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Buying Smartphones for Longevity: Are Manufacturers (and Consumers) Ready?

Raz Godelnik
| Tuesday March 25th, 2014 | 1 Comment

San Francisco Apple Store morning new iPhones launchHere’s a quick question: What’s your smartphone upgrade cycle? Or in other words, what’s the frequency with which you replace your older smartphone in a newer one?

If you’re like the average American, it’s a little less than two years (22 months in 2012, according to Recon Analytics).

This aggressive upgrade cycle is no secret, and it helps the mobile industry grow and generate impressive profits. At the same time, we all know this trend is not sustainable and hurts our wallets. In addition, writes Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times: “Smartphones have crossed the threshold from amazing to boring. High-end phones seem to have hit an innovation plateau, with each new iPhone or Samsung Galaxy just incrementally better than the last.”

Given these circumstances Manjoo suggests it might not be so wild to imagine a world in which we “buy smartphones with an eye to longevity.” In this world, he writes, consumers use their smartphones for more than two years (ideally three); try to repair them instead of replacing them when possible; consider buying used phones instead of new ones; and trade their smartphones in where they’re done with them.

I like Manjoo’s vision. It’s practical and at the same time offers a real change. The only thing I would change about it is aiming somewhat higher with the upgrade cycle to at least twice what we have now – let’s say four to five years. But even without this revision, is it really possible for the mobile industry to become a (more) sustainable closed-loop system, or is it just another green fantasy?

From a rational standpoint, making Manjoo’s vision a reality shouldn’t be that hard. First, if the benefits we gain from buying a new smartphone actually diminish, then we should have less incentive to do it every two years. And indeed as the Wall Street Journal reported last July, “The rates at which American cellphone users have traded in their devices for more advanced models have declined over the last few years, according to analysts at UBS.” One of the reasons behind this trend according to the WSJ is indeed that fewer people feel they need to buy new phone as the pace of innovation slows down.

Second, buying a used phone instead of a new one and trading in your old phone make a lot of sense from a financial point of view. It’s no wonder that smartphone trade-in programs expand rapidly. Last September, CNNMoney reported that according to Bernstein Research, “Twelve percent of smartphone upgrades worldwide were a result of trade-ins, up from 4 percent three years ago,” and that used phones will cannibalize 8 percent of new smartphone sales by 2018, up from 3 percent in 2013.

Last but not least, making simple repairs of your smartphone or changing its battery isn’t such a big deal anymore with websites like iFixit offering repair tools and replacement parts — from an iPhone 5 replacement battery kit to an iPhone 4 Display Assembly kit. And if you’re not a handyman, you can always call services like iCracked — which will be happy to send you one of their “iTechs” to fix your phone at home (it’s $70-$100 for most iPhone repairs).

The problem is that these trends seem to be outweighed by powerful forces that might be less rational but are still very dominant. The first one is the business model of the mobile industry, which is contrary to everything Majoo’s vision stands for. A company like Apple, for example, “has long been aiming to get iPhones into the hands of more and more customers” and when it experiences a declining sales growth rate (in Apple’s case, 13 percent in 2013 compared to 46 percent in 2012) what it has in mind is not closed-loop systems but new phone models (a larger iPhone) or products (wearables) that will help the company reverse the trend and keep investors happy.

Yet, it’s not just the fix of the mobile manufacturers (and investors) on high growth rates that leads them to fulfill Brook Stevens’ 1950s vision of planned obsolescence – “We make good products, we induce people to buy them, and then the next year we deliberately introduce something else that will make those products old fashioned, out of date, obsolete.”

Consumers apparently have a fix of their own – a desire for novelty or new stuff, and as Prof. Tim Jackson puts it, “our own relentless search for novelty and social status locks us into an iron cage of consumerism.” Now, add to it the fact that smartphones became status symbols (the latest trend are smartphones with cracked screens that have become “the gadget equivalent of ripped jeans for the tech generation”), and you can understand why we feel like we not only need, but really need to buy the newest smartphone.

It’s true that it’s not totally consumers’ fault – after all, we’re bombarded 24/7 with advertisements telling us that if we don’t buy the newest smartphone we’ll probably be less cool, less savvy and shouldn’t be surprised if our social status will fall. Yet, while it’s definitely not easy to overcome these perceived obsolesce tactics, let’s not forget that we’re still capable of making our own decisions and understanding what makes sense and what doesn’t.

Still, overall I believe that Manjoo’s vision depends mainly on the smartphone manufacturers. As long as their innovation process will stay focused on shortening the upgrade cycle or starting new upgrade cycles with similar products such as the “phablet” (phone plus tablet) or wearables, Manjoo’s vision will stay a far-fetched dream for now.

Things will change only if these companies will start focusing on new concepts that are economically viable but also sustainable such as phonebloks, or even smartphones with changeable design so we can stay with the old smartphone but it will look like the newest one. Maybe then Manjoo’s vision will come true, but I wouldn’t bet my beautiful new smartphone on it.

Image credit: Steve Rhodes, Flickr Creative Commons

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School of Design. You can follow Raz on Twitter.


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  • Jeff Nelson

    I only just recently upgraded from a 3 year old flip phone to a smart phone so it can be done. Another option to reducing the environmental impact of upgrading your phone is being explored by Phonebloks a Kickstarter startup company trying to bring to market a modular cell phone that can be customised however you desire and upgraded by replacing plug n play modules instead of replacing the entire phone. They are at the prototype developement phase currently.