Do we really need a new iPhone every year?

Same goes for Android smartphones. Is there anything in yearly refreshes for the end user?
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

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As the dust settles on Samsung's Galaxy Note 9 launch, we now turn our attention to the iPhone launch, which, if things fall in line with previous years, should occur next month. But do consumers really want yearly refreshes, or is it now just a way for tech companies to remain in the public eye, and squeeze every last dollar from buyers?

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Owen Williams, writing for Motherboard, was pretty scathing of the Note 9 launch.

"Thursday, at a flashy event in New York, Samsung unveiled yet another phone: the Galaxy Note 9. Like you'd expect, it's rectangular, it has a screen, and it has a few cameras. While unveiling what it hopes will be the next hit, it unknowingly confirmed something we've all been wondering: the smartphone industry is out of ideas."

I find myself sort of caught in between shaking my head at this and nodding in agreement.

On the one hand, Williams is right, smartphones have become boring. Launches are about iterative, evolutionary improvements these days, and not about the flashy revolutionary leaps and bounds forward that we can expect to see from new markets.

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Take Apple and the transition from Touch ID to Face ID. Sure, it's an improvement on the technology, but it's also a change that means having to throw out old ways and workflows in order to make it work. Is looking at the iPhone any better or worse than pressing your finger on a button? It's debatable, but at the end of the day, it's arguably just a new way to do something you've already been doing (unlocking a smartphone).

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Touch ID removed the enormous speed bump that typing in a PIN code presented, but switching from Touch ID to Face ID is really only window dressing.

Smartphones get better and faster with each passing year, and there are advancements and refinements that build on what has come. But the new stuff is few and far between, and slow to catch on.

Take AR (augmented reality) as an example. No matter how hard Apple has pushed this technology lately, traction in the real-world is slow, and adoption seems limited to a few niches here and there.

On the flipside, it's hard to ignore that a year in "technology land" is like a decade in the real world. Things move fast. Moore's law continues to deliver. Processors get faster, storage density increases, and displays get better and brighter.

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Another point worth making is that you could say that the iPhone X and the Note 9 represent a huge increase in the pace of innovation. Here we have two flagship smartphones packed with processing power and storage, and doing things that smartphones could once only dream of doing. Whether you think of Face ID or that the Note 9 has 8GB of RAM as little more than gimmicks, these features will ripple through the ecosystem, changing smartphones across the market, from high-end to budget.

It's also important to note just how big the smartphone market, and how slowly people upgrade.

The upgrade cycle these days hovers around the three-year mark. Yes, the average user holds on to their smartphone for that long (maybe even longer). Then, there's the used market, and the way that old smartphones that are handed down the line to family members and friends.

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Doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations based on Apple sales over the past year, and given the size of the user base and how many devices go to first-time iPhone buyers, I'd estimate that less than 15 percent of iPhone users actually bought a new iPhone over the past 12 months.

Yearly upgrade cycles allow manufacturers the time and space to accommodate for this slow churn, while at the same time giving buyers a wide range of choice and price points to choose from.

Yearly refreshes also allow manufacturers to benefit from changing technologies to streamline production and make incremental improvements to increase safety and reliability.

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The bottom line is that I still think there's plenty of innovation left in the smartphone market to justify yearly releases. I mean, PC OEMs are releasing new stuff all the time, and it could be argued that the PC market has matured to the point where pretty much everything is minor incremental changes (with little nuggets of gold like the Microsoft Surface line and AMD's rise back from the dead mixed in there).

I think we'll be seeing yearly smartphone releases for a long time to come.

What do you think? Let me know!

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