Upgrade, do not “upgrade” anymore

2021 seems to be the year of hesitant steps forward, we all might as well take a breather

The iPhone 13 is impressive on paper, but one would have to look really hard to find something most people will ask of it that an iPhone 12, 11 or 10 would not offer in the context of mainstream, everyday use. (Image: Apple)

It would be all too easy to blame the COVID-19 coronavirus, of course: development of hardware and software became considerably harder in a matter of a few weeks during spring 2020, and things like, oh, a global pandemic tend to throw a wrench in the works of making even simpler things than modern tech products. There’s a different issue with the way hardware and software manufacturers tend to handle product development these days and, in truth, it has nothing to do with the COVID-19 pandemic despite the convenient timing. The issue is this: “upgrades” or “new versions” of existing products are barely worthy of the name anymore — and it’s time for consumers to start pushing back against this trend.

Taking a close look at important new products — they have all launched during the last few months — and one popular broad product category is more than enough in order to understand what is going on. The Nintendo Switch OLED is just the 2017 model with a better screen and a bit more storage space. The iPhone 13 is a small step up from last year’s iPhone 12 that features a more powerful processor and some new camera tricks. The Sony WF-1000XM4 wireless in-ear headphones sport a different design and better battery life. Microsoft Office 2021 offers a visual refresh in line with Windows 11, a universal search function, some small improvements here and there, but not a single exciting new feature. OLED TVs as a whole, meanwhile, have overpromised and underdelivered all year, with just a couple of exceptions saving this category from total stagnation in 2021.

The most important parts of a Nintendo Switch are more than five years old now, but it costs more than the original did in 2017. First-time buyers, enjoy. Everyone else, please wait for a true upgrade. (Image: Nintendo)

The tech market is like — and unlike — any other. On one hand, nobody can reasonably expect of tech products to progress by leaps and bounds every single year: that would imply the kind of development process that leads to products that are too experimental or too full of bugs (or both), which is no good for anyone. On the other hand, progress is not just “part of the DNA” of the tech industry as a whole, it is its very essence: too little of it for too long and stagnation settles in, boring people and making new products much less desirable. That’s no good for anyone either. So there’s a kind of balance that has to be found between these two extremes, one that works for manufacturers as well as for consumers.

The problem is that there’s been no such balance in the tech market for years now. What’s happening instead is that manufacturers are the ones calling the shots, dictating exactly how much tech products will be allowed to progress in order to maximize their profits. Many of them are actively holding their products behind, in fact, in order to offer new versions of existing ones often only marginally better than their predecessors — not as better as they could be — especially when competition does not work as an incentive. That’s how capitalism works, yes, but it’s consumers that constantly get the short end of the stick: they are practically expected to buy these held-back products, every year or every other year, even if these “new” versions do not offer enough “new things” for the asking price. It’s just marketing that’s always trying to cover that up and, sadly, it seems to be working better than it should.

2021 OLED TVs were supposed to offer brighter models and cheaper models. They only did it to the extent that manufacturers’ marketing teams could claim as much. A 2019 or even 2018 OLED TV would serve just as well. (Image: LG)

This is the kind of situation, though, that cannot be tolerated for much longer for a variety of reasons. Many people are feeling the same way already, that is why the “upgrade” cycles of certain tech product categories have gotten considerably longer in the last few years. Cost is and will always be a factor, yes, but it’s also the fact that after buying into such “upgrades” two or three times, most consumers have come to realize that these did not make anywhere near the difference in their everyday lives they thought the new versions would. The vast majority of people do not have specialized use cases that actually need the best, the fastest, the most feature-rich tech products.

What, inevitably, comes next is consumers starting to make this choice willfully: to not “upgrade”, even if they can easily afford to, until it really is time to upgrade. To hold on to tech products for as long as they serve them well, not for as long as manufacturers would prefer them to. This is the only way they can try to restore that balance between progress and artificial stagnation, forcing manufacturers to offer more with their new products. Will it work? It’s anyone’s guess but… we’ll never know until it’s been tried, no?


Kostas Farkonas

Veteran reporter with over 30 years of industry experience in various media, focusing on consumer tech, entertainment and digital culture. No, he will not fix your PC (again).

Veteran reporter with over 30 years of industry experience in various media, focusing on consumer tech, entertainment and digital culture. No, he will not fix your PC (again).




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