Is the Smartphone Dying?

In the late 2000s and early 2010s, each new iPhone launch was met with an outstanding level of hype. At the time, the technology was so new and exciting that every year Apple’s smartphone would make the news with its shiny new features, with thousands of people waiting in lines outside Apple stores for the chance to get their hands on one on release day. But these days, that hype has largely died down, and while their is certainly buzz surrounding new iPhone releases, it’s nowhere near the levels it was in the time of the first iPhones. New features and designs have become predictable, often consisting of improved performance, cameras, and battery life, all notable improvements, but not innovations in the same way that the iPhone 4’s FaceTime camera or the iPhone 5s’ fingerprint sensor were. This decline in hype is what causes some tech analysts to say that smartphone innovation has plateaued, and the platform is on the edge of decline. Many see smartphones as going in the same direction that PCs went in the late 1980s and early 2000s, where performance and innovation had plateaued and customers weren’t upgrading nearly as often as they had in the past as a result. On the other hand, smartphone manufacturers are desperately trying to fend off this curve, largely through introducing gimmicky new features like modularity and three-dimensional technology, or through developing new form factors for phones, such as the ever so popular folding form. The truth is that these new features have been doing very little to generate hype around new releases, and even less to entice users to upgrade to newer models. But does this mean the smartphone is dead? Not exactly. While innovation in the smartphone space has certainly began to plateau, smartphones will largely remain relevant for the next few years if for nothing else than lack of a better alternative. Back in the early 90s, desktop PCs continued to sell despite a plateau in innovation largely because consumers didn’t have anywhere else to go for their computing needs, as laptops and portables had yet to pack sufficient power into their smaller frames, thus making them impractical for many users. The same is true now, wearables are not yet sufficiently usable to offer any real competition or threat to the well established smartphone, and until they can do so, the smartphone will be the go to mobile computer for the general population. The real issue comes in trying to hold on to customers and pushing them to upgrade, so that companies developing products for the post-smartphone future have enough income to do so. One avenue that is growing in popularity is the subscription/reoccurring revenue approach, which sees customers paying a certain amount over a period of time for a phone they don’t own but essentially lease until a newer model comes out, where the process continues. This software as a service and automotive industry inspired approach is popular among companies like Apple as it demands less innovation and guarantees a steady stream of income, while still allowing users to get a shiny new device each year, even if it isn’t drastically different under the surface from their last. Another way that companies achieve the same result is by charging more for their phones, as people tend to hold onto them for longer periods of time, thus allowing companies to make the same amount of money off of customers as before, just in a shorter period of time. One final approach is the much maligned practice of artificially slowing down older phones, as to push users to newer and seemingly faster devices. While this practice gets a bad rep, it does have some benefits, like pushing users to newer devices with better user experiences they may not have experienced without said push. To conclude, the smartphone has definitely slowed down in terms of innovation, but it’s far from dead, as there is nothing currently that can offer any sort of real alternative to it, and companies like Apple and Samsung will continue to push new devices to users in new and unique ways, with success, until this isn’t the case.

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