I am currently still using an Apple iPhone 5.
There, I said it – but for some reason this feels like something of a confession, a nagging thought that I should be ashamed of the ‘old’ technology in my pocket. How many models there have been since the iPhone 5? How much better must the technology be now? Surely I’m missing out on the improved experiences everyone else is having? Surely it’s time to upgrade?
But up until a couple of months ago, I’d never really given much serious thought to the ‘upgrade’ question – my faithful 2012 device was going strong, running smoothly and did everything I wanted it to do. We got along just fine, more than fine – things were great, great to the point of fading into the background – my phone did it’s thing, it was there when I needed it, nothing more, nothing less. But then one fateful day I tried to add a new app, and was dutifully informed that it was only supported on a more recent version of iOS.
Only at that point did I realise that the advent of iOS11 (way back in 2017 as it turns out) had pretty much passed me by. Whilst I’ve always paid close attention to software upgrades and updates, diligently obeying those (albeit annoyingly pesky) notifications to ensure that I was looking after my hardware as best I could, it turns out that I was up to date within the hardware limitations of my device. Those kind folks at Apple had thoughtfully refrained from telling me that my phone was slowly on its way out (hat-tip to Apple for keeping me placidly in the dark on that one).
At first I was annoyed, but then pleasantly surprised when I realised just how much life-span I had had from my iPhone without ever a real glitch. An item that I bought outright in 2012 – on the expectation that I would maybe get 1 or 2 years service at best from it – has lasted me nearly 6 years and counting. Brilliant.
But surely I’m not pleased when faced with the inevitable phasing out of my trusty digital steed? Well, in short, I actually am pleased – I’m pleased that I am still using a piece of technology well past what I would have considered an optimistic lifespan. I’m pleased that my experience in maintaining this technology has been pretty much seamless, and that I continue to own a device that has done everything (almost) I have expected and more. I’m pleased that I bought the iPhone outright – put into ‘real’ money (enter some very rudimentary maths), my faithful iPhone 5 has cost me approximately 9 pence(!) per day to date – a pretty pleasing figure in my book. And last, but not least, environmentally speaking I can’t be more pleased – more devices and hardware should be made like my the iPhone 5 – I don’t want to ‘recycle’ something if I can keep it running effectively for longer – update the software, change the battery, even replace a button (all things my iPhone has undergone) – anything we can do to reduce our technological environmental footprint is a good thing.
But surely I want something that looks, well, newer? Well, maybe not – in fact I’d argue that of all the iPhone models past and present, the iPhone 5 is in fact one of the most aesthetically balanced – it’s an elegant device, with a slim form that fits and operates perfectly in a single hand, a screen size and resolution that are generous but carefully restrained, and is crucially of a size that fits easily into your pocket (it really does). It’s a carefully crafted, functional piece of technology that isn’t trying to pretend it is something other than a carefully crafted, functional piece of technology going to a well dressed party. Form meets function, with a little shiny – beautiful.
Now that’s not to say that subsequent models and those from other manufacturers aren’t equally aesthetically pleasing in their own right, but the iPhone 5 has stood the test of time – the current iPhone SE model is for all intents and purposes the same form design, it’s barely changed – something must be right. But in comparing the latest design offerings I can’t help think that the continual product evolutions and ‘improvements’ that are driven by – and driving – consumer demand are somewhat losing the direction and blurring the lines between fashion and technology in an attempt to become the ‘most desirable’ device. This feels like a dangerous game, especially when developing technology that demands such a high impact on our precious natural resources, and one that I’m pretty sure we won’t thank ourselves for down the line.
Time to compare
But a little bit of research shows that in fact consumer demand may be in some respects slowing, and that I am not alone in resisting the ‘need’ to ditch my current smartphone in favour of something newer. Increasingly, consumers are waiting much longer than in previous years to upgrade their handsets, citing complaints such as battery and software issues as the main reasons why they have finally moved on, rather than new designs, features and functions. This is a problem for manufacturers basing some of their product iterations on relatively small upgrades and possibly missing the ‘wow’ factor that might encourage consumers to part with their cash. Recent underwhelming sales of the new iPhone X seem to suggest that the relatively minor technological improvements on previous models and less-than-radical form design weren’t enough to offset the considerably large price tag for many. Now whilst this is only a single example, it does involve one of the most, if not the most innovative manufacturers and is part of growing trend.
It seems that our increasing tech-understanding is a huge factor here – no longer can we be just sold on the shiny ads and lifestyle promises that come pre-boxed with the latest models – we’re all becoming a little more savvy, are capable (and keen) to engage in readily available comparisons and reviews, supplying us with compelling information with which to make our choices. And perhaps we’re also getting a better understanding of exactly what we use our devices for – another fairly rudimentary bit of research reveals that the majority of us only use a very limited set of potential functions and apps we have installed on our smartphones – come to terms with fact that you don’t actually ‘need’ that enhanced processor and face recognition to send emails, text messages and check the weather (3 of the top 10 common smartphone uses), and you’ve got another compelling reason to hang on to your current model.
For the good of all
So where does this leave the technology designers and manufacturers? In designing beautiful, advanced, functional products that stand the test of time (at least in the short term) perhaps manufacturers are outdoing themselves and providing consumers with the very reasons they need to not upgrade? Maybe our ‘old’ tech will actually be our ‘now’ tech for a lot longer than we thought?
On the other hand, by offering consistently good products and services to consumers, there is a brand loyalty element to consider as well – my excellent experience with my iPhone will certainly have me turning to Apple products again when it is (finally) time to upgrade, and the same will be true of large numbers of other consumers. It’s not necessary for a manufacturer to sell upgrades every product cycle to their loyal customer base as long as their customer base is just that – loyal. Deliver quality products and services and you’ll increase the likelihood of your customers returning. Make those products robust, desirable and beautiful as well as functional, and the sales should just keep on coming.
So I’m certainly not suggesting that manufacturers do anything other than continue to design and develop cutting edge technology, but to do this responsibly. As designers it’s definitely our responsibility to ensure we do all we can to future proof our technology solutions – make them extensible, scalable and repairable, and continue to support them well beyond their perceived ‘consumer lifespan’. If we can design and build better, more thoughtful products now that really do stand the test of time, when it really is time to start looking out for the latest model, hopefully we’ll have done all we can to help the environment and our wallets.
So what does all this leave my iPhone 5? Well, I won’t say that a future upgrade isn’t inevitable, but in the meantime whilst things are still going strong, perhaps I should be a little more proud of my faithful and beautiful little digital companion – long may we stay together.