If there’s one thing that the recent release of the iPhone 13 series highlighted for me, it’s that yearly phone upgrades are slowing down. Gone are the days of major year-on-year innovation — instead, each year in smartphones is more or less a pledge to stability with one or two smaller changes or improvements. The iPhone 12 vs the iPhone 13? The Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra vs the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra? There’s barely a difference when compared to their predecessors, and it can be argued that we’ve reached a point where these iterative upgrades add lesser and lesser value to the overall experience of a smartphone.
We often see the stagnation in smartphone development drawn attention to whenever public discussion sways towards calling smartphones “boring”. “Smartphones aren’t getting boring” I hear you cry, and the proliferation of foldable smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 are obviously evidence of that. However, “smartphones” as an industry has matured leaps and bounds over what it once was many years ago, and that’s good for consumers.
The death of Moore’s Law
Technology across the board has been in an interesting spot in recent years, not just mobile technology. “Moore’s Law” observes that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years, while the cost is halved. Moore’s Law was posited in the 1960s by Gordon Moore, a former CEO of Intel. In the 1960s, the technological landscape was obviously very, very different from what we have in the current day, and such exponential growth can’t be sustained forever.
Meaningful improvements are harder and harder to come by
Moore’s Law set the groundwork for regular, year-on-year innovation that gave an entire industry something to strive for. Even if we can’t necessarily fulfill Moore’s Law nowadays, its spirit lives on, and yearly release cycles are partially a result of that. Companies are scrambling for meaningful improvements and changes, and yet the diminishing value of iterative improvements has meant that those meaningful improvements are harder and harder to come by.
The Google Pixel 6 Pro is an example of meaningful improvement
The Pixel 6 Pro is an example of meaningful improvements and the applicability of Moore’s Law, and there’s a simple reason why. It’s the biggest smartphone release from Google in years, with some massive improvements over last year’s Pixel 5, and the Pixel 4, and the Pixel 3. An upgraded camera, an all-new design, a custom chipset, and more that we don’t even know about yet is what really makes this exciting. It makes it the first Pixel in several years to be really, truly pumped up about. A good part of that is on Google and the stagnation on Pixels, but it also highlights our main point — smartphones are getting boring.
To be clear, the Pixel 6 Pro is not necessarily a product of Moore’s Law, but there are a huge number of changes when the Pixel 6 Pro is compared to the Pixel 5. Every facet of the phone is changed or different from last year’s Pixel 5, and that is why it’s so exciting. It’s not a minor upgrade with a newer chip and a slightly upgraded camera — it’s an entirely new thing. Google is going all-in on a flagship, and that gets our smartphone-nerd hearts racing because of how different it is from the previous year’s glass slab.
In fact, if we delve into the history of the Pixel series, there’s never really been a massive iterative improvement from one model to the next. The original Pixel’s upgrade to the Pixel 2 didn’t bring a whole lot of changes. The Pixel 2 introduced a matte coating, that year’s flagship Qualcomm chipset, a pair of front-facing speakers, optical image stabilization, and the Pixel Visual Core. It also brought the IMX362, a step below the IMX363 which was introduced with the Pixel 3 and has been used as the primary sensor on every Pixel smartphone up until the Pixel 5. Let that sink in for a moment.
It seems every time Google improved something in a Pixel smartphone, something else was compromised
When it comes to the Pixel 3, that didn’t see much by way of improvement either. Aside from its shrunk bezels and larger display, it was more of the same. The Pixel 4 changed things up a small bit, though there were numerous display issues with the 90Hz panel that was used. Other than a high-refresh-rate display, the only other real improvement in the Pixel 4 was Soli support for face unlock, though the company then dropped the fingerprint sensor. It seems every time Google improved something in a Pixel smartphone, something else was compromised.
In that respect, we can see how the Pixel line differs from most ordinary flagships. Most flagships don’t benefit from a massive year-on-year improvement, as companies have figured out a formula that works. Why would Samsung radically change the premise of the S series, when the company knows that the incremental improvements that they make are what the vast majority of consumers want? There’s no need for groundbreaking, expensive innovation when the same formula every year is all that needs to be slightly improved upon.
However, the Pixel 6 is different, as it seems to be a culmination of pretty much every feature that Google has tested, removed, or in some way or another not quite perfected. The history of the Pixel series is why consumers are so hyped up about the Pixel 6 series, and is indirect proof of the stagnation that we’ve seen coming to the smartphone market for years. It’s not that the Pixel 6 series by itself is groundbreaking (though its worth keeping an eye out for the Google Tensor chip) — it’s that the predecessors were just plain and boring enough.
What does the future hold?
It’s hard to argue that the glass slab smartphone hasn’t peaked. The same formula every year is all that needs to be improved upon, and there’s no need for expensive innovation in the same form factor. The next step in smartphones is rethinking something better than just a glass slab, and that successor seems to come in the form of foldables. Devices like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip 3 are exciting because they represent something entirely new. Samsung is even using the Fold series as a playground of sorts, as the Z Fold 3 incorporates the company’s first under-display camera, too.
Foldables are likely far away from the mainstream still, though, and as smartphones become consistent, the conversation turns around to software. We’re seeing smartphone makers start to focus on the longevity of software support, with companies like Samsung and Xiaomi offering extended support periods. Even Google is looking to support the Pixel 6 series for at least five years, putting it in the same league as the iPhone. Software updates can change a smartphone experience entirely, and they might convince consumers to stick around on otherwise outdated devices. That’s great news for people who look at phones as just tools of utility — use it till it breaks, and then buy a new one.
Furthermore, when smartphones are updated for longer, their resale value goes up. That’s because they’re still seen as “active” and supported, and that’s partially why iPhones can retain their value for years. Obviously, there’s also an element of the ability to switch to any other Android brand (whereas iPhones are the only place to get the iOS experience), but the point still stands that software updates definitely help.
In fact, the recently-released Fairphone 4 might capitalize on this, as it promises software updates until the end of 2025. The company also hopes to be able to release major updates as far as Android 15, with software support lasting until 2027. It’s a tall order that no order smartphone manufacturer has managed before, but there’s a reason why sustainability is important. Companies want to keep customers coming back so that when they upgrade in the future, they go back to the company that supported them the longest.
Why are boring smartphones good?
Nowadays, buying a smartphone is no longer such a long, drawn-out ordeal as it once was. I remember watching hours and hours of reviews before making a smartphone purchase years ago. Before committing to my Nexus 5 or my OnePlus 3, I wanted to make sure that I was making the right decision, that it did everything I needed, especially as the Android market was, back then, pretty messy.
In fact, pretty much any flagship phone is going to be good enough for anyone. Heck, even most mid-range smartphones are going to be good enough for most people. No longer are there any super weird quirks, you know what you’re getting and it’s going to largely do the job. Whatever the latest Samsung Galaxy S series smartphone is is likely the best for the majority of users, but if you’re on a budget, then you might look towards another brand like Xiaomi. Most consumers know what they’re looking for, and it makes it much easier to decide on a purchase when upgrading.
There’s a lot to be said for boring smartphones if it makes life easier. Innovation is fun, but innovation leads to products that aren’t good enough for everyone. The ZTE Axon 30 series is a prime example of that — the Axon 30 is a fantastic device in its own right, and innovation is good and healthy, but most consumers shouldn’t buy it if they care about selfie quality. These problems don’t happen when phones are stagnant, and boring means that each and every year’s improvements are predictable.
For enthusiasts, the stagnation of smartphones is a sad truth, but for the average consumer, it’s very much a good thing. The glass slab has pretty much peaked, and foldables are the new playground for companies to test out new hardware. Go enjoy your glass slab for four years now, without any regrets.