The way we buy smartphones: where's it all going?

The way we buy smartphones: where's it all going?The slightly ludicrous Royal Wedding phone we saw this morning may be just one of many unlikely product tie-ins Wills and Kate have been associated with in the run-up to their wedding next month, but it did get me thinking.

As pointed out in the article, it's a bit silly choosing a piece of consumer tech that will be little more than a brick in a few years time as a keepsake. But then I looked ahead and wondered – just what will our phones look like in five years, or ten?

Now if you're expecting one of those “10 things we'll be doing with our phones in a decade” kind of articles, this isn't it. It's more on how we keep on buying new phones year after year, and the tech powers that be keep on dishing us up new ones so we can keep on doing it.

We talk about consumer tech all the time, yet we seldom stop and think of how appropriate the term is. To put it a different way – and forgive me for being obvious – but it is technology that we consume. In other words, we use it, then we move on.

In terms of phones, if you're on contract that period of use is generally 18 or 24 months, while more dedicated lovers of phones will probably change handsets every few months to keep up with the latest stuff that comes out.

But that's the point: there's always another one coming out, and we're conditioned into wanting it, buying it, consuming it, and then forgetting it. Apple is the master of making its products desirable – we know that – but it also stops talking about the iPhone 3GS as soon as the iPhone 4 is out. And it'll do the same to the iPhone 4 when the 5 is launched.

Samsung has given us the Samsung Galaxy S II, HTC the Incredible S and Desire S, HP the Pre 3 and Motorola the Droid (Milestone) 3. And there'll be another round coming next year.

At what point does it become tired? At what point do we say: “iPhone 13? To be honest, that just sounds a bit ridiculous.” Or “Samsung Galaxy S II X Pro 5G? Gimme a break...”

The component makers are at it too. Processors go single-core, then dual-core, then quad-core and so on, while camera megapixel numbers and flash storage drive capacities keep rising too.

Taking it to extremes, just how much more useful will a 32-core, 45-megapixel phone running Android TicTac be than the current phone you've got in your pocket? Oh sure, it'll do things faster, better, and all those other things – and it'll give you new capabilities current hardware can't match – but as a communications device, aren't most of these extra baubles just ways of helping the marketing bods differentiate the LG Optimus 5X Squared from the 4X Chilled?

Otherwise, what would they really say? Well, it's pretty much the same as before, but all the specs are a bit better because Moore's Law is still going strong, so you can do a few extra things, but then again all the other new phones can too.

Doesn't really work, does it? It's getting more and more difficult to distinguish real innovation from just continuing a momentum that was already going strong, then marketing it and selling it as something we all should really care about.

Ironically, most of the real innovation comes not from the hardware itself that we all spend so much money on, but the thousands of apps and services that put it to use. Yet most developers struggle to make any kind of decent money from their hard work. Maybe if they had Apple's marketing department...

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JanSt / MOD  Mar. 22, 2011 at 13:12

"it is technology that we consume" - true, and yet, the opposite seems true, too: it's tech that consumes US! People now worry about firmware updates BEFORE they even buy the phone - if you don't believe that, look around the chat threads here and elsewhere.
How do I do this and that and the other...and often if you ask in return, "what for?", there is a blank space where a reply should be...
I spend a significant amount of time using my phones to talk about phones, rather than WITH people ;)


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