New phones bring minor upgrades. Here's why that's okay

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
New phones bring minor upgrades. Here's why that's okay
Wait, which one was the new one again? Let me check in the settings real quick.

In 2018, we saw a lot of new phones, but few of them offered more than a bump across the specs sheet. A couple more gigs of RAM here, 20% better performance there, sprinkled with an hour more screen-on-time and there you have it, the latest and greatest smartphone from Whatever brand.

Naturally, some people find that underwhelming, and with the increasing prices of flagship phones, the natural question arises: Why do we have to pay so much for so little improvement? And while I totally agree that phones have gotten more expensive than they should be, when it comes to the upgrades being only incremental, I’m not judging manufacturers one bit. Here’s why.

The distortion lens of the vocal minority

For one reason or another, smartphone manufacturers, much like sports teams, have fans. Those fans are often loyal and invested in what the company is doing not only more than the average consumer, but more than they should be. And while having fans is generally a good thing, their emotional attachment can also have a negative side.

So when a new phone comes out, who’s most likely to care about it? Tech enthusiasts in general and fans of the brand in particular. Now, fans can often be separated into two categories: those for whom their subject of fandom can do no wrong no matter what. You all know the type. The other category is the fans who put everything under extreme scrutiny because they want only the best. Neither group is really doing the brand a favor.

Tech fandom is more of a by-product than a goal for most manufacturers, and with smartphones becoming so widespread, the fraction of people that are aware of the changes that happen between generations is minuscule.

For the average users that changes phones whenever their contract expires or some part of their device finally breaks, these things don’t matter. They want something that came out recently and looks good. For them, the performance improvement is often 100% if not more from their old device. When they start using their new phone, they’re amazed by how fast it is and how awesome the photos are. Those are the people smartphone manufacturers release top-of-the-line phones for each year or even twice a year.

If you don’t see a reason to switch from your year-old phone to the next generation, don’t go saying how manufacturers are not doing enough or just trying to milk as much money as they can from users (which they obviously are, just not from you specifically). This phone simply wasn’t made for you.

And while it can be somewhat hurtful that a company doesn’t care about its biggest fans and what they want, the truth is, when it comes to technology, fans are not enough. A huge fan of some NFL team, for example, might spend 100 times more on tickets/merchandise/etc. than someone who only tunes in for the games on Sunday. In the smartphone world, however, you only have one Galaxy S9/iPhone XS/whatever just like the guy next door who has no idea why there are two cameras on the back of the damn thing.

There’s something else as well, however…

Manufacturers are doing their best, that’s just how things are now

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard of Moore’s law. If you haven’t, well, it was a prediction about how the number of transistors in chips would double every two years but over time it became a synonym for “technology will improve with great leaps!”. Spoiler alert: this prediction stopped being true a few years ago.

However, a lot of users that witnessed the rapid development of computers and then mobile phones really enjoyed the thrills that came with such fast-paced innovation. They still want to feel the same excitement as when they got a fingerprint scanner on their phone for the first time or amazingly fast 4G internet.

Today’s reality is quite different, however. While we still occasionally get new and exciting features, they’re few and far apart. Meanwhile, engineers in research and development departments over the world are sweating over how to produce a chip using 5nm architecture instead of 7nm, so the latest model can have that boost in performance that people will ultimately find meh.

Some even say that manufacturers are sitting on cool tech and are just feeding us one spoonful at a time to preserve their revenue in the long run. While I have no insights about what’s happening behind the scenes, that sounds a lot like a conspiracy theory. Don’t you think that if Samsung could release a smartphone that will blow the iPhone (and competing Android phones) out of the water and pull millions of users into its ecosystem for the next few years, it wouldn’t do it? 

Or Apple, for that matter, with its almost unlimited financial resources, is offering pretty much the same phone two years in a row, only so that Tim Cook can later write a letter saying “Things aren’t going great, guys!”. I really doubt that was his goal. In a world where investors and shareholders have CEO’s by the... you know, it’s far too big of a risk to hold back on innovation on purpose.

And while I believe that in other industries there have been cases of companies switching to cruise control for a while (looking at you, Intel!), the smartphone market is far too competitive for a company to have the luxury of taking its foot off the gas.

So where does that leave us?

Well, since reality is harder to change than our expectations, I suggest we try the latter. While companies should try to underpromise and overdeliver, we, as consumers should probably adjust to having more realistic (or toned down) expectations of what’s about to come out in a given year. And although that might sound as if I want to let manufacturers off the hook, as long as people are voting with their wallets, companies will get the right cues.


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