High-end Smartphones are Dying: Here’s Why

To say that high-end smartphones are dying is a pretty controversial, but there are a lot of good reasons to think that the days of $1000+ phones are numbered.  It may not happen tomorrow, but it may happen sooner than you think.

So let’s look at some reasons that provide evidence for this view.

The Market is Shrinking

In 2016 the global smartphone market shrank for the first time ever. This may sound like a bad thing at first, but it’s a sign that the technology is reaching maturity and maybe even saturation.

It’s bad news for high-end smartphones though because a growing market is one of the key drivers for competition at the high-end. If spending on phones is shrinking it’s likely to hit expensive luxury phones harder than everyday workhorses.

Flagship phones are aspirational, they aren’t volume sellers. So any squeeze on the market as a whole means it makes more sense for makers to focus on their meat-and-potatoes offerings.

Even Cheap Phones Are Good

When I bought my first smartphone it was anything but a flagship machine. It was a cheap Samsung Ace thing that lagged all day, every day. Going from that to the (then) flagship S4 was a revelation. Suddenly all the things that I heard you could do with a smartphone would actually work with a phone that I owned.

Now the cheap phones are pretty much as good at 90% of what people use smartphones for as the high-end smartphones. Sure, cheap phone still struggle to do 3D games or mobile VR, but you only need to go up to the midrange for satisfaction in those areas.

We’ve seen this “good enough” phase in other computer devices before. It’s why no one really bothers to upgrade CPUs frequently anymore. Day-to-day tasks already only use a fraction of even low-end computers after all.

What is surprising is how quickly smartphone technology reached that point. It’s only been 10 years since the first iPhone shipped and the smartphone revolution went mainstream.

Build Quality is Not an Issue

Apart from high-end smartphones performing better, they’ve also generally been built better. You’d get the best Gorilla Glass from Corning and aluminum in your phone body.

Now Gorilla Glass or its equivalent is basically standard and even mid-range phones can have nice materials and steady frames.

If you exclude niche features such as high-end smartphone waterproofing and dust resistance, there’s isn’t much motivation to spend more.

You Can Get Performance Cheap

The opposite is now also true. You can get high-end smartphone components at mid-range prices if you can accept mid-range materials.

Companies like Xiaomi and Meizu are selling phones with the exact same internals as flagships from Samsung and friends, for half the price. The tradeoff is that you won’t get things like AMOLED screens or fancy gimmicks.

They’ve also tuned the build-quality down to the point where the price is reasonable without compromising the phone’s ability to tolerate two to three years of use.

If you compare a phone like the Mi 5 to something like the Galaxy S6 or even S7 it’s pretty hard to think of a justification for the massive price difference.

They’re All the Same

Since the market is already under pressure, it certainly doesn’t help that there’s little to choose from between high-end smartphone flagships these days.

There’s a reason that companies like Samsung started to introduce weird features like curved screens to their phones. It’s the same reason Apple tries to make their iPhone thinner and thinner for no real useful reason.

In marketing differentiation matters. If customers can’t tell your product apart from the competition, they’ll just buy whatever’s cheapest or most convenient.

The Software is the Same

Android and iOS dominate the smartphone space and both systems are now pretty mature. Not too long ago you’d only get the latest version of the OS on newer or more expensive phones.

That’s no longer the case and you don’t really have to sacrifice anything if you decide not to use your life savings to buy a phone.

The Cloud Hath Come

One big reason it no longer makes sense to buy a flagship phone is the fact that so much of what we do on our phones are processed in the cloud. If you use an app like Prisma or even fancy things like 123D Catch all the hard stuff us handled online.

Somewhere out there is a room full of high-performance servers that take your request and send back the answers. So whether you have a fast phone or a slow one it makes no difference. It’s also one of the reasons I don’t think most people need a laptop anymore.

Then Again: The Case for High-end Smartphones

OK, I know I’ve been pretty doom and gloom about high-end smartphones, but there are in fact still a few reasons you may consider buying one.

First of all, you get the satisfaction that (for now) you have the best phone money can buy. I mean, who cares right? But if that matters you there’s only one option.

Secondly, if you really want to go as long as possible without upgrading, a flagship is still the only way to do it.

The Recap

I’m not saying that those of us who want flagships shouldn’t buy them, but I think the day is not far off where the idea of a flagship phone won’t be such a clear one. Think about it this way: when’s the last time you thought about a flagship kettle or microwave oven?

Smartphones are on their way to becoming the sort of appliance that has little differentiation from the top to bottom of the range. It may be a while still, but we’re already seeing the signs.

So what are the main points?

  • You don’t really get bad phones anymore
  • Cheap phones are built OK
  • You don’t have to pay top dollar for great performance

There will always be high-end smartphones. It’s just that the range from high to low will narrow and fewer people will care. Which in turn will probably make the people who make these phones care less too.


All Images Public Domain via Pixabay

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