2022 has been the year of incremental smartphone upgrades, more than any previous year. Except for a few highlights, the this year’s biggest flagships have followed a similar theme: if it works, don’t touch it. The end result is that we have a whole year’s worth of flagship smartphones that are mere polishes on their previous generations.
With 2023, I expect OEMs to not only continue this, but double down on it. Before you take this opportunity to cry about how smartphone innovation is dead, this might not be a bad thing.
Phones have matured and can only get so much better before they can’t
The overarching theme for both hardware and software this year has been maturity. The jump from Android 12 to Android 13 has been one of the smallest and most boring changes to the OS in some time, unlike the jump from Android 11 to Android 12 which brought radical changes like material you and the monet theme engine. The big talking point of Android 13 was a new notification permissions system, and that feels very small when you consider the scale of Material You.
On the other hand, the grass is a bit greener, with iOS 16 bringing some more pronounced changes to the iPhone lock screen and the way notifications are displayed. But once you’re past the lock screen, it’ll be hard to find any changes (other than the battery percentage in the status bar, that’s just iOS catching up).
On the hardware side, we’ve had an excitingly dull year. The new phones have been great in their individual aspirations, but compare them to their predecessors and you can’t help but feel like you’re being cheated. Should you go for the latest and greatest, or just go for something a year older at a discount and get basically the same phone?
Devices like the Samsung Galaxy S22 and Galaxy S22 Plus were unexciting side changes compared to the Galaxy S21 series. The Galaxy S22 Ultra was an exciting phone in the way that it finally integrated the S Pen into the Note-like chassis, but S Pen support was already present in the Galaxy S21 Ultra. What you got on the device was essentially just integration and refinement over an unfinished experience.
The same story continued with folding — a category that many here at XDA believe is the future of smartphones. Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 4 Y Galaxy ZFlip 4 they were refinements over the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip 3, respectively. And the company knew it, so it threw in some generous trade-in deals to entice owners to upgrade to the latest generation and convince them of its foldable vision.
The same story continues with many other smartphones, especially those sold in Western markets. The OnePlus 10 Pro was a square sidegrade on the OnePlus 9 Pro. Google Pixel 7 Y Google Pixel 7 Pro There were also minor hardware upgrades to its predecessors, the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. The iPhone 13 to iPhone 14 is so miniscule that most users should easily choose the 13 over the 14 and get better value for their money. The iPhone 13 Pro to iPhone 14 Pro is an exciting upgrade on paper, but in reality, most users will turn off the distracting always-on display and not shoot long enough in RAW to notice the new camera hardware. In general, if you bought a smartphone in 2021, then 2022 was boring.
We are reaching the limit of diminishing marginal utility in smartphones. The budget needed to get a good smartphone experience has shrunk dramatically in recent years, and mid-range smartphones are now fully capable of meeting the needs of the average user. In addition, the general use cases of people’s media consumption and communication are likely to remain the same: what are you doing differently on your phone today compared to what you were doing five years ago?
There is not enough change in our own needs and expectations to justify the risk of innovation.
Yes, we now create more content daily and consume more vertically than horizontally. Yes, we now have 5G and blazing-fast data speeds everywhere, if carriers are to be believed (they’re not). But the novel idea of the smartphone as the magical epicenter of a thousand technologies is more than a decade old. This vision has materialized in a glass-slab smartphone that can do pretty much anything you throw at it, with the only variation being the degree of its competition.
The hardware has matured, the software has matured, and the only tangible gains left to be made are in the synergy between the two and the ecosystem game, areas that Apple recognized early on as its playing field. Whether this realization reaches all the other companies supposedly on their own or whether they are trying to imitate the big multi-billion dollar company is a moot point. Sure, phone companies that can’t pull off this synergy and ecosystem will take their chances with innovative puns like “blockchain” and “metaverse,” but it won’t take long for consumers to dispel what is essentially still a slab-of-stone smartphone. glass.
2023 is going to be more incremental updates for flagships
If you thought 2022 was boring, you’ll have to prepare for 2023. We’ll see even more refinements and fewer massive changes to the “innovation” name. Most OEMs will focus much more on the end user experience on their flagship products rather than pure hardware upgrades. The hardware and software synergy that remains the quintessence of a seamless user experience takes more than a year and a product cycle to perfect. With Apple continuing to nibble at the high end with its superior ecosystem game, OEMs have little choice but to double down on creating a great cohesive user experience. This means that risks and “innovations” will be kept away from the main top-tier flagships – this is not the segment where the wheel will be reinvented.
Where you’ll see more experimentation is in the mid and mid-premium ranges, at least compared to the top tier. We saw Nothing challenge the status quo with Nothing Phone 1, a phone that didn’t pretend to be a high-end flagship. Additionally, devices like the Vivo V23 and V25 series feature color-changing back panels, but the technology is still missing from flagships.
we are already seeing Rumors of what to expect in key flagship lineups in 2023. I’d rather not go into specific leaks at this stage – they are leaks, after all – but from what I can see in general terms, the idea that a flagship phone line will introduce drastic changes over its predecessor is behind us. This is a far cry from the early years of smartphones, where each new year brought a phone that had its own novelty. In the past, you’d get one of the following as a distinctly new point of “innovation”: a new display technology, a higher resolution or refresh rate, fewer bezels, more premium build materials, a new design, better camera hardware , more camera hardware, faster charging, etc. Now, all flagship phones have their baselines set, and OEMs are less and less willing to stray too far and surprise users as much as possible to avoid it.
Flagships are not products, they are experiences. And that is not going to change.
This quest for refinement also means phone OEMs will spend more time choosing individual hardware components with more room for year-over-year improvements, like what we see Google and Apple doing with their camera sensors. Apple has even overhauled the internals of the iPhone 14 to make it more repairable, hinting at a future where consumers will happily keep their phones for longer. Software update promises are adding the layer of confidence consumers needed to have faith in this long-term vision, while incremental updates in upcoming releases become the final push needed for them to No make the jump to a new phone.
I’m excited by how boring smartphones have become.
Once again, hear me out on this. Phones have gotten boring, and that’s great. It indicates maturity and that good technology has been democratized and widely accessible to all. It also means there’s not much that differentiates $1,000 flagships from $500 midranges. It’s similar to what we see in devices like laptops, computers, cameras, and more: tools that get out of the way to allow us to perform better. specific functions. Most users rarely remember a specific laptop model, instead allocating their goodwill and experience to a larger generation of releases, each one getting better and better than the last. We’re seeing exactly that happen with phones, where what the Pixel 8 will bring to the table individually becomes less important than what the Pixel 8 series will bring to the last few years of the cohesive Google Pixel experience.
The search for hype “Ultra” smartphones and foldables will keep the fire burning for hardcore enthusiasts and those with deep pockets. But for the rest of the population? A Pixel 6a will work just as well. You never needed to update every year anyway.