A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 4, 2018

Are Smartphones Becoming Obsolete?

No. But consumers are becoming more sophisticated about the utility of their personal technology, more conscious of the value for money trade-off -  and harder to impress. JL

Richard Yu comments in Medium:

There really has not been much change regarding their functionality in the past three or four years. Smartphone shipment rates are down. There’s a growing market of second-hand phones in both developed countries and developing countries. People feel no longer feel as if they are missing out on some rad new tech if they don’t get the latest phone.
I’ve had my iPhone for the past five or six years now, I think, and it still works fine. I can tell its age because it’s one of the versions that doesn’t look like the models that Samsung produces — if you remember the more rectangular, blocky one version of the iPhone.
To be honest, I haven’t been keeping up with the newest iPhone trends either. I hear there’s an iPhone X or something now and I guess they’ve ditched the numbering system for the latest iteration of their product.
But one of the fundamental things about iPhones and smartphones in general, I think, is that there really has not been much change regarding their functionality in the past three or four years.
Nothing as revolutionary or as hard-hitting as the touch screen or a portable version of the Internet, when it was first introduced, has manifested again for any major smartphone company in my opinion.

I think it’s a common opinion too. A very recent piece published in the Wall Street Journal by journalists Timothy Martin and Drew FitzGerald spells out the issue pretty clearly:
The smartphone industry has a culprit to blame for slumping sales: Its old devices remain too popular…Many shoppers are balking at price tags for new phones pushing $1,000, and improvements on latest launches in many cases haven’t impressed. (WSJ article)
Photo by Pepi Stojanovski on Unsplash
I also think that this really isn’t really a new or exciting point, but that it gives us some insights when we think about it a little. Sure, it’s common sense that people would want to keep hold of their old phones that work just as well as their newer counterparts thanks to the diligent software updates and support given by companies like Apple and Samsung, but where does it ultimately leave these tech giants for the future?
The article already does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of the research, so here’s a couple of key trends to notice in summary before I speculate a bit about the future:
  1. Smartphone shipment rates are down, according to research conducted by Gartner when comparing 2017 Q4 results with similar data from 2014.
  2. People feel no longer feel as if they are missing out on some rad new tech if they don’t get the latest phone or tablet by opting to stick with an older model.
  3. There’s a growing market of second-hand phones in both developed countries and developing countries such as India or Africa.
Years of what I’d essentially call incestual innovation across generations of smartphones are leading the market to a potentially deafening halt and silence with regard to market activity and enthusiasm.

Anyways, I’d be panicking (at least a little bit?) right now for the future of these tech companies. Besides the exciting advancements in cryptocurrency and machine learning that appear to be dominant in conversations regarding technology nowadays, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of consumer products.
When you imagine the time and effort spent by teams of engineers, developers, manufacturers, and executives in producing products that do not really push the needle forward for innovation, I think a troublesome image of company leadership and direction starts to emerge.

For instance, let’s take a look at what Apple’s CEO Tim Cook had to say about innovation in a very new interview conducted by Robert Safian of FastCompany.
The interview itself, even giving it breadth for its conversational context, meanders around and doesn’t really get to the point. Worse yet, the interview is spent justifying the price of the new products in the name of innovation.
  1. Asked about the performance of his company, Cook replies with an answer I consider so generic that you might attribute the quote to any CEO: “For me, it’s about products and people. Did we make the best product, and did we enrich people’s lives?” The more jarring thing is that it’s not just an answer for PR purposes either, it’s repeated several times as the problem-solving approach to innovation and direction for Apple.
  2. I mean just read the interview and ask yourself if Apple’s really doing anything different from its competitors in the development of better photography tech, augmented reality, the infrastructure and logistics for creating the phones, FaceID (that one actually sounds pretty cool), or even in other products mentioned like the HomePod.
  3. Cook emphasizes a personalized approach to product development, in the sense that Apple develops products in line with the Cook’s statement that, “What drives us is making products that give people the ability to do things they couldn’t do before.”
I don’t think Apple’s come up with something significant in recent times that allows people to do things they couldn’t do before, but I can say I respect them for trying.

On the other side of this argument, I wouldn’t really take my opinion too seriously and I hope and assume that Cook, with his years of leadership experience, knows what he’s doing.
I’m pretty sure your average Apple customers aren’t huge mountains of innovation and inspiration to be mined from. It’s cool that Cook considers them gemstones and all, but I don’t think they’ll get Apple very far.
Regardless, I think the points made by Martin and FitzGerald about the possible stagnation of the smartphone industry need earnest consideration by tech executives as part of the discussion on moving forward in innovation.
It’s more likely to be the other way around, you know, the company takes a innovative risk and sometimes it fails and sometimes it succeeds, kind of like Tesla and Elon Musk. In short, the idea of relying on the customer for the “next big thing” that will revolutionize the industry doesn’t feel right.
In spite of that, the next big leap for electronic devices like phones probably won’t appear for a long time, either until we get something like very realistic and cheap virtual reality, or the technology to implement holographic projections in communications and presentations for the average Joe.
It sounds a bit cynical, but at this point it seems like we can only hope our industry leaders in tech know what they’re doing.


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