When a Hardware Product is Done

We all know how software is really never done. There are always new updates to refine, fix and add another feature. But what about hardware? Are there some products you can say are mature and need no more changes? They are done, finished?

That’s not something we frequently encounter when it comes to high-tech products. We’ve lived in an environment of constant change and improvements, not only in the product but in all of its components. New computers were driven by faster processors, sharper displays, and better batteries. When we’re in the midst of this for so many years, it’s hard to realize when it’s coming to an end.

The thought of a product being “done” occurred to me with smartphones. Clearly, they have become very mature. They’ve evolved through successive generations to be not only good enough but, so good, there’s essentially nothing left to do to make them much better.

That’s contrary to how we’ve grown up with technology. There’s always something more to add, to fix, to improve. But there are signs that may no longer be the case and, like a refrigerator or dishwasher, or the more closely related personal navigator device (PND), the need to upgrade is more dependent on when the product wears out and becomes too expensive to fix.

What are those signs of maturity? When successive products are virtually identical, require a long explanation to describe what’s changed, or when the focus is on new colors or more memory. Or when the manufacturers start cutting prices to stimulate sales. The PND category reached that point several years ago. Navigation devices that used to sell for up to $500 can now be bought for under $100.

Take Samsung Galaxy phones as an example. The differences between the S5, S6, and S7 models are minor. They’re mostly cosmetic such as adding curved edges to their display and performing minor tweaks. In the case of the iPhone, the changes made to the 6s series from the 6 series was adding a second level of touch to the display that offers minimal benefits. From all indications, the next generation will have only minor changes as well.

What are other signs of maturity? The processors and displays become so good that further modifications bring no real benefits. Companies need to spend more time to explain what’s new. Minor improvements are hyped and exaggerated. New models differ only in cosmetics or new industrial design.

So what does a company that’s steeped in hardware innovation do when their major product line has reached this state? That’s clearly a predicament for companies such as Apple and Samsung, where each has come to depend on their customers buying in short one or two year cycles. Samsung has many other businesses to rely on and grow: Flat screen TVs, appliances, and a robust component business selling memory and processors. Apple has a bigger challenge because they have only a handful of other products and none with the impact of the iPhone.

The answer is, there is little they can do to make the same impact as before. They need to find another product category that can pick up the slack or dramatically change the phone entirely. Or reduce the price to attract those that could not afford it at the current cost. That’s the predicament Apple is in. Their major product line, amounting to about 80% of their revenue, has matured to a level that is so good, fewer and fewer owners find a need to replace it.

Replacing the phone or any hardware device these days has also become an anathema to those sensitive to the environment, a growing part of the population. It’s better to keep your product, whether a phone or a car, longer rather than add to the junkyards and the recycling of electronic waste. For these, it’s wiser to stick with the old than show off the new.

So the challenge for Apple is to come up with something so compelling, we will want to buy the new product. Do we think its possible?

For me, it would be a battery with twice the life, or a drop-proof, waterproof phone. Nothing else would do it, except perhaps a major redefinition of what a smartphone is. What would it take for you to upgrade to a new model?

Published by

Phil Baker

Phil Baker is a product development expert, author, and journalist covering consumer technology. He is the co-author with Neil Young of the forthcoming book, “To Feel the Music,” and the author of “From Concept to Consumer.” He’s a former columnist for the San Diego Transcript, and founder of Techsperts, Inc. You can follow him at www.bakerontech.com.

20 thoughts on “When a Hardware Product is Done”

  1. “In the case of the iPhone, the changes made to the 6s series from the 6
    series was adding a second level of touch to the display that offers
    minimal benefits.”

    You have a point. Phones are, for most practical purposes, good enough, and what with the slowdown of Moore’s law, we aren’t going to continue to see major, earth-shaking improvements to them every year for much longer.

    On the other hand, you really need to stop trying to bolster your points with disinformation. It makes you look either dishonest or stupid. A few seconds of research would have told you that the major changes from the iphone 6 to 6s included:

    1 RAM doubled from 1 to 2 gb.
    2 Much higher resolution camera (12mp instead of 8 for stills, 4k instead of 1080p for video)
    3 Desktop SSD-level performance from the flash storage, much much faster.

    4 Much faster CPU and GPU, as always.

    Arguably the SOC improvements don’t really impact the average user, but the camera is a major improvement that’s obvious when zooming or cropping photos, and the faster storage and doubled ram make for a much snappier experience when launching or switching apps.

    1. The question in my mind is should the pundits be to ones to proclaim that one
      feature is minor and the other is major? I don’t think so. I think it’s very difficult to predict which features will end up being compelling to average users, and which will not.

      Another way to try to observe maturity is to look at replacement cycles. However, some analysts have put it data that suggests that Android has a shorter replacement cycle than iPhone. Should we conclude that iPhone is more mature than Android? I don’t think so, which suggests that the length of replacement cycles is only a crude proxy of maturity.

      I think a better measure of maturity is to see how many people buy the more expensive but better item rather than the cheaper one. How many people buy a brand new iPhone 6s compared to the iPhone 6 which is $100 cheaper? How many people buy cheap Androids compared to the flagships? This gives you a more direct measure of how willing people are to pay extra for new features. My understanding is that at least in wealthy countries, people still do buy the latest flagships more often than not, which suggests that we are not yet at maturity.

      1. “How many people buy cheap Androids compared to the flagships? This gives you a more direct measure of how willing people are to pay extra for new features.”

        I would argue this is more a measure of what percentage of the market is fine with lagging a couple years in order to get a lower price, knowing that the improvements of today will be much, much cheaper two or three years from now.

        1. Yes. That could very well be the case. My main argument is that “mature” is not a well defined state and the best way to measure it is also vague. The various ways that are used to measure maturity item often actually measure something else, and the results can conflict with each other. I’d also add that pundits passing judgement on which features are major and which are minor, is an especially problematic way to measure this.

          Maturity is a poor place to start a discussion of what Apple should do.

          1. Agreed. I think what is clear is that smartphones, or pocket computing devices are nowhere near “done”.

    2. I’m aware of these changes, but are they significant or important to most users? Or are they seen just as tweaks? I would argue that most users don’t see these as major upgrades when the incremental benefits are so minor. Many of us in tech are more impressed by this stuff than the customers.

      1. I checked your wording before writing my post. There’s a world of difference between “the changes made to the 6s series” and “the significant/important/obvious changes made.”

      2. It’s hard to extrapolate one’s case to “most users”.

        What made my iBrother switch to Samsung’s S7 was indoor pictures, and being tired of breaking each and every iPhone about once a year (I did tell him to drop the baby instead, next time, or make sure it’s shackled at all times so it doesn’t bump iPrecious out of dad’s hands…).

        What makes most people around me not consider an iPhone is price/services rendered: they’re already underusing a midrange Android, a premium or luxury phone makes no sense. The small+relatively cheap iPse does have some pull for those, but then again, an Honor 5C or 5X is half the price.

        What makes me not buy an iPhone is mostly price, size, and a long list of features I use and would have to give up (presumably in exchange for another list of features.. .but I don’t use those, obviously)

        That’s probably as important as getting iUsers to upgrade.

  2. I have an iPhone 6s. I will be upgrading to the latest version. In the last few years I’ve expected that I will wait a year for the next iPhone and skip the latest–it never happens. There is always something compelling enough for me to spend the $300-400 replacement cost for a new iPhone. This year it is likely going to be the new camera that will be compelling. I do think phones are maturing but I don’t think we are done yet.

  3. “The thought of a product being “done” occurred to me with smartphones. Clearly, they have become very mature. They’ve evolved through successive generations to be not only good enough but, so good, there’s essentially nothing left to do to make them much better.”

    This assumption is wrong. We’re at least ten years from smartphones being “done”, maybe more. Think of them as computing devices that fit in your pocket/hand, and then think of what those devices can enable and power as a kind of computing engine as well as a component in a Network of Things. We’re not even close to done yet.

  4. What would be the next stage of iPhone big innovation?

    Sometime within the next 5 years, iPhone will ship w the performance and power to run MacOS applications with BTLE links to displays and keyboard. iPhone use will increase significantly with that capability.

    One iPhone driving displays and keyboards would replace the need for iPads and Macs.

    1. If you narrow it down to iPhone innovation, that’s easy on the hardware side: look at Android. Wireless charging. Waterproofing. Tap-to-wake. Bezel-less. 2.5D glass. Dual-lenses camera or dual cameras (esp. for low light)… that’s stuff that’s in my “need” or “like” sections, except the camera.

      Desk/lap-top dock & FM radio are hopeless because there’s no money for Apple in it, on the contrary, though I use it quasi daily.

      Plus the idiot stuff: full-day battery, drop-proofing, more (enough ?) storage, OIS on the iP6.

      On the software side, I’m not familiar enough with iOS. iOS VM for MacOS, or even full integration à la ChromeOS ? I know I use my Android VMs several times per week, and I’m waiting for ChromeOS tablets now. And N’s upcoming desktop mode sounds interesting for low-end desk/lap-top users.

  5. Phones are handbags. What does make me upgrade my phone (taking it with me off a canoe into the river; I survived, it didn’t ^^) doesn’t matter, I’m not a handbag type of guy. What makes most people upgrade their phone is a shiny new look. Samsung’s S & Edge redesign is doing wonders for them, Apple’s warmed-over rehashes is probably a major cause for their current slump.

    What makes me get a new phone these days is mostly whim: I accidentally killed my 2-yo Huawei Mediapad X1 I was trying & failing to find a reason to replace, so I’m using my previous, 4yo, Huawei Ascend Mate (v1) while waiting for my replacement Xiaomi Mi Max. The Mate is perfectly usable still. Rotten pictures, not enough internal Flash so I have to juggle apps, but the rest is still perfectly serviceable. I’ll have a short-lived nerdgasm upon receiving the Mi Max, as I did with the X1, and then start looking for something else to buy. Cube iWork12 !

    I’ve got a checklist of features I need/like/don’t care about for when I buy a phone. The needs are mostly met, the likes too. Then again, on the Android side, 2-day batteries are easy to find, and I never killed a phone by dropping it, they permanently stay inside an ugly silicone case. Tap-to-wake and FM radio are more iffy.

    1. Just received the Mi Max. Can a phone be too thin ? I almost get tingles in my fingers trying handle it, it feels insubstantial. Plus metal backs are really idiotic, the thing is slippery as a soap bar; the lightly textured plastics on the back of the Mate v1 and Galaxy Note v1 are a lot more sane… I’ll try not to break it before its silicone case gets here.
      Looks nice but doesn’t feel as sturdy as my previous phones, which all survived several drops. Took 3 hours to set up, I wish each and every OEM didn’t feel compelled to skin Android into unrecognizability for no tangible benefits. Where’s the “notifications log” widget this time ?

  6. The automobile was perfected in 1958-1960 when they started building in air conditioning and cruise control. Cars in those days had features like pushbutton transmission controls and automatic high-beam headlight dimmers that went away and are just now coming back 50 years later. They last for 10 years or more, but manufacturers have figured out how to keep journalists and a significant fraction of their customers excited about next year’s model.

    I’d be thrilled to have “invisible” improvements in fuel efficiency (batteries) and safety (waterproofing, drop resistance) in my phone even if the rest of its features stay the same.

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