The Slow Demise of the MicroSD Card
Remember when every laptop that was sold commercially had a DVD/CD disc drive? It was great because you could take your DVD collection and watch some movies on an airplane for however long your massive laptop’s battery could last. It is a feature that felt like an expected one on every laptop until all of a sudden it wasn’t. Going into your local Best Buy these days and trying to find a laptop with a disk drive is an exercise in futility. The reason for this? The MacBook Air. Apple showed the appeal of the ultra-thin laptop and the public bought into the idea. As a result, Windows laptop makers strived for thinner form factors and the drive was the first thing to go. A decision that sacrificed functionality for aesthetic appeal, all in the pursuit of chasing Apple’s golden goose. It seems that history is now repeating itself in the smartphone world. The casualty this time is the microSD card.
Why is the MicroSD Card Dying on Phones?
This year, Samsung did something unusual: it released its new flagship Galaxy S21 lineup in January as opposed to the normal March or April release window that the lineup normally follows. And for the first time since the release of the Galaxy S6 in 2015 a Galaxy S phone is shipping without a microSD card slot. The slot for the small chip has been a staple in not only Samsung phones but all Android phones since the inception of the platform. But more on that later, the real question is why is this happening now?
It is no secret that when it comes to mind share and market share that the iPhone is the gold standard that other companies strive to become. This does not mean that the iPhone is the best phone, but it is the phone that has captured the hearts, minds, and money of the masses. Over the years, Android manufacturers have tried to strike a balance of offering features that the iPhone does not while still competing with Apple on design. And as the nature of smartphones has shifted to becoming thinner and more elegant, Android manufacturers have become more and more like iPhones to stay competitive.
Features like removable batteries, infrared sensors, the 3.5mm headphone jack, and physical keyboards have all seen removal from modern Android smartphones in the effort of competing with the iPhone on a design level. And while a company like LG has held on to some of these features longer than other companies, eventually they too have fallen in line. The other end of this dynamic is the way that we treat Samsung as an Android phone manufacturer. Samsung is looked at by many as the default Android manufacturer, the company that competes with Apple at the high end. As Samsung has embraced this role, it has also become the tastemaker for all Android manufacturers. And in the company’s pursuit to compete with and at times emulate Apple, has influenced the way that other Android manufacturers design their phones.
So Samsung removing the microSD card slot on their newest flagship phone means more than a company just removing a feature, it is sending a message to other device makers that this is the path forward for Android phones. Therefore it should come as no surprise if Motorola and LG take out the slot on their future phones this year and beyond. Samsung has bought into the vision of Apple of having more control over the storage aspect of their phone by pushing cloud options or charging a premium for additional storage. While this might feel like a new development, the industry with Samsung at the helm has been slowly devaluing removable storage for years.
The Lost Potential of SD
One of my fondest memories of using a memory card was back in 2010 when I was the proud owner of a Samsung Focus. There was not much that was remarkable about this phone other than the fact that it was a moderately priced Windows Phone that happened to have a microSD card slot. Windows Phone had a different approach to utilizing SD storage that was available on Android at the time. The way the operating system handled an inserted memory card was to format the card as part of the internal storage. So, for example, if the phone had 32GB of internal storage and a 32GB memory card was inserted the phone treated that as part of the hard drive giving the phone 64GB of storage. The downside of this was that swapping different cards in was no longer an option. But saving apps to the memory card (a feature that has been taken away from Android) was a possibility.
This method made sense from the perspective of maximizing your storage but conflicted with the way that people used memory cards at the time as hot-swappable storage. As a result, the feature was panned and disregarded. After this, more and more capability was taken away from the microSD card until it became just a way to store multimedia only and not be utilized as a proper hard drive expansion. This made SD expansion a bit of an afterthought for many Android phone users. The nature of various read and write speeds of memory cards have created a complication of a lack of education on memory cards leading to underinformed customers purchasing memory cards with slower speeds, which makes utilizing these cards more of a challenge.
This created a stagnation with expandable storage that has largely remained dormant while the internal hard drive speeds have gotten faster with each generation of smartphone. Samsung has included UFS (universal flash storage) on its newer phones that support SSD-like data transfer speeds that have surpassed the capabilities of most microSD cards that people will purchase. This is a reason that many phone manufacturers will give for why taking away the memory card slot is justified. The other reason, which perhaps is the real reason for removing the slot, is to sell premium cloud storage plans.
Throw It In The Cloud
There has been a moment in recent years where it has started to feel like the smartphone has peaked. That the design limitations have been reached, despite the rise of folding screen technology. Software smoothness and performance have also seemed to have hit a plateau as well, as many midrange phones perform very close to more expensive flagships. The result of these two realities has been that customers are keeping their phones longer than they used to. This of course poses a dilemma for smartphone makers. If customers are keeping their phones for more than two years another form of revenue needs to be utilized. The answer from all the tech giants seems to be cloud storage.
Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon all offer plans of cloud storage for customers to back up their data. The appeal of the cloud is easy enough to see from a messaging to the customer perspective. The ability to take the files that matter and make them accessible on all your devices for a small monthly fee. This convenience factor is what has sold countless paid iCloud and Google One subscriptions. To the point that it has become a foregone conclusion for most iPhone users that eventually they will need to pay Apple for extra iCloud storage beyond the paltry 5GB that Apple provides for free. Google has continued to push for people to use its cloud photo service Google Photos with its unlimited uploads. Only to capitalize on that dependence and now require Google Drive storage to be used for these backups, creating a need to pay for more cloud storage. This is how the cloud is a revenue-generating model for these companies.
Samsung gas fully leaned into this as it has integrated Microsoft OneDrive into its phones to utilize cloud backups. Between this and faster storage options Samsung has sent the message that the option of expandable storage is no longer needed since the masses have been predisposed to not requiring it. But what this has created is a culture of predetermined use by phone manufacturers. For years, Android phones represented choice. A variety of screen sizes and form factors, a variety of ways to utilize storage, unlimited customization options. But the writing has been on the walls for years now that this is no longer the case.
The Absence of Choice
In the pursuit of Apple, multiple companies have become slightly modified versions of the iPhone. Companies like Google and OnePlus have positioned their phones as lifestyle brands in a similar fashion to the iPhone. They have done this by emphasizing software fluidity as opposed to features, a technique that was mastered by Apple. Where Android used to represent a kitchen sink approach with experimental features these companies have opted for a different approach. In regards to the SD card slot, OnePlus and Google have as a result never offered expandable storage that is in line with this approach. Samsung however, always felt like the exception. The company that wasn’t afraid to compete with Apple by utilizing the weirdness and features that may seem like gimmicks.
With the removal of the SD card slot (among other decisions) Samsung has decided that Apple was right never to offer removable storage and conceding that the cloud is the best path forward. And because of the influence that the company has on the decisions of other Android manufacturers, it is only a matter of time before the rest of the device makers fall in line. This speaks to not only the influence of Samsung but how the landscape of Android has changed over the years. As opposed to being the open platform of old, it has morphed into the other flavor of standardized operating systems.
The loss of the SD card is a loss of options. But it is also another step into the uniformity of our gadgets where almost every phone feels the same. Where the discussion is no longer centered around features and capabilities but a question of loyalty. What company are you loyal to, what vision of the modern smartphone do you value? Samsung and Apple dominate the tech marketing space, therefore the system is rigged in their favor. An emerging brand can no longer succeed without being a monolith. The death of the SD card is upon us, and the smartphone landscape has lost its variety appeal. Many have glossed over this loss, which is truly a shame. The idea of expandable storage deserved a better fate than this.
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