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The problem with "next generation" gadgets

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Gadgets, long in memory, worked in a certain way.

You, a company, release one. It’s good, but it’s not perfect. No gadget is perfect! So you do market research and focus groups. You know who is buying. You determine what they like and what they don’t like. You’re okay. You solve problems.

The following year, you release a version of this device that is objectively, concretely better. This is the next generation device, Device 2.0. You call this device an “upgrade”. You tell your customers to recycle Device 1.0 and replace it with Device 2.0. Some of them do. “Do you need to upgrade?” write tech bloggers, calculating the pros and cons of doing so.

I know, I know, it’s a vast oversimplification of how consumer technology actually works. I just want to say to illustrate that many of us who follow the gadget space share an assumption about how products work: that products get better with age. That next-generation gadgets are better than the gadgets they replace.

But not all technologies work that way anymore. And it’s time for all of us, businesses and consumers alike, to stop doing this.

The “upgrade” mentality made a lot of sense for new product categories that were trying to sound out what customers wanted. The smart home space in the mid-2010s was a good example of this – it was unclear exactly how people would use it. Alexa, Google Assistant, and various hardware that included them, and as the market learned more, software and speakers and such were refined to better suit those use cases. the Google homes got stronger and gained functionality without losing much in return.

But many top gadget categories — including smartphones, laptops and TVs — are now firmly out of that space. These are mature markets full of established players and products that are already doing very, very well. And that makes an “upgrade,” in the traditional sense, a tricky task.

Just look at this year’s laptop market to see how it fares. There were very, very few versions of laptops that were strictly better than the predecessors they replaced. The examples I can think of are in all games, where some platforms have seen a significant improvement in graphical quality due to hardware and software improvements.

But almost every “next-gen” device I’ve reviewed in the consumer computing space was not what I would call an “upgrade” from previous generations. These were upgrades in some respects and downgrades in others. Overall they were just different.

Some were fundamentally different, both in design and function. Take Dell XPS 13 2-in-1for instance. Since 2017, this device has been a very standard convertible – i.e. a normal-looking laptop that can fold up 360 degrees. This year, however, Dell avoided that design for a Surface Pro-esque form factor instead. This year the 2 in 1, although still marketed as the XPS 13 2-in-1 and old replacement on the Dell Store, is basically a Windows tablet with a magnetic keyboard case. This form factor isn’t necessarily better or worse, but it’s hard to conceptualize it as an “upgrade” from the previous form factor. It is ideal for different use cases and targets a different customer. It’s just different.

But there are also legions of next-gen laptop models that haven’t seen many (if any) design updates, but still ended up targeting a new customer entirely. It has to do with the choices Intel has made about its 12th generation processor lineup. Intel has long been the world’s largest semiconductor maker and has operated without significant competition for much of the past few decades. It’s only in recent years that AMD and Apple have burst onto the scene with menacing, heart-pounding competitors.

Where Intel could once get away with incremental performance increases every year, it has recently had to take bigger and riskier steps. The company has made big strides in raw power this year, and its Alder Lake chips have rivaled (and even surpassed) Apple’s Arm chips in many ways. But those chips were also more power-hungry than the 11th-gen series, and the battery life of many Intel-powered 2022 laptops suffered.

And so we’ve had, across the board, a year full of Windows laptops that were more powerful than their identical-looking predecessors but didn’t last as long as one charge. Seriously, you can click on it any opinion of a next-gen laptop that I wrote this year. I can almost guarantee you that I praised the performance but complained about the battery life. They weren’t upgrades, although some parts of them had improved. These were different devices, targeting users for whom power was a priority and battery life was not. Even though there was some overlap, they weren’t strictly targeting buyers who owned previous versions of these devices.

This is not exclusive to the laptop market, however. Look at him iPhone 14. It’s the iPhone 13, but there’s, like, a new camera sensor? I know very few people who actually bought this new iPhone – I know many People who chose to buy the 13 instead because they feel it’s better value for money.

The Acer Chromebook Spin 714 opens to a table displaying a purple ribbon wallpaper.

a:hover]:text-gray-63 text-gray-63 dark:[&>a:hover]:text-gray-bd dark:text-gray-bd dark:[&>a]:text-gray-bd [&>a]:shadow-underline-gray-63 [&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-black dark:[&>a]:shadow-underline-gray dark:[&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-gray”>Photo by Becca Farsace/The Verge

I want to be clear that I don’t want to bang next-gen gadgets or pretend they should go away. They clearly serve an important purpose in the tech landscape. But if they aren’t upgrades, then what are they? Listen to me: these are sequels.

Entertainment has been doing it in a different way for decades. When a sequel to a movie is released, we don’t assume the sequel will be an improvement on that movie. This is also true for remakes. I think we can all be thankful for that 2004 release by Nicole Kidman of The Women of Stepford did not erase the 1975 Katharine Ross title – the two are different movies with different tones and target audiences, though they have a whole premise and plot in common. A sequel is sometimes (often, in fact) worse than its prequel, and that’s okay, not a massive failure or a sign that the studio is doomed.

Clearly, there are countless differences between consumer tech business models and those in Hollywood. Movies can’t break and don’t degrade (although some of their elements – their special effects, costumes and hairstyles, elements of their sets and plots – date them over time). Gadgets need to be replaced in a way that movies don’t.

Still, I think parts of the entertainment industry model could provide another way for buyers and makers to think about consumer technology. (There are, of course, tech products outside of the gadget space that are already widely seen that way — cars being one example.)

Some categories are as good as it gets

I imagine a world where if my XPS 13 fails, I can easily replace it with another 10th Gen XPS 13, even if a 12th Gen model is on the shelves. In this world, chipmakers don’t necessarily release new generations every year; they update when they have something groundbreaking to share. Companies don’t replace their gadgets with newer versions of those gadgets, but sell both side-by-side, with clear descriptions of which is and isn’t for each. And reviewers rate new units on their own unique merits, rather than comparing them spec-for-spec to their predecessors.

I’m not saying that this world is even possible. We’re talking about companies that have a profit incentive to entice us to buy new things, and consumers that love shiny new toys. I’m just saying it’s a world I would vibrate with.

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