OPINION: Google’s latest phone launch was a prime example of the compulsive yet unnecessary yearly churn in the smartphone market.
Yesterday, Google unveiled its new line of Pixel phones. But, the Pixel Watch and Pixel Tablet launches aside, if somehow you had accidentally streamed last year’s launch instead then frankly you would not have missed out on very much.
While some updates have been made to the new series of smartphones, including a standard processor upgrade, and some software-led accessibility enhancements rightfully praised by my colleague Chris Smith, the hardware remains remarkably similar to the previous generation, with no changes to the screen or battery, and precious few adjustments to the camera system. The differences seemed as minuscule as, well, actual pixels.
We do of course need to test the phones out before giving our full review, and maybe these handsets will pleasantly surprise us in delivering much more than we ever bargained for, but I am writing this based on the impression Google gave at its own presentation.
On the one hand, the lack of major changes isn’t any kind of disgrace; the Pixel 6 was a major leap forward for Google’s own-brand smartphones and we gave glowing reviews to the clutch of phones, including the Pixel 6 Pro and Pixel 6a.
It’s not as if foregoing major updates will see the Pixel 7 handsets fall far behind the rest of the pack of its peers into irrelevance. Partly of course that’s because even rivals have not made huge changes to their newest flagships, with the differences between the Samsung Galaxy S22 and Samsung Galaxy S21 also being relatively minor, and the same seemingly being true of the iPhone 13 and iPhone 14 as well.
But if anything, this wider pattern is exactly what has rendered me yet more frustrated; the fact that multiple manufacturers are releasing new phones, year upon year, when the actual hardware at stake is simply not worth the tsunami of electronic waste that this will surely cause.
In large part of course, it’s our collective fault as novelty-chasing consumers that this happens at all. To take one example, I was speaking to an acquaintance who told me he wanted to upgrade his Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and wanted to know which phone I’d advise him to buy; I asked which particular areas he was looking for improvements so that I could point him in the direction of a phone that did the job the best. He told me that he was perfectly satisfied with his phone actually and had no complaints about it, but just wanted some sort of change as he’d been using it for over a year.
With attitudes like these being far from rare, it’s not surprising that manufacturers simply follow the demand, and they’re likely being richly rewarded for it too (certainly in the case of Apple). But it would be refreshing if a big brand took a year out, saying that simply there weren’t enough changes in the sector to warrant a huge change, and instead focused on a newer generation being significantly different and therefore worthy of an upgrade and all its associated costs.
The downsides of a lack of sales, and a lack of the two-week spotlight on the company that traditionally accompanies a phone launch means that it’s highly unlikely to happen; I’m essentially asking manufacturers to forgo making money for the greater good, and sadly that’s not really how capitalism works.
But as long as I see companies waxing lyrical about their environmental credentials with recycled cardboard packing and the like, yet merrily hopping on the unnecessary yearly updates carousel, I can’t help but feel a little jaded by the industry’s compulsion to launch devices for the sake of it.