Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The phone upgrade mindset

The mobile phone has evolved at a breakneck pace over the last several years. Smartphones have, of course, been around for a long time and I've owned and used them since the early 2000s. The notion of a phone that can  do more than make phone calls is far from new. But smartphone popularity has risen sharply over the past few years, and the public's awareness and knowledge of them has increased as well.

This sudden increase in popularity has led to a veritable flood of smartphones on the market. And there are millions upon millions of people using them. From Android, to iPhones, to BlackBerrys, the number of smartphones sold daily is staggeringly high and has led to a whole new mindset surrounding what a "phone" is and should be.
In years past, a phone was a static object. You would buy it, and it would perform its function as advertised for as long as you owned it, much the same way an appliance or even a car would. If you buy a dishwasher today, and next month a new dishwasher is released that uses less water, would you expect your current dishwasher to be upgraded? Of course not. But can phones really be considered static anymore?

Consider the progression of computers. Would you buy a laptop knowing it could forever only do as much as it could when you bought it? We buy computers intentionally knowing that they will be able to take advantage of new programs and websites for several years, at least. If you'd purchased a laptop 6 months ago and found out today that it's not compatible with Windows 7 simply because Dell or HP doesn't want to allow it, you'd be upset and rightfully so.

The common argument goes something like this: "You bought it to do a given task and it still does that task, doesn't it?" While true, I don't think that argument applies to tech products. If we wanted products that did one task, we wouldn't be buying smartphones or laptops. Part of the definition of smartphone comes from apps. Apple and Verizon both use apps in their commercials to demonstrate the fact that the phones can do more than they originally could.

But new features don't always come in the form of apps. Sometimes they come from system updates from the manufacturer. This is where it gets tricky, because these system updates can often prevent even future apps from working. When it comes to phones, though, system updates mean time and expense for manufacturers. It's not economical for them to spend time and money upgrading last year's phone model when they would prefer you simply buy the new one.

So are smartphone users entitled to system updates? Entitled is a possibly too strong a term, but I do think that updates should be provided by manufacturers. Generally new phones are purchased with a 2 year contract, so even if updates were issued for the first 2 years of a phone's life, that would be better than nothing.

Apple has an interesting, but consistent approach to updates. They've always followed the same system for updates and have given iPhone users the update for free, and made iPod touch users pay $10 for it. With their upcoming OS 4.0 update, they've already said that the older hardware will receive a partial update, with only the features that it can support. But the older iPhones are more than 2 years old now, so supporting them isn't necessarily a given, and I don't have a problem with that strategy, honestly.

The recent update situation involving the Samsung Behold II (read about it here) has driven this situation home for many people. Samsung promised that the Behold II would be updated to the newest version of Android and have now changed their mind.This has greatly angered a lot of users who feel like they've been lied to.

Naysayers are quick to return to the argument I mentioned above by saying, "well, those who bought the Behold II are still able to use their phones the same way they could when they bought it."

Very true, but does this really make sense anymore? Phones aren't static appliances in today's age...they've become small and powerful computers that we carry in our pockets. Computers can be upgraded and extended, as can phones. The naysayer's argument is, in my mind, as ridiculous as saying that your laptop should only be able to run the programs it had when you purchased it.

At the very least, I think manufacturers should make updates available. Whether they spend the time and effort promoting updates, pushing them out over-the-air, and alerting users to their existence is up to them. Simply stick the update file on a website somewhere and let the people who want it go get it.

I understand the debatable nature of this subject, but, to be honest, I believe manufacturers should support their products. For cars, support means providing 50 or 100 thousand mile warranties. For smartphones, support should mean providing updates to your products. It's that simple.

What do you think? Which mindset do you agree with?