With many companies like Apple, Samsung, Motorola releasing new flagship phones every year, this is a problem that needs to be addressed. It’s a drain on the environment, and I think it’s a big reason why the mobile industry is currently stagnant and dull. By moving to a two-year or even three-year update cycle, phones could become exciting again, and we’d be doing a huge favor for the planet. let me explain.
Annual updates have almost become a standard practice for every brand’s flagship phone. We expect Apple to unveil new iPhones in September, Samsung to unveil new Galaxy S-series phones in January or February, and Google to unveil new Pixels in October. The industry runs like clockwork, which means whether you’re upgrading from a five-year-old phone or just want the latest, greatest tech, there’s always a compelling new product to buy.
It’s a money-making scheme, of course, designed to keep you hungry for the next best thing, and hand more of your hard-earned cash to the phone makers and carriers you’re likely to buy.
The biggest problem with these rapid refresh cycles is the environmental impact they create. The electronics industry is a dirty business. From the mining of rare earths used in various device components, to the shipping of factories and production lines, and even the products themselves, the environmental impact of mobile phones is enormous. While most companies now pride themselves on varying amounts of recycled material in their phones, a bigger help in reducing that impact is simply releasing new models less frequently.
If you take good care of your phone, you can expect it to last for years. Manufacturers like Apple, Samsung, and OnePlus even back their phones for up to five years, meaning the phone you buy today will still be successful in 2028. Releasing phones less often encourages people to use their devices longer and keeps them away from devices that end up in landfills, and requires fewer resources to manufacture and ship brand new phones each year.
But I think the other problem we have is how boring and predictable phones are right now. Bigger screens, higher-resolution cameras, and more powerful processors make headlines year after year, while real innovation seems to have been abandoned in favor of incremental upgrades. The Galaxy S23 Ultra is a great phone, but it’s not that different from the S22 Ultra. iPhone 14 Pro — is it very different from the 13 Pro? I was hoping foldable phones would generate some excitement in the industry, but that hasn’t happened yet. Meanwhile, Motorola’s Razr series, which skipped 2022 in most parts of the world, is making a comeback this year with an updated model that precedes the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5 with a more usable cover display.
With a two- to three-year update cycle, companies can keep these new features around longer, making the new models that eventually roll out seem more important and more worthwhile upgrades to look forward to. I just watched Samsung’s Unpacked event, where the Galaxy Z Fold 5 was announced. It’s a slight improvement over the Z Fold 4, but when I compared it to the original 2019 Fold, the difference was huge. The situation is even worse for OnePlus, which launched the OnePlus 10 Pro and OnePlus 10T within a few months last year, making the latter a dubious purchase.
Phone companies could adopt a similar model to the game console or camera industries. It took PlayStation seven years to completely replace the PS4 with the PS5, while Canon replaced 2016’s 5D Mark IV with the EOS R5 in 2020. Both the PS5 and the Canon R5 offer significant upgrades over their predecessors, dramatically changing how we use them and justifying the upgrade fee. When the Canon R5 was released, I spent thousands of dollars on it. I wouldn’t do it if I knew it was going to be replaced next year.
Few of us replace our TVs, cars or laptops every year, instead waiting for the big moment to make a change, if this new technology – whether it’s power in our cars or 8K HDR in our TVs – means we really will see the advantages. These items can be kept for at least five years before being upgraded. The same applies to our mobile phones. Dutch company Fairphone is one of the few phone makers with this idea in mind: 2021’s Fairphone 4 is still the company’s newest phone, and it’s easy to repair with a screwdriver. However, the range of the phone is rather limited as the phone has only recently become available in the US.
Launching a new flagship phone every two or three years will not only reduce the industry’s environmental footprint, but by maintaining and growing these products, the products released will be more exciting. I miss that excitement.