It's the bits and bytes - not the chips and components!

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In the last few years, the whole core of what a smartphone means to me has changed. In one sense, a lot of the excitement about new phone launches has worn off, while in another, I’ve never been so invested in my phone and how tightly integrated it is into my everyday life. Let me explain - in text or (if you prefer) video form! You see, the value in your smartphone in 2021 isn't - surprisingly - in your £1000 hardware, I contend.

In video form first, in case you prefer to watch than to read(!), courtesy of my latest Phones Show:

Ten years ago, Symbian OS and Nokia, the original dominant force in smartphones, were on their last legs (after a decent decade-long run), Apple and iOS were maturing rapidly from gadget-starved first iPhone back in 2007, and Samsung, HTC, and other Android manufacturers were producing genuine innovations year on year. Every launch had a jaw dropping ‘I want that’ moment. A Wow(!) moment. And year on year, convergence became complete. By about 2012, we had GPS that was good enough for 99% of users and locations. By about 2014, we had displays that were good enough in 99% of light conditions for 99% of users. By about 2016, we had phone cameras that were patently good enough for 99% of uses. By 2018 we had phone speakers that were patently loud enough for most uses, and often stereo. 

But despite experiments with folding screens, pop-up and periscope cameras, the drive to give up current working hardware and buy something new has never been so low, I contend. My three year old Samsung Galaxy S9+, my main Android handset (I also have SIMs in my iPhone 12 Pro Max - which shot the video above, and my Lumia 1020) is still fast, smooth, updated monthly, and in fact arguably has more features than 2021 flagships (bio-sensors, 3.5mm jack, microSD, instant fingerprint access) - so there’s zero incentive to switch it. 

We’ve talked for years about whether smartphones are ‘plateauing’ and while the answer is usually ‘no’, until folding phones become completely mainstream, the improvement curve has been clearly flattening for years. Any iPhone from the last four years or any £150+ Android handset from the last three (e.g. the Redmi Note 9T) will do the job for you or I, if we’re honest.

Which is just as well, since moving everything from one phone to another is a right pain. 

Fifteen years ago, the pain point was the physical transfer of the basics - contacts, calendar, and so on. Cue comma-separated text files, SyncML experimentation, and more. Ten years ago, we had cloud sync and PIM stuff was a doddle, but the pain point was getting all one’s media - music and videos - and general stuff over from one phone to another. Usually juggling via a PC and with or without a microSD card.

These days, PIM and media are sorted, the latter usually because it’s all streamed anyway, and the pain point now is the sheer number of things we’re signed into. Some are handled by the phone OS, but many are not and the most important are all protected by two factor authentication, which has to be entered per service or app, and that’s assuming your authenticator is now fully set up on the new device. Cloud documents, PayPal, online banking, Amazon, Spotify, browser cookies for your top 20 sites, IoT cameras, the list goes on. Their cookies and authorisations can’t make it across from backups, online or local, so all have to be set up and established again.

Then there’s your beautifully curated home screen setup, with folders, icon placements and widgets. If you’re going iPhone to iPhone then you’ll get most of this back. Android to Android, well, it’s a - as they say - crap shoot. You’ll usually get most of your third party apps reinstalled but homescreen setup will probably have to be done again, so let’s hope you have the predecessor device to refer to.

The set-up time for a new smartphone is still only an hour or two - start to finish - of intense activity if you know what you’re doing, but it’s a pain if you have to do this too often. Which is why most reviewers, including me, actually test new smartphones with a second or third SIM and a test Apple or Google account - and don’t necessarily get everything installed. It’s just not practical to do all this once a week, fortnight, or even once a month. Life’s too short.

But my insight here is that the value in your smartphone right now - in your hands - lies in the set of information, authorisations, cookies, tokens, accounts, within it. The hardware - a good screen, networking, camera, speakers, and so on, are all assumed, not least because you wouldn't have picked that phone in the first place if you hadn’t been happy with it.

The real value is in the bits and bytes in its internal, non-volatile storage, the state which sets this phone apart from your wife’s or cousin Fred’s. Homescreen setup is just a small part of this, and we all know how alien it feels to pick up someone else’s phone and think ‘Where the flippin heck is everything?’. Scale that up to all the personal services you’re signed - and allowed - into. That’s the real magic of a smartphone, that’s the real value.

So when you see the next shiny new thing being announced, with an incremental (or decremental, given the way the likes of Samsung are going) improvement on last year’s model, remember that it’s not really the chips, sensors and antennae that make up your phone - it’s your data, your ID, your preferences - encoded into the 1s and 0s. 

Comments welcome, either here or in the YouTube comments.