How Long Will We Need New Cell Phones?

Jul 19, 2010

Old school PCs

Photo via eurleif

There were a flood of Windows Phone 7 "Pre-reviews" published today in the major gadget blogs, as Microsoft distributed an initial build to developers. The consensus seems to be that the OS has a lot of promise, but it's several years (and 100,000 apps) behind iOS and Android. I thought this was interesting, but started thinking more about the mobile phone space - it really is true that all the hype and excitement is around the mobile OS' these days in a way it's not for desktop OS' - I can't remember what the newest version of OSX had (and Windows 7 was really just playing catchup for the sins of Vista).

I can think of a couple reasons for that:

  • Mobile phones are changing rapidly - it's hard to believe for those of us in the valley, but the smartphone that changed the market, the iPhone, is only 3 years old!

  • Mobile phones are personal - they are a status symbol in a way that computers (Apple excepted, perhaps) largely aren't

  • The price points - at least, the perceived price point - of mobile phones are lower than computers

It's that last point that fascinates me. I'm currently writing this blog entry on my 4 year old laptop - an older generation MacBook Pro. For the most part it doesn't feel old - I occasionally wish it were a little faster, mostly when watching online video, and wish the battery lasted a little longer, but there is nothing about it that screams I need a need computer. On the other hand, my several year old Windows Mobile handset seems like a relic when held up to modern handsets like the iPhone or any of the myriad Android devices.

Just a of my gripes about the phone:

  • I don't have a good map app on my app - could be really helpful when walking around the city

  • No touch screen. This is a huge difference in a mobile device, it really makes a enormous difference when browsing the web, for example.

  • Cloud integration. While the basic applications, like contacts and calendar, update from the cloud on my phone, there is no easy way to upload photos to my favorite photo sharing sites, or to capture and share audio, etc. This is really a feature which makes a mobile phone really useful, as it takes things that you could always have done (with a lot of work), and makes it something you just do!

Okay, so mobile phones are where it's at, and computers are relatively stagnant.

But I don't know if it's always been that way; I remember in high school my brother and I bought a new PC every year, moving from a 386SLC to several 386DXs, and finally being able to afford a 486. The RAM, of course, jumped with the increase in processor speed, and there really was a big difference in what you could do with the PC at the time - you could run windows well, not have to wait 5 minutes for wordperfect to load, play better games, and eventually load up a browser in acceptable time.

Could it be that the same might happen to mobile phones? Will we get to the point where we won't upgrade every 2 years when the contract expires, because the new phone doesn't do much more than the previous one?

If so, it probably won't happen soon. According to a recent FCC Report, most (58% as of December 2009) Americans still don't have a smart phone:

In fact, many (37%) Americans don't use data:

So we've got a ways to go before Americans reach the point when they don't feel like they need to upgrade, strictly on the features. Beyond features, battery life is another area where SmartPhones can compete for new customers (HTC Evo not keeping more than a 3 hour charge after 2 years? Buy this new one!) Design might be another area where handset manufacturers can compete - a few years ago everyone I knew wanted a Motorola RAZR because it was the fashion accessory!

Still, I think when we look back in 10 years I have a feeling that I might feel about my phone the way I do about my laptop: last year's model is good enough.