Have Smart Phones Gone the Way of the PC?
Have we reached the point where the processing speed, connectivity, and cameras on our smart phones are simply good enough?
Apple has cut way back on production of the iPhone X and, despite the introduction of three new models this year, sales are well below the 2015 peak. We may simply be at the point we reached more than a decade ago with desktop and notebook devices: improvements are so incremental that there is little urgency to upgrade.
I was a rather late adopter of the personal computer, not buying my first rig until I was a young Army officer, circa 1989. It was a 8088 machine that was less than state-of-the-art even at the time, with 640 KB RAM, an 8 MB hard drive, and ran on MS DOS and the big floppy disks. I also had a dot matrix printer. That machine was so obsolete by the time I started writing my dissertation in 1993 that, even on a grad student stipend, I felt that I had to suck it up and invest another $2000 or so in buying a new one. The replacement was a 486/25 with 2 MB RAM, a 40 MB hard drive that had both the floppy drive and one for the newer hard discs and ran Windows 3.1. The replacement printer was still dot matrix but much faster and higher quality.
The cycle continued for roughly two decades: every three or four years my machine had become obsolete because the new ones could run software and otherwise do things that mine couldn’t. And, because I tended to skip a generation or two in between, every upgrade was very much worth it—bringing genuine excitement over the improvement.
By the mid-2000s, though, while the industry continued to produce better, faster machines—which were cheaper in real dollars and radically cheaper in constant dollars than the first few iterations I owned—my machines had become appliances. Even though I still prefer using a desktop machine to a laptop, the ones I have are more than good enough to access the Internet, do word processing, write the blog, and so forth. So I only buy a new machine when the old one needs a massive repair and barely notice any improvement despite going five, six, or seven years in between.
I was a much later adopter of mobile phone technology, not buying my first until somewhere around 1999-2000. I went through at least three phone-only models before getting my first Blackberry around 2004. My first iPhone was a 3GS in 2009. I dutifully upgraded to the 4S in 2011 and the 5S in 2013. Because the companies quit subsidizing the phones with “free upgrades” and because I’m so constantly connected, I resolved simply to get on a payment plan and upgrade annually, figuring it was worth the $30-35 month installment payment in perpetuity and got the 6-Plus, 6S-Plus, and 7-Plus after the Christmas rush in 2014, 2015, and 2016.
I was fully expecting to get a 7S-Plus or 8-Plus or whatever at the end of 2017 but Apple decided to release three new phones–the 8, 8-Plus, and X. I didn’t want any of them enough to pay for them. The 8-Plus would have been a modest upgrade to the 7-Plus, I suppose, but the existence of the X made it seem like buying a less-than-new phone. And the X, strangely, comes with not only a massive price increase but a smaller screen. (Yes, theoretically, the screen dimension is bigger than the 7-Plus I have now. But it actually shows less content because of the different aspect ratio.) Nor are any of the new features—wireless charging, facial recognition, or the weird thing where you turn yourself into an emoji–particularly compelling.
So, even though it feels like I’m essentially wasting money by not upgrading (the trade-in value of the 7-Plus is falling while I’m paying for it, which was the rationale* for annual vice every-other-year upgrades) there’s just no good reason to buy either the 8-Plus or the X. And, with the payments expiring in December, whatever comes after the X is going to have to be an even-more-significant improvement to make it worth getting back into financing a new phone.
Have we reached the point where the processing speed, connectivity, and cameras on our smart phones are simply good enough? And where new features are novelties rather than real improvements?
*Because the price of the newest phone remained essentially constant year-over-year, the trade-in of the one-year-old phone was enough to keep the payments the same. Waiting a year meant forgoing the upgraded camera and other features while paying the same monthly rate. The only cost of switching was the need for a new case and the difference in sales tax.
I’m still using a Samsung Galaxy S3 mini, because i can change the battery on it. :))
I think it’s a combination of things. Some of the things you list are playing a role, but other factors are clearly at play.
First, these phones are commonplace now rather than the novelties they were at the time the first iPhone came out. They are virtually at the point of being ubiquitous as anyone who looks around when they’re out and about can tell you. Because of this the population of “new” customers is smaller than it used to be.
Second, the phones are built to last longer than they used to. There was a time when taking advantage of the “upgrade free” option that wireless companies offer if you sign a new contract used to make sense because the phone you had was either becoming less reliable or less able to keep up with new apps, or because the new phones offered some new feature that was attractive. Today, phones can last far longer if you take care of them and newer apps usually work just fine on older phones. I have an HTC M9, an Android phone that’s probably two upgrade cycle behind the curve but I see no reason to upgrade at this point.
Sure there’s till the geek and the fanboy/fangirl audience that will buy whatever new thing Apple or Samsung or whomever puts out, but there’s not really a *need* to do it, and with something like the iPhone X going for $1,000 it’s not exactly something the ordinary person can afford easily.
I’ve been saying for awhile that the next “big” thing in the smartphone world would come not from the features but if and when someone developed a phone with much longer battery life. Even there, though, there are options for people who want to keep older phones. For example, I have a handful of Mophie batteries that I keep charged. If I know I’m going to be out and away from somewhere that I can plug in for a quick charge, I bring one of them with me and charge the phone when it’s needed.
I don’t think we’re seeing the smartphone going the way of the PC just yet, although that day will probably inevitably come, but we’re also no longer in the era where they were such new thiings that people would upgrade even when it didn’t make sense technologically or economically. That will likely impact the bottom line of manufacturers and wireless companies, but the market will have to adapt.
Some people are going back to the flip phone. These are cheaper, more rugged, and the charge lasts longer.
I wonder where the digital camera is going. Evidently someone is still buying them.
@Doug Mataconis: Yeah, they were coming out with a MUCH better phone every two years and the old ones couldn’t support those new functions. That’s decreasingly true.
@Tyrell: I use my iPhone primarily as a mobile Internet connection, secondarily as a camera, and only tertiarily as a phone. And I never actually had a flip phone, going from a very small brick-style phone to the Blackberry.
Like James says in a comment above, I tend to use my phone more for its Internet connection and for messaging than I do for, well, phone calls.
I resisted a smart phone for a long time, two years ago it was time to replace the old flip phone. Read a bunch of reviews and geek recommendations and bought a phone that was described by several reviewers as the the cheapest handset that you would not be embarrassed to own. That phone w/max memory and storage was about $220, beyond that added as second memory card for about $25. Short of destroying they thing, I can’t imagine that I won’t be using it for another 5-10 years. Given how I use it, the availability of a 5G network will confer little benefit to me, so that pending event won’t be a reason to upgrade.
Decided to own the phone, so that I could move between carriers on my terms, by simply replacing the SIM card. Also got a Android phone, as I can’t see the value of spending extra money to get an iPhone.
I suspect there will always be a higher turnover in phones than PCs, simply because they are a handheld device and will suffer the occasional drop on a ceramic tile floor or into the toilet.
@MarkedMan: Yes, fair point. With screen repair costing upwards of $100, it wouldn’t take long for it to be cheaper to simply buy a new phone.
My first PC changed my life. Till then editing a manuscript was a horror of scissors, paste and xerox machines.
I got my first cellphone in 1996 (Nokia IIRC) and my first iPhone as soon as they arrived on scene. I can no longer be separated from my phone by more than 10 feet. I don’t recall what life was like before the iPhone, and I don’t care, because a life where you just have to sit on the toilet without being connected to a whole universe of data can only be a very dark time and best forgotten.
That said, I was forced by circumstance – dropped phone – to go from a 6 plus to an 8. What a pain in the ass. I can no longer listen to headphones while charging the phone. I need two sets of headphones at all times – one for the phone, one for my laptop.
They say the 8 has a better screen and better camera. Uh huh. Here’s the thing, I was just in a very nice restaurant in Vegas, perusing the wine list, and spotted a $6,000 Corton Charlemagne. Now, I like wine, and I have a decent palate. But I don’t have the palette to differentiate meaningfully between a $6,000 Corton and a good $80 bottle of any white Burgundy. The sommelier and I had a laugh about it, with him admitting he’d never sold that costly a bottle to anyone who he thought had the palate to know the difference.
That’s where we are with iPhones. We are no longer seeing leaps and bounds, we’re seeing baby steps and small stumbles. I have a perfectly good bottle of white Burgundy and lack the palette to care about minuscule differences in performance. My screen is fine. My speed is fine. The camera is fine. Now what?
@Sleeping Dog: because I always had my laptop with me for 20 years, I never felt the reason to go beyond a flip phone, and the flip phone was also incredibly cheap. But finally two months ago I broke down and got an LG G5 for about 250, and it’s pretty amazing to have always available internet connection, but on the downside the mobile experience sucks a lot harder than the internet on my laptop.
@Tyrell: My employer had to buy some flip phones a few years ago. Security didn’t allow cameras on the USS Ford during construction and it took some effort to find phones without them. Not sure you still can.
I never graduated from the flip phone, though the one I have has a camera and a browser. I already own two desktops, two laptops, and a tablet, and I figured, “Enough already.”
Did you see the video from the Curiosity rover on Mars that was released last night? Charlie Pierce tweeted:
We have gotten really good at everything except governing.
Sometimes I can’t help but think that many of us just get the newest “flagship” phones simply because we can. I justify having a fairly new and fairly high end (LG G6) phone by the fact that I like to take pictures and want to have a reasonably good camera always in my pocket. That said, I usually go longer between upgrades than my wife, who always had to have the newest Samsung shortly after it came out. That changed this past December when she decided (due to her job as a teacher’s aide) that she really “needed” a smart watch that would allow her to receive calls and texts even if she didn’t have her phone with her. Also, since she has small wrists, the watch couldn’t be too big. Of course, the only smart watch that fit all those criteria were the new ones from Apple. As a result, she now has an iPhone as well. I’m actually hoping that this will cure her of her upgrade addiction and we might actually be able to pay off and keep this one in 18 months.
Finally, my youngest daughters also have phones of their own, and shopping for new ones recently is what led me to my opening thought about whether or not we really “need” flagship phones. The phones that I got for my daughters cost $150 and $175. Obviously they do not have the same components and features as our “adult” phones. But they are none-the-less surprisingly capable, and certainly not 4x or 5x worse than the phones that mommy and daddy carry around in our pockets.
lol, that said, I’m realistic. There’s no way I could convince my wife that a $175 dollar phone would be good enough for her. 🙂
I had an iphone 4 briefly, which I then upgraded to a Samsung Galaxy Note 3. Currently I have a Galaxy Note 5.
While I call them phones, they’re really compact, highly portable computers that can make phone calls. I use them a lot. To play podcasts and audiobooks while I drive, cook or exercise; to navigate the hellish traffic on weekdays; to read news and online articles I save off line; to read ebooks; and to play games. Also facebook, email and some web browsing.
Best of all, I’ve paid a total of zero dollars and zero cents for all of them 🙂 Cell service is provided by my employer, so I don’t pay that, either 🙂
The next step in development would be to make them real compact, highly portable computers that can take over for a laptop or a desktop. Firefox tried this a couple of years back. You’d dock the phone to a work-station with a big screen, keyboard and mouse, for example, and to landline power as well. The technology wasn’t there yet, and it still isn’t (and how do you answer a call when your phone is docked?). But that’s where we’ll wind up.
You could have workstations at home and at the office, with their own separate hard drives. Laptop shells that are useless until you dock the phone to them. Essentially the phone will become the CPU and part of the RAM of your larger PCs, while still operating independently for more portable uses.
The big downside is if your phone breaks, your laptop and desktops break also.
I also have a Nexus 7 2012 tablet (that one I paid for). It’s stuck on Android Kit-Kat, as Lollipop makes it as near to a brick as possible, and it won’t run higher version OSs. It doesn’t run nearly as well as it did when it was three years old, never mind new, but it runs. I used it a lot at first, but the phone has taken its place in many ways. These days I just use it for a bit in bed before going to sleep and after waking up.Eventually it will run too slow to be worth keeping around, and/or the battery will degrade. But it’s served me very well for five years (I got it in 2013).
Not yet, but they are close. I have taken to buying the previous year’s flagship, gently used, on trading sites like Swappa. I am not inclined to upgrade every year, I’d like to stretch it out to 2 years. I refuse to pay anything like $800+ for a phone. That’s just ridiculous. I can get a decent gaming laptop for that money.
There are capable mid-range phones for $300-$400 that are probably worth buying brand new in the first year, and they are even cheaper in the second year. Of course, they are all Androids, but as a platform, Android and Apple are pretty much on par with each other. Android has only a few things Apple doesn’t, and vice versa.
I have a Nexus 6P that I got when I cracked my Nexus 6, and that is going to stick around a while. I also have a Nexus 7 2013 tablet (the second generation one) and it’s doing great. I don’t use it as much now, but it’s great as my jukebox in my car – just download tons of music on it and play the downloaded music when not listening to the radio.
I think that in terms of the upgrade cycle, smartphone and desktops have some similarities.
Unlike desktops, however, which some people have replaced with laptops, Chromebooks, or even tablets (I bought my kids desktops several years ago–they barely used them, instead then used their iPads from school and I will be sending my middle son off to college next year with a Chromebook), there is no replacement for smartphones on the horizon.
As noted above, smartphones are pocket computers. I used mine for entertainment, work, and other things all day long. Although yes, I am not likely to upgrade just because a new phone is out (and my last upgrade was, like Michael Reynolds, because of a dropped phone).
A side note to this conversation: how many of us have dropped land lines because of our smartphones?
@Steven L. Taylor:
I haven’t had a landline phone since roughly 2006, and I haven’t missed it.
@Steven L. Taylor:
I have a landline still, but only because the broadband package I deemed most convenient had a landline included. But I only have one phone hooked to it, in the kitchen, and I can’t tell you when I used it last. I never pick up, though. I figure if a call is important, they’ll dial my cell phone.
@Doug Mataconis: We kept ours longer than needed because it was part of the cable package. When we went to DirectTV that was the end of that. I do not miss it at all since most of the calls were some kind of solicitation.
BTW do not EVER buy a phone with under 16 GB memory.
I have a company-issued Samsung “Grand Prime” (two lies for the price of one), with 8 GB. After moving all movable apps to a micro SD card and uninstalling or disabling all unwanted crapware apps, and some useful ones like the MS Office suite, it nevertheless keeps running out of memory and 1) won’t update any apps (not even those in the SD card), 2) some apps no longer work at all (like Gmail won’t fetch any new mail).
I’m looking into resetting it this weekend just so I can bring some apps up to date.What I’d like is to jail-break it (or root it, if that’s the term). See, Android M and above allows you to switch external memory (the SD card) for internal one (the one on the phone), and that would neatly solve the problem. Except the Samsung overlay on the Android M in this phone has that option disabled.
I’ve been unable to root it, though. My IT go-to guys haven’t figured out how, either.
Otherwise, the phone is perfectly fine. it runs well and gives me no problems. But the limited internal memory renders it of limited usefulness. Fortunately I placed the company SIM chip in my own 32 GB phone.
@michael reynolds: “I can no longer listen to headphones while charging the phone.”
I can’t recommend highly enough that you invest in the Apple wireless earbuds. It’s a bit of an exaggeration to say they’re life-changing, but the sense of liberation at not dealing with those cords is amazing. And I like the sound far better even than the hundred dollar Bose earbuds I’d been buying for years. And it solves the charging problem.
@Teve tory: Pretty much I use my phone for music, email, messaging and snap shots with a bit of internet and mapping throw in. If I get or send an email that requires more than a dozen or so words, I wait till I’m at my computer. To d____ hard to type efficiently on the virtual keyboard.
@Steven L. Taylor: I still have it because it’s literally cheaper than the same Internet package without VOIP. But I’m at the point where I’m simply going to disconnect it altogether because 95% of the calls are spam. Sadly, that’s rapidly becoming the case with my mobile as well.
@James Joyner: My default ringtone is silence, with no vibration.
I don’t need to be contacted by anyone that I don’t know.
…they’ll dial my cell phone.
The last time I “decommissioned” a rotary dial telephone was about 17 years ago. Even then I had not seen one still in service for years.
When I told the customer that it could not be repaired and that I would replace it with a new pushbutton model, she picked it up off the counter and clutched it to her bosom like it was her first born child. “I can’t give up my phone!” she said.
Fortunately for me her son was there and pretty much had to pry it out of her hands.
When the new phone was installed I had her call a neighbor to be sure it was working.
She was amazed when the called party started ringing after she released the last button instead of waiting for the dial to retract.
“That’s fast!” She said with a smile.
I offered to leave her the old instrument as a souvenir.
“Take it.” she said. “It’s just junk now.”
Another satisfied customer.
Fyi OTB is suffering this scam ad problem
@Sleeping Dog: I started using voice recognition I think in the 90’s with Dragon Naturally Speaking. It was great at the time but not really useful. But nowadays, damn, I talk to this thing more than I type on it.
@Teve tory: Our new developer is working on a rebuild of the site that will eliminate all the ads and slowly reintegrate some of them. Right now, it’s nearly impossible to figure out which network is serving which ad.
@wr: I second the AirPods recommendation. I do a lot of conference calls and the sound is fantastic, both listening and talking. But what has me in “never go back” mode are a couple of other things. One is that when my wife walks into the room and starts talking to me I simply pull an earbud out and it pauses whatever I am listening to. I pop it back in and it starts up. And another thing: I can easily switch from my phone to my tablet to my computer with just a couple of clicks. Now, when I use my previous Bluetooth headset (for working out) and switch from my phone (audio books or podcasts while I stretch and do weights) to my iPad (bad TV shows on NetFlix when I’m on the elliptical, I find myself getting annoyed by the routine of going to settings, scrolling to Bluetooth, finding the right headset, disconnecting, picking up the other device and going through the steps for that one.
@wr: @MarkedMan: I’ve resisted the AirPods because they’re expensive and I’ve find that the previous generation earbuds and various aftermarket bluetooth devices that I’ve bought are easily lost or broken. I’d hate to lose a $160 AirPod.
I’ve heard they’re very good, and I might go for it, but if I do it’s four pairs, not one – 4 phones in the family. Then I’d immediately buy two extra pairs because within 24 hours the first pair will be lost. The second within a week, tops. Then I have to buy the seventh, the eighth, the ninth pair. . .
As it is I probably buy a set of wired earbuds every month. That’s 12 X $29 for a total of $348 per annum. I’d say the loss rate with the wireless will be at least 50% greater, so that I’d be looking at 18 x $159, totaling $2,862. Are the bluetooth buds eight times better? Given that most of what I listen to are audiobooks and podcasts, I’m not seeing much upside to balance out the shocking increase in cost.
Oh, and the iPhone X can stick its facial recognition. . . Right now I draw my phone from my back pocket, thumb over the button, and it’s open before I see the screen. With the X I draw the phone and before I can see the screen I have to hold it in front of my face.
Why? It’s slower, not faster; less convenient, not more. And no physical button? Bulldoody. Half the time the button is the only reliable thing on the phone.
This is an excellent example of the difference between a smart, motivated, competent manager, and a genius. Tim Cook is not a genius, he’s just a good businessman. He’s a commodity producer not a visionary. So we get these over-engineered products that actually reduce the usefulness of the device because no one has given the engineers a vision. The product gets more expensive and worse at the same time. Eventually people realize they’re just buying a loaf of bread, not some sexy new toy, numbers fall off, customers go looking for better deals.
Apple is coasting, and I see no evidence that they are positioned to win the competition for AIs or self-driving cars.
@Teve tory: Building a better mousetrap only enhances the evolution of sneakier mice.
My 80TB home server laughs at the idea that the PC is dead. My ThinkPad in the living room brings me the world
iPhone? TECHOPHOBES! Harrumph!!!
Android. An accessible, expandible system (that doesn’t decide what is “best ” for you and slow the OS down with each upgrade).
Tell me the wristwatch is dead, sure I get that. The camera as well. And landlines. Ask a kid about a landline and you may as well say 8-Track tapes.
But the smartphone? Sure, the Apple Smartphone is dead as the technophobes hit the maximum limit of what they can do with a phone/ camera/ browser / Social Network Update tool.
After all, the biggest feature in the last few years has been adding different case colors, amiright?
But the rest of us NOT in Apple bondage still want faster, smarter and better.
@Liberal Capitalist: Ha. As one who prefers a desktop PC to a mobile device or even a laptop/notebook for daily work—indeed, I’m typing this on a desktop—I’m not arguing that they’re dead. Merely that, with the exception perhaps of the most avid gamers, upgrades are, at best, in the nice-to-have rather than essential category at this point.
My girls both have relatively modern iPads and I have an old iPad and newish iPhone, so there’s an appeal to remaining in the ecosystem. But I’m not really seeing anything out there in the Android world that’s calling to me, either. There are a couple of interesting features on the Google Pixel 2 that have me considering moving in that direction but, again, the cost is significant enough that, even being relatively affluent, it’s enough to cause me to pause and say, Is it really worth $700?
“He’s a commodity producer not a visionary. So we get these over-engineered products that actually reduce the usefulness of the device because no one has given the engineers a vision.”
I’d have to disagree with some of this: it isn’t typical that a really good manager makes things worse. It sounds to me like Cook is *trying and failing* to have “vision,” and as such maybe also *isn’t* the good manager or producer of commodities that you’re positing.
@James Joyner: The lost earbud is a concern, but so far (6 mos) I haven’t lost them. But that is due in part to the fact that I keep the charging case in my pocket and I’ve disciplined myself to never take them out of my ears without putting them in the case.
I do wonder often wonder why people don’t get more into personal builds. I have an older smartphone and a tablet, but I build my own desktops. I have a crazy rig for less than what an Iphone X costs. Maybe the same reason people don’t change their own oil.
Fair point. I was falling into the trap of equating success in the stock market now, with a future.
I haven’t had a landline in at least a decade, but I’m actually thinking about getting one installed now. After going through long-duration power outages and cell disruptions in NJ after Sandy and then especially in PR after Maria, I’ve developed a new appreciation for how incredibly fragile our modern communication system really is. I know the landline system was widely impacted in PR as well, of course, but that was a pretty extreme situation. Subscribing to a sat phone service “just in case” is way too expensive, but adding at least a landline to my existing cell and cable-internet services seems like a pretty cheap way of diversifying my communication options in an emergency.
@R.Dave: Not an unfair point, but even a cable-based landline is going to go down with long-term power outages. I do remember old school phone company landlines had independent power and typically did not go down with power outages.
Yeah, it’s the old-school landline that I’m looking for. I grew up in a rural area with lots of snowfall, so our power went out all the time in the winter, but I don’t recall ever losing our phone service. Even when the whole region was dark for weeks after the 1998 ice storm, the phones kept working. That said, I’m not sure old-school landlines are even available in most places these days.
Phones aren’t going to get any better until they have a 19-inch screen and a keyboard, and yet can somehow fold down and fit in your pocket.
@Kathy: Me too, the landline is part of the package. Also, over decades, we’ve given that number to a thousand people and organizations, many of whom use it for ID. We never answer it, if you really want to talk to me, leave a message. Which, about once a month someone I do want to talk to does. We’ll be moving this year and won’t get a new landline.