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Evolution of the smartphone refresh cycle, planned obsolescence and you

Al Sacco | Nov. 22, 2013
Smartphone makers are releasing more smartphones faster than ever before, and wireless carriers are rolling out new plans to make it affordable to buy new phones more often.'s Al Sacco examines this trend and asks if it's really a good thing for consumers - or just for the companies selling the products and services.

Turn on your television set during a major sporting event and you're visually and aurally assaulted by advertising from companies including Samsung, Apple, Motorola, AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile. It's not just commercials; your favorite sports team's stadium is very likely plastered with ads from one of these companies. Or maybe the stadium is named after one of them. (Off the top of my head, I can think of four stadiums with "AT&T" in their names.) Primetime TV is even worse.

In the never-ending quest to sell more phones, wireless carriers are rolling out new plans that let you upgrade to new smartphones more frequently, and for less money up front. AT&T and T-Mobile are leading this charge in the United States with the Next and JUMP programs, respectively, but the other major carriers can't be far behind. And it's only a matter of time before the idea spreads outside the United States.

Smartphone makers are also coming up with clever new ways to sell more phones to more people in less time. Which spotlights another interesting trend: Smartphones don't seem to last as long as they used to.

Smartphones and Planned Obsolescence
"'Planned Obsolescence' is the production of goods with uneconomically short useful lives so that customers will have to make repeat purchases," according to Jeremy Bulow, Stanford's Richard Stepp professor of economics, who describe the practice in the research paper, "An Economic Theory of Planned Obsolescence"

The term planned obsolescence is typically associated with the early American auto industry, but today it may be making its way into the smartphone and larger mobile device space. There's a level of natural or "unplanned obsolescence" if you will; for example, new features or functionality in software updates that don't work well on older devices, or apps and services that need faster processors and/or data speeds.

But there are also questionable examples. Displays that are made of "Gorilla Glass" but are still strangely fragile or have very little protection on their edges - and are often more expensive to fix than new phones or unnecessarily difficult to repair. Software updates that make your device lag like an obese man in the last leg of a 5K. Incompatibility with new gadgets. (Think: Samsung Gear, which only works with a small subset of Samsung phones, though it connects via Bluetooth, a very common wireless technology.)

Not only has hardware innovation slowed; your next phone might not last as long as your previous one. And that could be just the way your carriers and/or phone maker wants it. AT&T and T-Mobile say they're giving consumers more freedom to upgrade more often, but is it really freedom if you need to buy a new phone every year (or less) or deal with one that's malfunctioning or broken? People tend to want the latest and greatest; that's human nature. Wireless carriers are trying to capitalize on this tendency by giving consumers the illusion of choice and freedom when, in fact, they may be promoting the exact opposite.


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