Upgrading & Obsolescence

Upgrading and Obsolescence

The mobile computer (aka smartphone) is a rapidly growing market and is one of the most competitive in the computing domain. More people have smartphones than any other type of computer and for many of them the smartphone is their only computer. Suppliers of smartphones and mobile computer software are driven by the market and profit motives to rapidly introduce new features each year to maintain or hopefully increase their competitive edge. The cycles of product development are also still driven by telecommunication carriers who sell cellphone handsets and service packages which typically now are based on 2 year contracts.

Only relatively recently has a new company with computer design origins revolutionized cellphone product and services which were previously completely monopolized by telecommunications carriers which decided what handsets were available and what upgrade policies if any were supported. Prior to the entry of the Apple iPhone, telecommunications carriers directed handset manufacturers to develop handsets exclusively for them and the policy for upgrades was that subscribers would become eligible for new phones when their contract was close to expiring. If you wanted new software in most cases the answer was buy a new cellphone.

Apple revolutionized the smartphone market when they introduced the iPhone touch screen multi-sensor multifunctional (phone, computer, camera, video-cam, GPS, health sensor, etc) device with new models and new operating systems every year and a rich set of apps at ridiculously low prices. Most consumers have enjoyed these new developments and cannot imagine the bad old days before these choices were available. Apple’s competitors like Samsung/Google, Blackberry, and windows phone have copied Apple’s innovations and struggled to compete. While Google introduces new versions of the Android operating system every year there are long delays before widespread use by consumers because software upgrades are usually associated with the purchase of a new phone. Apple iPhone operating system software (IOS) every year introduces new free features that are backward compatible with several years older iPhones within limitations of the older technology. In effect consumers benefit with software refreshes which allow them to get more value from their old phones. Eventually old phones can no longer be supported by the new software because to do so would hold back software innovation that is dependent on supporting capabilities of the hardware.

With this background what is a consumer to do about hardware/software upgrades and obsolescence? Let’s look at two bookends and a compromise in the middle.

1. I want the Latest and Greatest

The majority of the marketplace wants the newest and best hardware and software and are willing to pay for it. If you are in this category you will upgrade your phone every 2 years (when your contract renews) and upgrade your software every year to take advantage of the new software as soon as it is available. You also typically would be a regular purchaser of new apps.

2. My phone is Good Enough

If you are in this category you purchase a phone and are satisfied with the features so you want to keep it and have it supported for as long as possible. With an Apple iPhone you usually benefit from 2, 3, or even 4 software upgrades before your phone is no longer compatible with new software versions. Eventually your phone is obsolete but it needs to be kept in mind that it is just as functional as it was originally and actually has improved somewhat with new software. For later software upgrades where it might just barely be compatible you need to decide if the new features are worth the potential tradeoffs in performance. For a limited time when the new software is introduced Apple provides the option of going back to the previous version of software if that works better for you. One disadvantage of the phone becoming obsolete is that it won’t be supported forever as any remaining bugs in the old software are no longer actively being worked.

3. I am a late adopter but I don’t want my phone to be obsolete

There is a middle ground between the 2 bookends. If you are not that eager to have the newest features you have the option of being a late adopter. This involves buying a new phone every 3 or 4 years to keep it modern enough for it to be compatible with most of the new software. To keep costs down an option is to buy an older model phone which are usually heavily discounted but the tradeoff is that these models are already closer to obsolescence. The choice becomes whether to buy a new phone every 4 years or a 2 year old phone every 2 years, or a 1 year old phone every 3 years. A possible advantage of buying a new phone every 4 years is you have the latest and greatest every 4 years vs. having a 2 year old phone which is always lagging behind if new features matter to you at all. A 3 year cycle has the disadvantage of not aligning with cellphone carrier contract renewal intervals which could involve contract penalty fees.

Do you have a strategy for dealing with smartphone upgrades and obsolescence? Hopefully this article has clarified the context and options to choose from to get the benefits that are most important to you.

One thought on “Upgrading & Obsolescence”

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