iPhone 4S, Nexus S and the disappointment of the 2 year update cycle

iPhone 4S, Nexus S and the disappointment of the 2 year update cycle
The tech world moves in strange ways. It seems as if there can be long periods where things move fairly slowly, then in no time at all, everything jumps up a level. On a competitive level, we always assume that the best will be up against the best, but that's not always true, especially with the update cycle in play with mobile devices. To break tech website taboo and use a sports metaphor, we want to see the number one starters facing off against each other, but it has felt for the last couple of years that not everyone is bringing their best, and we think it may just be a simple rotational problem. 

Whether the comparison is fair or not, and we've talked about that issue as well, tech enthusiasts and media heads tend to pit the iPhones against the Google Nexus devices. It makes sense because we can't easily pit the iPhone against whatever is perceived as the best Android device, because that is constantly changing, plus there are issues with added features from manufacturer overlays, etc. Nexus devices are made to be pure and to be Google's version of a carrot to lead Android partners towards certain features. In that way, the Nexus can often serve as an example for the whole Android ecosystem both in current technology (Nexus hardware) and future technology (Nexus software, ie the major Android OS update. So, for the sake of simplicity, we'll just use the iPhone and Nexus as examples in this argument. 

We as consumers are often put on 2 year contracts through our wireless carriers, and this constant, and regular cycling has an impact on the upgrades that all manufacturers decide to make. Each company will still decide the end rate of innovation, based on its goals for profit over cost-of-development, but each company must decide how to best present upgrades for users who are in this cycle. 

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The disappointing announcements

In their own ways, both the iPhone 4S and the Nexus S were disappointments when announced. Many people were disappointed with the recent announcement of the iPhone 4S. We broke down the whole announcement, but it boiled down to a few things:

  1. People expected a hardware redesign and didn't get one
  2. There was no real standout killer new feature
  3. The overall feel of the announcement was more subdued and slow

Ultimately, the iPhone 4S is still a solid device, but just not what people expected. This was very similar to what happened last year with Google's announcement of the Nexus S and Gingerbread, which disappointed for a few reasons including: 

  1. Lack of a significant hardware upgrade
  2. Lack of expected features (SD card slot, HSPA+ on T-Mobile)
  3. No killer feature in Gingerbread

Some of the disappointments were somewhat unavoidable. For instance, people were hoping that the Nexus S would be the first device on the market with a dual-core CPU, but those didn't start hitting the market until February of this year, and Google wanted the Nexus S to be released for the holiday season of last year. Also, the lack of an SD card slot was annoying, but not terrible because of the large internal storage available. More understandable were the hopes for a qHD screen, but Google kept to its mission of pushing AMOLED, both in the hardware, and in the majors feature of Gingerbread, which were a darker theme made to give OLED-screen devices better battery life, and a new file system to encourage larger internal storage in future devices.

The trouble with all of these criticisms is that they leave out a big part of the update process for both the iPhone and Nexus devices: the contract cycle. 

The turnover cycle

The main thing that we do wrong when judging these updates is to compare each with the last device released. So, we compared the Nexus S with the Nexus One and didn't see enough improvement; and similarly, we compared the iPhone 4S with the iPhone 4, and were disappointed because we wanted more of an improvement. This is the wrong way to go about it because, like it or not, the standard 2-year mobile contract from many major carriers dictates the update cycle of these phones. 

Unlike other manufacturers and other platforms, the iPhone and Nexus devices are released once a year, but still have to hit a 2-year turnover cycle. In general, updates are progressing at a speed which pushes users to upgrade after two years, both because of the contract turnover, and also as a built-in mechanism to allow for better updates. Unlike the PC world, where software updates have to be compatible with much older hardware, mobile platforms can more easily make hardware that is 3+ years old obsolete, and expect users to upgrade. 

Because of this, we should be comparing the iPhone 4S with the iPhone 3GS, because those are the users whose contracts are coming to an end, and will be looking to upgrade. The iPhone 4S wasn't designed for iPhone 4 users, because they are at most halfway through a 2 year contract. That's why there was no big hardware update, because Apple doesn't expect many people to break contracts to update to the iPhone 4S, and if you don't already have an iPhone 4, you probably don't care as much that the hardware didn't change (unless you were really holding out for a bigger screen.) 

On the other side, we shouldn't have been comparing the Nexus S to the Nexus One, because even though most Nexus One owners weren't on contract, most weren't going to pony up another $500 (or more depending on where you live) less than a year after buying a phone to upgrade to the Nexus S. The Nexus S was made more to draw in users whose contract was nearing an end, like those with the HTC Magic, and those users were more than happy with the Nexus S given what they were upgrading from. 

Managing expectations

Managing expectations is a theme that we've touched on a few times recently, but it's a very important idea to keep in mind. A one-year turnaround for major releases is almost unheard of in the world of technology, because it is incredibly difficult to conceive, design, and build a new set of compelling features every year, even for companies as big as Apple and Google. And, of course Google has help building the hardware for its Nexus phones, while Apple manages the entire process.  The 2-year turnover cycle is making it so each year there is an upgrade, but the upgrade is targeted to an older set of users than we tend to think, and right now the cycles are in conflict. 

As always, we have to remember also that Apple is a hardware company first, so its major updates are always design oriented, while Google is a software company, so its major updates are more software based. Apple's upgrade cycle right now is putting the major redesign and big updates on even years: the iPhone 3G in 2008, the iPhone 4 in 2010, and the iPhone 5 (which will likely have the hardware redesign, and true 4G radio that we want) in 2012. Whereas, Google's major updates have come on odd years (or close enough) since the Nexus One was targeting holiday season 2009 and Froyo was a huge system-wide performance update thanks to the JIT compiler, and now we're getting the Nexus Prime in 2011 with Ice Cream Sandwich. So, whereas the Gingerbread update was lacking killer features last year, the rumors have a lot of new features on tap for Ice Cream Sandwich from the well-known, like the Honeycombesque UI to unifying tablets and phones, to the lesser known, which are rumored to be a lot more hooks into the system allowing developers to do a lot more cool stuff especially in hooking into Google's online services including possibly the fabled Google Drive (aka Docs rebranding). 

If these features do turn out to be true, the Nexus Prime may be seen as a success even though its hardware update isn't too much different than the iPhone 4S, which brought a similar dual-core CPU, and what's rumored to be the same GPU as the Prime. Although the Prime is packing the major display update that the iPhone brought last year with the first so-called retina display. Of course, therein lies the trouble with the comparisons that are obviously going to be coming next week. Apple has been splitting the hardware updates, with a redesign one year and bigger speed boost the next, but Google is bringing a redesign every year, but pushing all of the features with this redesign. The comparisons to the last generation have skewed the perception of each release, but in the end both devices have screens with similar pixel density, dual-core CPUs, possibly the same GPU, and likely similar cameras (assuming the Prime camera is close to the Samsung Galaxy S II). The big difference comes in that the Nexus Prime is expected to have 4G radios in all the models, and we do have to wait and see what ICS has to offer before really making the argument over software feature comparisons.


Ultimately, it seems that the best options may be exactly what Apple and Google are doing, which is to build for the future one year, and give the pay-off. Apple has a major redesign, then works on more "future" products, like iCloud and how that hooks into iOS. And, Google adds the JIT compiler which makes all phones faster with Froyo, then pushes "future" tech like the EXT4 file system in Gingerbread, and now is back to current with ICS looking to bridge all phones with all tablets. 

The iPhone 4S was somewhat of a disappointment, just like the iPhone 3GS, because when it comes to Apple, people expect a new design, but given the 2-year contract cycle, it makes no sense for Apple to put out a new design every year. Similarly, the Nexus S was somewhat of a disappointment, because it didn't push the hardware or software forward enough, but it seems like the Nexus Prime may do both. The trouble is that next year, it's very likely that the roles will be reversed, and we'll see the major iPhone redesign that we expect, whereas Android Jelly Bean may not have as much to offer as Ice Cream Sandwich has planned, and the hardware for both phones is likely to be similar with quad-core CPUs and all the other bells and whistles that will be standard by the fall of next year. 

When that time comes, we shouldn't be comparing the iPhone 5 to the 4S, or the next Nexus device to the Nexus Prime, because that's not how the update cycle works. The iPhone 5 will be designed for iPhone 4 users, and the next Nexus will be designed for those coming off of Nexus S contracts. The ebb and flow of update cycles is pushing at different times for each company right now. Many consumers and media heads are more interested on a year-over-year upgrade for devices, but Apple and Google, just like all manufacturers, are more concerned with 2-year update cycles. We need to learn that this pattern may actually be for the best right now, because it gives those coming off contracts a worthy update while not angering those in the middle of their contracts with an update that's too big. If we don't like the pattern, the fault lies with the carriers' insistence on 2-year contracts, not with upgrade speed or quality from manufacturers.

(Side note: thanks to all the late-night commenters (by US Eastern time clock), you guys were instrumental in the editing of this article.)

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