The smartphone plateau

Since buying my first ever mobile phone in 1999 (Siemens C25!) in Delhi (when I started working), I have bought and sold a lot of mobile and smart phones. After that Siemens, I was a steady Nokia fan for quite a few years, like the rest of the world, before breaking the spell (the e61i was my last Nokia) with a BlackBerry.

All the phones I have owned, I have used them for at least 1-2 years minimum, except a terrible Samsung phone called X820 that was advertised as the world’s thinnest phone (at 6.9mm!).

It was so attractively thin that it also had a very thin, and poor, battery. So Samsung gave an extra battery free (in the box!) and I thought that was great value! On the 3rd day, I was driving back home in the evening from office and got a call, while waiting at a traffic signal. I looked at the phone and the battery died. I had the spare battery with me, but at that point, I realized the futility of the free battery, on the road 🙂

I gave back that phone within 2 months and exchanged it for some other Samsung phone if I recall right.

My first smartphone was the Samsung Galaxy S2 and I loved it! But every smartphone I bought ended up with 2 distinctive things – disappointing performance after the first year and a more compelling smartphone feature(s) in the market in other newer models. It wasn’t just the latter alone, the former was a big factor too.

I have always been on Android and have never owned an iPhone (though I swear by a MacBook laptop) and have heard from more than enough iPhone owners that they experience something similar too – that the performance of their existing iPhones start to feel like it is degrading as soon as a new iPhone is announced.

At least in the case of Apple, that is not a conspiracy theory because Apple admitted that they do indeed do this themselves, for a specific and good reason!

With Android, at least Samsung phones feel very similar to Windows – it starts out to be very good and eventually, the performance gets slower with more gunk accumulating inside the device. This has happened to my Motorola Nexus 6 and Huawei Google Nexus 6P too.

My 5 smartphones so far and the month-year of purchase:
June 2011 – Galaxy S2 I9100
May 2013 – Galaxy S4
November 2014 – Nexus 6
April 2016 – Nexus 6P
February 2018 – OnePlus 5T

I continue to own the OnePlus 5T and can easily vouch for it even today. There is no noticeable degradation in performance and I have no complaints whatsoever with it! That is perhaps one major reason why I’m not even excited about newer phone models.

The parallel reason is also the fact that there have not been really compelling new features that force me to ‘upgrade’. If there’s that interesting to upgrade, why should I even think of upgrading?

Globally, the data backs this too, in terms of stagnating growth levels of smartphone sales, despite us hearing mega numbers being advertised when new models are launched (most recently, announced by OnePlus). The OnePlus 7T is nice, but not tempting. I have completely stopped looking at Samsung’s new models; they have become a blind-spot to me much like new sequels of the Bollywood film, Houseful.

Is this oddly stagnant trend here to stay? Are you experiencing this not-enough-reason-to-upgrade your smartphone too? Or do you, out of sheer habit, replacing your smartphones every year with newer models?

What should one expect as the next upgrade-worthy feature(s) in smartphones? Already, things like wireless charging and foldable screens seem like gimmicks that don’t significantly change the way we use the devices. The less said about cameras the better since that area is competing with the number of blades in shaving razors.

At least for me, some of the features that I expect (may sound like science fiction) are things that enhance the device’s usability. For example,

1/ True eye-tracking as a way to move things on the screen, like scrolling. Is this even possible (to avoid scrolling by finger)? I don’t know, but it sounds like a useful addition worthy of an upgrade. I assume this can only be made possible with extra sensors (and a bigger notch?) so this has to be a hardware-led change, not just software/app.

2/ Far, far, far better battery. Say, a battery that lasts 3-4 days, instead of a single-day battery. Right now, we have come to expect any decent smartphone to last for a day+ maximum with our normal usage. If it lasts twice that period, that could be a solid enough reason to upgrade.

3/ Corollary to the 2nd point: remote, over-the-air wireless charging. Is this even possible – the equivalent of wifi; imagine you switching on the charge-from-nearby spot button and any nearby power source connects with the phone to start charging over-the-air! I do understand that this needs a much broader ecosystem upgrade. But then, if city-wide wifi is a possibility, why not this too?

4/ Corollary to the 1st point: Non-touch operation? Samsung did try this in a very bad way, and that hasn’t gone anywhere. For example, I’m sitting on a sofa with my phone next to me. It’s locked and the screen is dark. I have to touch it to wake it up, enter the code or use my fingerprint (newer OnePlus devices, not 5T) to get to the home screen, and continue to touch to operate it. Instead, can I snap my fingers 5-10 cms above the screen to wake it up and get to the home screen (voice pattern matching for security?) and continue to operate it 5-10 cms above the screen? Basically, I don’t need to pick up the phone at all and continue to operate the screen. That would make the user more productive, I presume.

I’m not that enamored by AR and VR yet, from a day-to-day use-case point of view. But that’s more because I’m not able to picture productivity-enhancing use-cases with them… yet. Right now, they seem more like gimmick and fun, at least based on the use-cases developed and showcased. I’m sure that could change soon.

I may still buy a ‘newer’ phone that largely does what my OnePlus 5T does, but noticeably ‘better’ and ‘faster’ next year or so, but that hardly seems like an ‘upgrade’.

What feature(s) would make you upgrade?

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