With the small year-over-year changes to smartphones, maybe it’s time to ditch the yearly upgrade cycle. It would be better for consumers, the environment, and more.
Every year all the big players release new smartphones. Sure, they’re shiny and have big spec lists, but the $1,200 Galaxy S23 Ultra, expensive iPhone 14 Pro, and others aren’t the huge upgrade we want them to be. Maybe it’s time to stop releasing phones every year.
The first decade or so of the iPhone, Android, and Samsung’s onslaught of Galaxy devices was an exciting time. Back then, it was easier to justify buying a new phone yearly, and I’d almost argue we all needed to, thanks to the quick technological advancements.
Phones quickly got bigger and faster, had more cameras, and unique apps arrived all the time. Don’t get me wrong. Devices are still advancing with more capable cameras or longer battery life. That said, buying a $1,000 phone right now from any manufacturer will be worth keeping for several years. So, here are some thoughts and arguments against the annual release cycle.
First off, why do Samsung and Apple release phones every year? Well, for several reasons. Phone makers know that just about everyone has a phone, and people buy them and random times of the year. Not everyone gets the latest iPhone the first week or two after it comes out.
Many wait for deals, discounts, or an existing phone to break or get a cracked screen, then finally bite the bullet and get another one. At any moment, one of the millions of customers could be in the market for a fancy new phone, and manufacturers want to ensure they have a tempting new phone on billboards or TV to tease them. And that’s without mentioning the endless supply of “leaks” and constant rumors.
It’s all about staying relevant and fresh in consumers’ minds, tempting us with something fun or new, and, let’s be honest; it’s super profitable. You have to keep investors happy and profits up, right?
Apple, Samsung, Google, and almost all other phone makers could take a cue from the automotive and game console industry.
Can you imagine if Microsoft or Sony released a new game console every year with minor upgrades but charged top dollar? Or, what if Ford and Chevrolet released completely revamped vehicles yearly with a slightly bigger infotainment display and different tires? It makes no sense and is extremely expensive to research, develop, and manufacture.
Instead, we get massively meaningful and game-changing advancements on a new console every three or five years. The same happens with vehicles, where a 2nd or 3rd gen model arrives years later with significant changes.
Sure, Sony revised the PS5 a few years ago, but that’s not the same as releasing an all-new phone every 11-12 months. I think phone makers could learn a thing or two from the auto industry.
Honestly, these days it takes two or three years (or longer) before phones get substantial upgrades worth paying for. I use a two-year-old Galaxy S21 Ultra, and it’s still an absolutely fantastic phone. It has the same massive screen as newer models, has terrific battery life, and has excellent cameras. No, I don’t have a crazy 200MP camera, but I don’t need one.
Simply put, there aren’t enough changes to warrant all the time, work, effort, and expenses that’ll go into the switch. Maybe the Galaxy S24 Ultra next year will get a big design overhaul or something more meaningful to lure me in.
The iPhone 14 Pro is in a similar boat, with even fewer marginal upgrades over its previous model. If manufacturers released phones every 2-3 years instead, here’s what we could expect.
While software updates and device support are a bigger problem in the Android ecosystem than on the iPhone, both could be better. If Samsung didn’t release dozens of different phone models every year, maybe it wouldn’t be spread so thin regarding product support.
Even OnePlus or Google, which only release a few phones each year, could double down on supporting the phones currently available for longer periods, with better results and fewer mistakes.
Instead, we get Android or iOS updates that often do more harm than good and are rushed to devices, all while trying to keep up with the next big device, OS release, etc. And while Samsung is one of the best, offering four years of OS updates, maybe releasing new phones less frequently would help extend that further.
Again, imagine if manufacturers didn’t release so many phones every year and could take their time and get things right with upgrades, support devices longer, and deliver more meaningful upgrades along the way. Sounds nice, right?
So much time, effort, and money goes into the yearly upgrade cycle. What if Apple, Samsung, Google, and others released a phone and then spent the next 2+ years throwing money at game-changing advancements or R&D?
Instead of putting all that effort into another phone coming out in 11 months, it could focus on actual technological advancements rather than minor spec bumps or more RAM that doesn’t change how we use our phones daily.
Folding phones are neat. I love my 120Hz smartphone display with its under-screen fingerprint scanner, and having a slew of cameras on the rear makes it easy to take great photos and videos. I’ve had all that for several years, though, and I’m confident I’m not the only one waiting on a bigger step up.
More importantly, think about the environmental impact and all that e-waste. Every year several companies jump on stage and talk about “tackling climate change” or designing phones with the planet in mind. They throw up a few slides and infographics, mention “going green,” and use fluff words.
Every little bit counts and those boxes made from recycled goods or plastic-free packaging are great. Brands talk about recycled parts inside phones, usually with an asterisk somewhere confirming how low the recycled percentage contents truly are. It’s typically minuscule.
All those small changes for sustainability and the environment are amazing, sure. But a far more significant impact would be to stop releasing another phone every year and shipping 50 million boxes worldwide. And don’t even get me started on all the cases, phone accessories, and all that waste.
Users wouldn’t feel the need to replace that completely capable one or two-year-old phone, create more e-waste, and “recycle” a phone that didn’t need replacing. The savings from ditching the annual release cycle would far outweigh all these small steps brands brag about on stage. If smartphone brands genuinely want to make a difference, stop releasing phones every year.
Last but not least, think about how much easier it would be on everyone’s wallet. I mean everyone—suppliers, materials, shipping, manufacturers, retailers, and consumers. If Apple didn’t need to make a phone every year and push it so hard, future devices could be more affordable for everyone.
Phone makers wouldn’t have to spend mind-boggling amounts of money on advertising for those tiny year-over-year upgrades to convince people. Instead, an exciting new phone release every 2-3 years would sell itself. Consumers would save money, and manufacturers could too.
So, in closing, maybe it’s time for companies to stop releasing new phones every year. Focus on the great devices already out, support them longer, and put more effort into notable and unique upgrades that improve the user experience by leaps and bounds. Get buyers excited about phones again.
It would be better for the planet and everyone involved. Well, except for maybe the shareholders.