Posted by Matt Egan 22 July 2014
Welcome to the upgrade cycle - you'll never leave
You are manipulated into upgrading products when you have no need to do so. And you love it. See also: Cheap is cheerful: why everything must go in the world of smartphones.
I had an odd conversation with a journalist from a well-known tabloid newspaper the other day. You know the one: Princess Di conspiracies, house prices and immigrants.
The lady in question (the reporter, not the queen of our hearts) was looking for a list of the best laptops to buy for an article she was writing. Leaving aside the minor oddity of asking a rival publication for help in parking your tanks on its lawn, it was an interesting question. A consumer products reporter was struggling to understand the laptops market, and it was easy to see why. (I do have sensible advice on this, see: Which laptop to buy: 2014 laptop buying advice, and the best laptops of 2014.)
Laptops are getting cheaper, but they are not selling as well as once they did. Laptops are ubiquitous, but I can't hand on heart tell anyone the best laptop for them. The facts are that the laptops market is now commoditised: you choose specifications and find a price point that suits. Model naming conventions don't change from year to year, because manufacturers live in fear of being caught with stock they cannot sell. And despite the market becoming better and better for purchasers, still it gently slows. The laptop you bought three or four years ago probably still works fine.
This is a problem, both for tech companies and for tabloid journalists used to compiling simple lists of the best products to buy. It's less of a problem for consumers because, well, there is value to be had and no rush to buy.
Fortunately for manufacturers, there are other products that we can be persuaded to upgrade. Year in, year out.
Welcome to the upgrade cycle
My colleague Chris Martin wrote earlier this year about how smartphone specs had flattened out. Once you get into the upper echelons of the smartphone world it is difficult to differentiate very good from great. Battery life remains a key battle ground, but it is one that hasn't been solved. Meanwhile manufacturers such as LG persuade people to switch up by adding in 4K displays. Looks amazing, but not required.
You don't need anything newer than an iPhone 4 to enjoy excellent performance and features. But if you have a three-year-old iPhone 4 you are probably gasping for a new handset. In part this is because manufacturers limit new features and software to newer handsets, without forwards compatibility - I'm not having a dig at Apple, they all do it. But it's also because components such as battery cells degrade in such a way that three years is really too long to run a smartphone handset.
It doesn't need to be that way, however. It's just that having lost the PC-upgrade cycle hardware makers are loathe to stop smartphone users changing handsets every year or two. Telcos have worked out smart ways of tying us into upgrading via contracts, and we as consumers seem to like the thrill of a new phone every year. Meanwhile smartphone resale values remain surprisingly high, because customers further down the financial pecking order are making similar choices with still perfectly functional, older specifications.
It's a trick the tech world hasn't been able to reproduce in other categories. A small percentage of people will upgrade their iPads every time a new one comes out, but in nothing like the same volumes as they do for smartphones. And although activity trackers are starting to proliferate and bleed upwards into smartwatches, it will be fascinating to see if wearables enjoy a similar commercially successful churn.
That's certainly what the manufacturers want. Smartwatches are likely to be tied into specific smartphones, so that if you change phone you must also change watch. It doesn't have to be that way, but it certainly benefits everybody but the consumer to make it so. See also: How additional E Ink displays might help win the smartphone and laptop battery battle.