Of Affordable Phones, Software Updates and Yearly Upgrades

With the release of the Google Pixel 3a I once again started thinking about what I want in a smartphone. As a reminder, the last time I was pondering the purchase of one I was musing of tall phones, curved displays and notches. I am not in the market for a new phone right now as my iPhone 8 is more than capable of fulfilling my needs. But, with the recent launch of the Pixel 3a I wished that this device had already existed a year ago because it is basically the perfect phone for me. And I also wish Google would get back into the market of less expensive phones with the latest and greatest hardware as was the case with the Nexus line.

There are enough companies out there making expensive high-end smartphones. Even Samsung is having a tough time with Huawei breathing down their neck. How does Google think they can compete with them, given their past efforts of marketing their stuff? It is not enough to hope that technology enthusiasts and word of mouth will boost sales of an 800+ bucks device. The hardware really must be without flaws and from what I’ve read the Pixel 3 is not – which is also why I didn’t buy one a year ago. But, at 399$ (and € surprisingly) my decision would have been a different one. I like high-end hardware, but I don’t need it. What I do want though, is a very good camera and the Pixel 3a has exactly that. And no bloatware. And one other incredible advantage: three years of OS feature and security updates. For a mid-range phone. That’s longer than what smartphones of other companies get that cost close to 1k. Google may continue selling top-notch – wait, no notch, but top-of-the-line – smartphones, but maybe think twice about trying to achieve Apple like margins and consider lowering the price a bit to make them more attractive. They don’t have to sell at cost, I’m not saying that. I’m also OK with one ore two “flaws” if the price is right. I think Google needs one high-end phone and a mid-range phone, maybe even in small and tall form factors. Having only expensive hardware won’t do anything for them. Not with the competition they are facing.

In addition to that Google should start emphasizing long-term software support and invest in educating people what that means for the lifetime of a smartphone. Just like Apple tries to use privacy as its selling point. It’s important though, that they don’t do it in a full-on technical fashion. It should be “regular-people-speak” so that everybody can picture what it means and understand the importance of it.

So far I have had three Android phones, two from Samsung and one from Google – the Nexus 5x that had died a horrible boot-loop death. The first of those, the Galaxy S2, made me back away from Android initially because software updates at that point had been even worse than today. The Galaxy S7, the phone after the Nexus, only made it to Android 8 and merely receives security patches occasionally according to my sister. Technically it received two feature updates, so one should be happy about that. But is that the way that customers are expected to look at things now? It is still a perfectly capable phone and until last year it was being sold in retail stores. So, you would think that it’s still actively supported.

Or at leastIwould think. Non tech-savvy people very likely do not care because they don’t know any better and they may not even care as much. Of course, they are not required to understand all the details behind software flaws and zero-day exploits and anything other related to software and hardware security. It’s merely about the awareness, just like online privacy, and Google should emphasize that their phones, because they are updated regularly and for a longer period than what the competition has to offer, are most likely to be the most secure devices for many years to come. And as a bonus, they gain new capabilities through feature updates as well.

What I am about to write will surely sound hypocritical given the previous paragraphs. In all honesty, I barely care about many of the big and small features of OS updates. Although I am a tech enthusiast, I use phones or computers very superficially. They merely serve as a platform to run applications and I do not use many. I have three home-screens on my iPhone and none of them is used to its full capacity (I did hide many of the pre-installed Apple stuff in folders, though). As the saying goes, it’s a matter of principle. If I throw hundreds of Orens down a company’s throat, then I want the product to be actively supported throughout its lifetime. And by lifetime I do not mean a year later until the successor comes out. Software is known to have flaws not matter how careful programmers are and mobile phones are the target of malicious actors. I do banking on my phone, like a lot of other people might do as well. I need to know that the platform I’m using is secure so that nobody can get to that information. Or any information. Anybody remember BlueBorne?

It’s not that a huge company like Samsung and all the others are unable to do so. It’s probably because they are more interested in selling and developing their new stuff on a yearly basis. And this rubs me the wrong way. Why the hell is it necessary to release a new phone every year? What, beside capitalism of course, is the point? Isn’t everyone complaining about the lack of innovation? Well, how much can you expect from one year to the next? The same goes for computers by the way. Unless you are a die-hard gamer or time is money and you need the fastest hardware possible, there is almost no need for an upgrade every year. All that it is doing is creating electronic waste. I have always wondered why gaming consoles are updates so infrequently but the fact is, at least in my mind, this is a superior approach. Consumers get stability in the platform as well as developers. There’s no uncertainty about purchasing an Xbox or PlayStation one or two years after the initial release that it’ll be obsolete soon. Why can’t that work for phones? Wouldn’t longer refresh cycles give companies more time to 

  1. optimize production of the current product on the fly (like it’s done for consoles) which could improve margins
  2. give them more time to come up with innovative ideas and
  3. reduce the product portfolio to an amount that is more easily maintainable for a longer time?

Am I the only one thinking that?

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