Smartphones and planned obsolescence

I was a bit late to the smartphone party. The first one I owned was a BlackBerry Storm (the first model, with no WiFi). This was the first touchscreen BlackBerry. I didn’t go into the store (in March 2010) planning to buy a Storm, but I knew I was going to get a BlackBerry. I was considering starting a full-time private consulting business and wanted a BB for its email capabilities. I was talked into the Storm by the Bell salesperson. Although the consulting thing never materialized, I fell in love with the Storm, despite its many quirks: the infamous “clickable” touchscreen, the lack of WiFi, the small amount of application memory, the need to do periodic battery pulls to free up memory, etc. The phone soon became an indispensable part of my day-to-day routine (and that was before I was on Facebook or Twitter, or had a blog). Just web browsing, news, multimedia, ebooks and a few key apps (Scoremobile and Vlingo come to mind first).

That said, I was not completely satisfied with my purchase. The main issue was the lack of WiFi. My plan had one gigabyte of data and I was always fearful of exceeding it (although I never came close to doing so). So when the phone developed a problem with the touchscreen after having owned it for less than a year (the touchscreen sometimes wouldn’t “wake up”), I began to look around at other alternatives (even while my Storm was getting repaired under warranty). Having just signed a 3-year contract to get the Storm, I knew that I was going to have to pay full price for a replacement, so I began to look at the lower end of the smartphone range.

After owning a couple of other phones (Motorola Dext and LG Optimus Chic) for a very short period, I began hearing about a new Motorola phone that would soon be launched by Bell – the Atrix. This phone was described as the first “superphone”, with a dual-core processor, 1GB of application memory and 16GB of onboard storage (plus the ability to add storage via microSD). The phone looked very interesting, as did the accessories, which included a “lapdock” that effectively turned the phone into a “laptop-lite”, as well as a number of docks. So, for the first time, I became an “early adopter” – I signed a new 3-year contract and bought the phone on the first day it was available (March 17, 2011). I’ve had the phone ever since. For most of the time I’ve had it, it’s been great. It was launched with Android 2.2, but received an upgrade to 2.3 (“Gingerbread”) in June of 2011. That upgrade made what was already a very good phone great. It took care of a few problems, most notably poor performance in the car dock (the phone would get hot and lose charge, despite being plugged into the charger). From that OS update until a more recent minor update (from 2.3.4 to 2.3.6), I cannot think of anything to criticize about the phone. However, since the more recent update, I have been having some problems with losing the WiFi connection and “laggy” performance. These are minor problems, however; I’m still very happy with the phone overall.

Then, the other day, I was on the Bell website and I happened to notice something that struck me. Less than one year since the Atrix was launched with great fanfare, it no longer appears on the Bell site. Not only is it not featured, it is not there at all. Meanwhile, it looks as though the Atrix will NOT get an upgrade to the next version of Android (4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich”).

So my phone is effectively obsolete, after less than one year. Of course, I signed a 3-year contract, so I am stuck with this phone for a while yet. And I don’t mean to imply that this is a bad thing, or that my phone is somehow unsuitable because there are newer, bigger and more powerful phones out there. What I have learned from this experience, however, is to be a bit careful about investing money in accessories. I am sure, even if I buy another Motorola phone, that the docks I have (which cost about $200 at retail) will not work with the new phone. So even if I was willing to invest in a new phone, I would also have to buy new accessories (especially a car dock, which is indispensable if you want to take advantage of the GPS and navigation capabilities built into all new phones, while complying with distracted-driving legislation). With the price of smartphones being so high (the new Samsung Galaxy Note will likely be over $700 with no contract), this becomes a substantial investment for something that will be obsolete in a year (or less!)

And, because of the fast pace of technological innovation, it is impossible to look into the future and see where things will be in even a year, much less the 3 years that you have to be tied up in a cell phone contract in order to get a discounted phone.

One potential way out of this “obsolescence trap” is to step back from viewing your phone as a complete multimedia entertainment system. One innovation that allows you to do this is the tablet. I purchased a Samsung Galaxy Tab (WiFi-only) a couple of months back. Since I bought it, I have noticed that I use my phone less and less. Most of the “entertainment” functions that I used to use my Atrix for (web surfing, multimedia), I now do on my tablet. There are even apps that allow you to text from your WiFi-only tablet, as well as placing and receiving phone calls (Dell Voice even gives you a phone number and allows for free calling to all major Canadian cities). So you really don’t need your phone for anything more than calling (as long as you have access to a wireless network for your tablet). And wi-fi Android tablets are much cheaper than high-end smartphones (at full undiscounted price).

I’m interested in hearing from others as to how you approach smartphone purchases in an era of rapid technological innovation. Do you always want the latest technology? And, for those who have a tablet, how has the tablet impacted the way you use your phone? Comments are always welcome – I approve all comments that aren’t spam!

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About Kerry Butt

Occasionally blogging on topics of interest to me - mainly technology, science, music and sports. And market/public opinion research (my field). And random other things.
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