They’re amongst the most ubiquitous technology today, and you can see smartphones literally everywhere, from kids birthday parties, the train to work, at concerts and even in swimming pools. There’s little doubt we’re at saturation point with an estimated 17 million smartphones in Australia, for around 20 million adults. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the average value of a smartphone and multiply it out – smartphones are huge business.
A big part of the business model in recent years has relied on people buying new phones every year or two. In part, this has been somewhat justified, as the pace of technology has quickened to the point that a phone a year or two old is quite dated by the present standard.
However, in 2018, things are a little different.
Two year contracts are no longer mandatory to get a new phone; in fact, prudent consumer advice encourages people to buy outright where possible and avoid lock-in contracts. Fancy smartphones need not cost $1,000 or more; great options start at $200-300. Even if you have expensive tastes, the differentiation year on year is rapidly reducing; I’m quite content with a phone that’s using 12-month old technology, and likely will be for some time. I’m not alone.
Holding onto our smartphones for longer isn’t a bad thing; it’s good for our wallets, it’s good for the environment, and we don’t miss out by doing so. Some of the biggest improvements today come from software rather than hardware innovations – AI and augmented reality rely far more on software upgrades (which can, but isn’t always, be delivered to older hardware quite easily). New hardware really isn’t so interesting – incremental improvements in camera quality to one side, not much else changes year after year.
We’re quick to downplay the use of “last year’s technology”, as many reviewers did when taking a look at 2017’s LG G6 which launched with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 processor released some months prior. At the end of 2016 it was the fastest processor around, and yet some months later in early 2017, it was “outdated” and yet still incredibly capable.
No, the reason many who upgrade frequently actually do so is fear of missing out.
Incrementally better cameras are becoming harder and harder to discern from those before, and though Qualcomm releases new premium processors each year, the stark reality is that the vast majority of users couldn’t tell a Snapdragon 821 from a Snapdragon 845, despite two years of engineering improvements in between.
But yet, consumers still buy the new phones, despite their $1,500 cost and arguably minimal improvements from the year before. As the most expensive piece of technology many of us own (as computers and TVs both cost less, most of the time), our phones are a bit of a status symbol, and who wants to try and impress with last season’s mobile? It’d be like wearing last season’s fashion .. apparently.
I think there’s an upper limit for how long all this holds true; holding on to a phone for a full two years now sounds very realistic, and I’d be keen to try doing precisely that with some of 2018’s phones to see just how long they last. A year is child’s play. Two years shouldn’t result in “missing out” on anything.
Three years might be the upper limit though. Over time, hardware does actually degrade, and nothing more so than the battery. Lithium Ion batteries – they’re in virtually every smartphone – last a fixed number of charge cycles before they degrade and (ultimately) fail. Unless your phone has user replaceable batteries – and most don’t – there comes a time after which it simply won’t work very well.
With improvements in technology, that duration will increase, but even if the batteries can last three years of routine use, that’s about the point at which technology will likely improve enough that your three year old phone will start to lag behind.
Not only will the hardware have fallen behind, but in Android specifically, that’s about the time when you can forget anything resembling software support. It’s already hard enough to get OS updates for Android from most manufacturers, but considering Google’s annual Android update cycle, for a phone to be fully useful over a three year timespan, it would need to receive at least one, and preferably two major OS updates.
If this were possible, a phone lasting three years is a phone I’d love to use. Without those software updates, too quickly would the software let the hardware down, and replacement would look far more attractive.
Let’s see if in 2018 the manufacturers can deliver us a phone we’d happily use for the full two years. The challenge is set.