Gadgets have worked in a way since time immemorial.
You, a company, release one. It’s good, but it’s not perfect. No gadget is perfect! So you do market research and focus groups. You find out who is buying. You find out what they like and what they don’t like. You’re fine. You solve problems.
The following year you release a version of that device that is objectively, concretely better. This is the next generation device, the device 2.0. You call this device an “upgrade.” You tell your customers to recycle Device 1.0 and replace it with Device 2.0. Some of them do. “Should You Upgrade?” write the tech bloggers, calculating the pros and cons.
I know, I know, this is one stretched out oversimplification of how consumer technology really works. I just want to illustrate that many of us who follow the gadget world share an assumption about the way products work: that products improve as the years go by. That next-gen gadgets are better than the gadgets they replace.
But not all technology works that way anymore. And it’s time all of us – businesses and consumers alike – stop behaving this way.
The “upgrade” mentality made a lot of sense for new product categories trying to gauge what customers wanted. The smart home space in the mid-2010s was a good example – it wasn’t clear exactly how people would use Alexa, Google Assistant and various hardware that included them, and as the market learned more, the software and speakers and such were refined to better suit those use cases. The Google Homes got louder and gained functionality without losing much in return.
But many prominent gadget categories — notably smartphones, laptops, and TVs — have now definitely disappeared from that space. These are mature markets full of established players and products that already work very, very well. And that makes an ‘upgrade’ in the traditional sense a difficult task.
You only have to look at this year’s laptop market to see how that plays out. There were very, very few laptop releases that were absolutely better than the predecessors they replaced. The examples I can think of are all in gaming, where some rigs saw a meaningful jump in graphics quality from both hardware and software improvements.
But nearly every “next-gen” device I’ve reviewed from the consumer computing space hasn’t been what I’d call an “upgrade” from previous generations. They were upgrades in some ways and downgrades in others. They were just different across the board.
Some were radically different, both in design and function. Take Dell’s XPS 13 2-in-1 for example. Since 2017, this device has been a very basic convertible – that is, a normal-looking laptop that just happens to fold back 360 degrees. This year, however, Dell eschewed that design for a Surface Pro-like form factor. This year’s 2-in-1, although still marketed as the XPS 13 2-in-1 and replaces the old one at the Dell store, is essentially a Windows tablet with a magnetic keyboard case. That form factor isn’t necessarily better or worse, but it’s hard to conceptualize as an “upgrade” from the previous form factor. It is ideal for different use cases and it targets a different customer. It’s just different.
But there are also legions of next-gen laptop models that haven’t seen many (if any) design updates, yet are ultimately aimed squarely at a new customer. That has to do with the choices Intel has made about its 12th generation processor lineup. Intel has long been the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturer and has had little significant competition in recent decades. Only in recent years have AMD and Apple hit the scene with threatening, core-crammed competitors.
Where once Intel could get away with incremental performance bumps each year, it has recently had to take bigger and riskier moves. The company has made great strides in raw power this year, and its Alder Lake chips rivaled (and even surpassed) Apple’s Arm chips in many ways. But those chips also required more power than the 11th generation series, and the battery life of many Intel-powered 2022 laptops suffered as a result.
And so, across the board, we had a full year of Windows laptops that were more powerful than their identical-looking predecessors, but didn’t last nearly as long. Seriously, you can click on every next-gen laptop review I’ve written this year. I can almost guarantee you that I praised the performance but complained about the battery life. These were not upgrades, even though parts had been improved. They were different devices, aimed at users for whom power was a priority and battery life was not. They weren’t – even if there was some overlap – aimed at shoppers who owned previous versions of those devices.
However, this is not exclusive to the laptop market. Look at the iPhone 14. It’s the iPhone 13, but there’s a new camera sensor? I know very few people who actually bought this new iPhone – I do know multiple people who have chosen to buy the 13 instead because they feel it is better value for money.
I want to be clear that it’s not my intention to slay next-gen gadgets or argue that they should go away. They clearly serve an important purpose in the tech landscape. But if they aren’t upgrades, what are they? Listen to me: they’re sequels.
Entertainment has been doing this differently for decades. When a sequel to a movie is released, we don’t assume that the sequel will be an improvement on that movie. This also applies to remakes. I think we can all be thankful that the Nicole Kidman version from 2004 from The Stepford women knew the 1975 Katharine Ross title – the two are different films with different tones and audiences, despite having a complete premise and plot in common. A sequel is sometimes (often even) worse than its prequel, and that’s okay, not a huge bust or a sign that the studio is doomed.
Clearly, there are numerous differences between consumer tech business models and Hollywood’s. Movies cannot and do not break down (although elements of them – their special effects, their costumes and hairstyles, elements of their sets and storylines – do date them over time). Gadgets need to be replaced like movies don’t.
Still, I think parts of the entertainment business model can provide an alternative way for both customers and manufacturers to think about consumer technology. (There are, of course, tech products outside the gadget space that are already widely viewed in this way — cars are one example.)
Some categories are as good as it gets
I envision a world where if my XPS 13 breaks, I can easily replace it with another 10th gen XPS 13 – even if a 12th gen model hits the shelves. In this world, chipmakers don’t necessarily release new generations every year; they update when they have something groundbreaking to share. Companies do not replace their gadgets with new versions of those gadgets, but sell them side by side, with clear descriptions of who they are and are not intended for. And reviewers judge new units on their own unique merits, rather than comparing them spec-for-spec with their predecessors.
I’m not suggesting that this world is even possible. We’re talking about companies that have a profit incentive to get us to buy new things and consumers who like shiny new toys. I’m just saying it’s a world I would sympathize with.