The Yearly Smartphone Redesign No Longer Makes Sense
Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing. In the United States, we enjoy the benefit of having a plethora of options. Go into a grocery store and there are 5 different options of the item you might be buying. But there are times when there is an overabundance of options that creates confusion, which is not good for anyone. This is the situation that we find ourselves in in the smartphone world. Every company has multiple phones that slightly iterate year after year, not offering much in the way of an improvement. Yet there are tweaks to the design made that are intended to entice phone buyers to buy the new shiny model. But this has many problems, and at this stage of smartphone maturity, it might be time to rethink this methodology.
The Realities of Maturity
When I was in college I learned about the product life cycle. The process of a product’s life has four stages: Introduction, Growth, Maturity, and Decline. In the context of the smartphone, we can safely say that the product is in the maturity stage. The Introduction stage of the smartphone can be defined by the early days of the PDA when the Palm Pilot and BlackBerry defined innovation and the idea of a computer in your pocket was a novelty. Then the iPhone came out followed by the onslaught on Android devices, defining the growth stage. This is where the boom of people buying their first smartphone happened. In recent years, however, that growth period has slowed down as most people already own smartphones and are merely upgrading their old devices at this point.
While we may be a while away from the decline of the smartphone until the next big thing comes out, we are no doubt in the maturity stage. This means that innovation has slowed, and users of the technology no longer see a need to upgrade their devices that often. We have seen this trend manifest in regards to people owning their phones for longer periods of time just because they have been able to handle updates more efficiently. On top of this, new features that have been added to phone hardware and software are not the big deal that they once were. Every year a new iPhone or Galaxy phone is released. And each year seems to bring a minor camera improvement that most people will not care all that much about. In fact, it can be argued that the last meaningful update that people regularly use was the introduction of portrait mode on the iPhone.
Yet despite this growing trend and a cycle of iteration, companies will continue to produce these devices on a year-by-year basis, with slight tweaks in design to make it seem like there is a monumental improvement when in reality that is not the case. If the reality is that most smartphone owners are upgrading their phone every 3 years or so at this point, then what is the purpose of constant tinkering with the design of the phone? At this point, it seems that there should only be redesigns of these phones every 2–3 years to match the buying habits of consumers.
The latest trend and subsequent marketing speak from phone manufacturers these days have centered around the removal of the charging block from phone boxes and the subsequent argument of being environmentally conscious. Some people have bought into this explanation while others have called out Apple, Samsung, and others for this practice. The reality, as with many things lies somewhere in the middle. While chargers in the box do create e-waste they are also used by many people as their primary phone charger solution. And if phone makers were truly concerned about the environment they would also make the manufacturer's warranty and documents with the phone digital as well to avoid further paper pollution. What manufacturers could also do is keep the same design for multiple years avoiding the waste problem associated with disposing of cases and other accessories when a new phone is purchased.
This is a problem that Android device makers have in particular. Consider Google’s Pixel line. Every single phone has had a shift in design year after year. Not so much that it is immediately noticeable but significant enough that cases from previous models can be reused on the newer models. This process is both environmentally wasteful but also costs money. It takes time to refine the research and development to come up with these designs and also cheapens the model jump experience. Imagine if the Pixel 3 and 3 XL never existed. And instead, the company waited a year to create an upgrade from 2/2XL to 4/4XL. This would have felt like more of an upgrade for the customer and perhaps the phone would have been better received.
There is also the economics of the yearly phone refresh and how that cost has been passed along to the consumer. It costs money to mass-produce the shells and casings of these new phones every year with a redesign. But if the same process has been in production for a number of years, then this isn’t as much of an issue. The evidence of this is the iPhone SE that was released in 2020. While the internal components of this phone matched the iPhone 11 series, the shell of this phone was very clearly an iPhone 8. An iPhone shell that Apple has been producing and perfecting for over three years. This is part of what allowed them to sell the phone for $400 as opposed to the $700 launch price of the iPhone 8 in 2017.
By keeping the same design for longer, allows companies like Samsung and Google to reduce the cost due to bulk purchases of materials netting them better profits. This creates a streamlining of the manufacturing process that also allows more accessories to be made for the devices since they will be relevant for a longer period of time. This is something that may be why finding a good case for phones from companies such as LG and Motorola can be difficult. If the same design was around for a few years then there would be more incentive for a case maker like Tech21 or Spigen to make cases for these phones.
Keeping the same phone in circulation for a number of years might beg the question of what about the performance? After all, a phone that was released three years ago may have a hard time holding up today. This is where a cue can be taken from Windows laptop manufacturers. Where they will use the same casing but update it yearly with the newest processor from Intel or AMD, HP is notorious for doing this on its Envy line of laptops. Why could this not happen with an iPhone or Galaxy smartphone?
Consider the Galaxy S20 Ultra from last year. The phone introduced a new camera system that was meant to be the greatest innovation for Samsung imaging in years. But the phone was riddled with autofocus issues that were never really solved until the Note 20 Ultra was released later that year. An extra year of development would have benefitted this phone, where another year of the Galaxy S10 would have given the Korean giant an extra year to fine-tune the technology and release what became the S21 Ultra from earlier this year. If Samsung would have just updated the processor of the previous model for those that are buying the phone that year, it would have created the time needed for Samsung to properly innovate instead of working through an impossible one-year deadline timetable.
An extended hardware path also allows the internals to be better suited for the exterior hardware without having to deal with new resolutions and form factors every single year. In many ways, this is why apps on the iPhone function better than their counterparts on Android. Because there are so many Android phones every single year, the onslaught of form factors and resolutions makes apps harder to maintain especially for phones that don’t sell in massive numbers. This is why keeping the same hardware design for multiple years makes sense from a usability and experience perspective.
Would It Work?
The reasoning for this sort of shift makes sense but there is a road map in the way. That road map is that there is an accepted way of doing things in the smartphone space. Companies release their newly designed lineups year after year like clockwork. Apple always releases the new iPhone in the fall, Samsung releases the S series in the winter and the Note in the fall, and Google releases new Pixels in the summer and the fall. If one of these companies decided to sit a year out, how would they be able to withstand not having something new to compete with the others?
The company that would have to do this would be Apple. In a sense this what they used to do. Consider the fact that when the company released S models, they were basically the same phone with boosted internals and a slight feature update to interest buyers. It is no secret that Apple dictates trends in this industry. When Apple removed the headphone jack from the iPhone, the industry followed suit. When Apple removed the charger from the box this year, Samsung and others have started to follow. Who’s to say that if Apple maintained the same design for 3 years that Samsung, Google, and Motorola would follow suit.
The potential blowback of a change like this would be massive. This would disrupt the flow of smartphone coverage, creating complications in the perception of Apple. There would be many editorials written about the laziness of Apple for doing something like this and why the industry would be worse off for it. But the reality is that the smartphone industry is not the same as 5 years ago. Hardware sales no longer define the success of a phone maker, it is the extras that we often forget about. Software features and accessory catalogs are the true moneymakers, along with recurring revenue streams. Hardware change is no longer a priority, and as such, it should be given more time to perfect as opposed to having something new for the sake of having something new.
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