- Chuck Gray
Technology: yawn. The last thing anyone expected a gadget addict such as myself to declare is that it’s time to stop. Yes, I know there’s something new and shiny on the market, and no one wants it more than I do—right here, right now. Here’s why I’m going to do my very best to ignore that impulse after this year, and I believe you should, too.
First off, let’s examine the gadget market. Speaking in broad terms, I think we can break it down into smartphones, tablets, and laptops, with a few more niche products like professional-quality cameras, e-ink eBook readers, and dedicated handheld gaming consoles to flesh things out. 2007 was the exciting year when Apple redefined the mobile devices market with the iPhone, and Amazon decided physical bookstores were a thing of the past with its first Kindle. Since then, we’ve seen the rise of tablet computers, the steady decline of the consumer PC, and indeed the end of Borders Books with the future for Barnes & Noble looking none-too-bright. These consumer electronics changed the world and quite radically.
So, what has happened since then? Well, for one thing we’ve been programmed to not only expect but to celebrate the annual product-line updates from Apple, Amazon, Google, Samsung . . . yeah, pretty much every company with some skin in the consumer electronics game, but certainly those four biggies. Really. We look forward to the opportunity to part with hundreds of dollars. Every year. We stand in huge lines and wait for hours for this privilege. How did we let this happen? Well, each year has brought something newer and better, that's for sure, but at the same time we’re seeing diminishing returns on our annual device upgrades, and this year, I believe, marks the maturation of this market. Not the death, no, sir, but I think we’ve hit a definite plateau.
I find it fascinating how quickly this market has reached its maturation. The combined exponential speed increases in mobile processing power and the mastery of outsourced consumer electronic mass production has allowed the mobile device category to reach adulthood much more quickly than the PC did. In 2013, after only seven years, we’re seeing mobile devices match the quality and relative performance of personal computers that took 30 years to reach the same general benchmark.
Don’t believe me? This year, every new mobile device, either phone or tablet, worth its salt sports a screen resolution of at least 1920x1080—that’s the same resolution as your 60-inch HDTV packed into a screen no more than 10 inches, resulting in startling display clarity. 32 GB is now the low-end storage capacity for mobile devices, though with cloud storage, streaming media, and 4G LTE network speeds, who needs local storage? High-end smartphones pack cameras that would have left photographers drooling just a few years ago, never mind the Instagram enthusiasts who use filters that actually degrade picture quality. Graphics processing power is beginning to match that of the soon-to-be previous generation of gaming consoles, such as the XBox 360 and the PS3. We’re not quite there yet, but, man, are we close! All of this in devices that weigh significantly less than a pound, are only a few millimeters thick, and are powered by batteries that last all day.
In the current mobile device format—that of the rectangular slab with metal or plastic casing and a tempered glass touch screen—I don’t think we’ve got much room to grow. I mean, sure, Moore’s law allows for ever greater processing power to be packed into smaller and smaller spaces, but for all practical concerns, I believe 2013 should be the year after which we as a consumer culture say enough. 2013’s hardware is the perfect compromise of performance and price. If you’re looking to upgrade your mobile device, this should be the year to do it.
I don’t enjoy saying that. I wish I saw this particular technology growing in any revolutionary way, but I just don’t. What do we use these things for? Reading, Web surfing, email, watching videos, social networking, taking pictures and video, gaming, some light (or heavy if you’re a touchscreen adept) work—what more can we possibly ask of our rectangles? They are appliances, not general purpose computers, no matter how many “apps for that” there may be. Manufacturers can continue to pack them with faster hardware year after year, but for all that, mobile devices are still just the things we mess around with while watching TV. Who really cares how many cores or gigahertz they have as long as they do Facebook and Angry Birds?
Two things got me got me thinking along these lines. First, when I saw the specs for the new Amazon Kindle Fire HDX I couldn’t believe my eyes: A quad-core 2.2 GHz CPU? That’s an absolute beast of a processor! What for? So the Sudoku puzzles will load more quickly? So page-turn animations will be smoother? No, it’s really just so Amazon has something new to sell, just as it will be next year. Still more notable are the absolutely disgusting commercials from mobile carriers offering us newer and easier ways to give them money every year so that we can always have the next best thing. Talk about consumerism gone nuts. Remember when you bought a computer and stuck with it for five or more years? That’s never been the case with smartphones and tablets.
Oh, and that next best thing—every year from now on it’s just not going to be that much best-ier. They know we’re addicted to annual releases, and it’s time to break the cycle. Go ahead, I encourage investing in a new device this year. I think 2013 is probably the best year to do it. Barring planned obsolescence on the part of the manufacturers, this year’s devices could probably be your ol’ faithfuls. And, admit it, wouldn’t you like to stick it to your smartphone carrier?
Also the environmentalist in me, tiny though he is, would like to remind you that all these toys of ours that we all have to have every year consume a gigantic amount of oil, metal, and rare earth elements to manufacture. The constant production and international transport of these devices is surely much more harmful to the environment than not, and certainly the unprecedented demand for them is harmful to the thousands of men and women who work for slave wages, at slave hours, and inside slave facilities. And, when we're done with our toys, what happens then? The majority of them wind up in landfills and dumps, their batteries leaking into and poisoning the local water table, the materials used in their manufacture not being recovered and reused. There's all that to consider as well.
So, what comes next? If we’re done here, what’s there to be excited about? Plenty, in the form of flexible screen technology, Google glass and other wearable devices (though maybe more to be feared than excited about in that category), hopefully drastic price decreases, and, of course, ever-improving software, which is really what the user experience is all about anyway. So, grab a Kindle Fire HDX (they were going to call it the Kindle Fire Omega, but that sent the wrong consumer message - j/k), a new iPad (new model to be announced in late October!), a 2013 Nexus 7, an iPhone 5S, whatever, learn to live with it, and hang on to your cash come Fall of 2014. I’ve had enough.
P.S. - Keep an eye open for the 2013 Tech Answers mobile device shopping guide, coming early November. (Sigh . . . )