. For the job that the majority of people actually buy smartphones for — almost all of them are now good enough for it. Taking pictures, using apps, making phone calls and navigation, all of it is possible, in a very smooth way, even on a low-end phone.
But this convergence goes deeper than just making phones that provide very similar quality. They are also almost identical when you look at the technology behind their functions. There are only a handful of players that supply practically the entire market. Let’s look at two examples.
Most chipsets that are used in smartphones today are produced by one single company, Qualcomm. That is either directly or through licensing. The chipset of the phone will determine almost anything that a phone can do. You could argue a smartphone is actually a portable chipset with a case and sensors on it. It’s not just that the chipsets on most phones are sufficient in power to run the device smoothly; it is also that the chipsets are identical. Arguably they are sold in different ‘flavors’ with different CPU power, but in the end, you get the same technology with the same limitations and strengths.
The same goes for software. Google’s Android will now run on almost any device, with iPhones being the exception. The different versions of Android are almost identical on new phones. At the moment, that is Android 9. You get slightly adapted versions of it, but in the end, the technology is the same. It will look the same, you have the same functions and access to apps and even the differences between different versions of Android is relatively neglectable.
Creating needs rather than serving them
The trend behind the scenes of this industry seems counter-intuitive: The more smartphones have become similar, the more we are told that they are different — and this is still working for tech giants. Tech-sites are rigorously comparing and ranking data on differences, for which you need specialized knowledge to be able to describe to what extent the effects it produces are exactly ‘different’. There is now fierce competition on cameras, for instance, where you still have some differences between brands. It may be my own inability to pay attention to the tiny details that are being advertised, but I cannot describe in any language that is available to me why this matters so much. To me, they look very much the same.
We are being directed to pay attention to incremental changes while the use-value of smartphones is very similar. A lot of what is sold as a material benefit is actually just psychological. Specs are not the guiding factor you’d want them to be.
Rather than obsessing about the minor details that still distinguish smartphones, it would be more honest to say that most smartphones are now identical. Steve-Jobs-style product releases try to hide the elephant in the room: there is almost no innovation taking place at the technological level. The smartphone in 2019 is pretty much the same as it was 2018 and it will be the same in 2020. That’s a good thing. It means that, If you have a smartphone and it works, you’re probably well off ignoring all the talk about specs and innovation for a while and hold on to it.