2022 has been the year of incremental smartphone updates, more so than any previous year. Barring a few standouts, the biggest flagships this year have followed a similar theme: If it works, don’t touch it. The end result is that we have an entire year’s worth of flagship smartphones that are mere polishes over their previous generations.
With 2023, I expect OEMs to not only continue this but to double down on it. Before you use this opportunity to cry about how smartphone innovation is dead, this might not be a bad thing.
Phones have matured, and they can only get so much better before they can’t
The general theme for both hardware and software for this year has been maturity. The jump from Android 12 to Android 13 has been one of the most minor and boring changes to the OS in some time, unlike the jump from Android 11 to Android 12 that brought along sweeping changes like Material You and the monet theme engine. Android 13’s big talking point was a new notification permission system, and that feels very minor when you consider the scale of Material You.
On the other side, the grass is a little greener, with iOS 16 bringing some more pronounced changes to the iPhone lock screen and the way notifications are displayed. But once you’re past the lock screen, you’d be hard-pressed to find changes (other than the battery percentage in the status bar — that is just iOS catching up).
When it comes to hardware, we have had an excitingly boring year. New phones have been great in their individual vacuums, but compare them to their predecessors, and you can’t help but feel you’re being taken for a ride. Should you go for the latest and greatest, or just pick up something a year older at a discount and get basically the same phone?
Devices like the Samsung Galaxy S22 and Galaxy S22 Plus were unexciting sidegrades over the Galaxy S21 series. The Galaxy S22 Ultra was an exciting phone in the way it finally integrated the S Pen into the Note-esque chassis, but S Pen support was already present on the Galaxy S21 Ultra. What you got on the device was essentially just integration and refinement over an unfinished experience.
The same story continued with foldables — a category that many here at XDA believe to be the future of smartphones. Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 4 and Galaxy Z Flip 4 were refinements over the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Galaxy Z Flip 3, respectively. And the company knew this, which is why it adopted some generous trade-in offers to entice owners to upgrade to the latest generation and convince them of its foldable vision.
The same story continues with many other smartphones, especially the ones sold in Western markets. The OnePlus 10 Pro was a square sidegrade on the OnePlus 9 Pro. The Google Pixel 7 and Google Pixel 7 Pro were also mild hardware upgrades to their predecessors, the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro. The iPhone 13 to iPhone 14 is so minuscule that most users should readily take the 13 over the 14 and get better value for their money. The iPhone 13 Pro to iPhone 14 Pro is an exciting upgrade on paper, but realistically, most users are going to switch off the distracting Always-On display and not shoot enough in RAW to notice the new camera hardware. All in all, if you bought a smartphone in 2021, then 2022 was boring.
We’re hitting the limits of diminishing marginal utility on smartphones. The budget needed to get a good smartphone experience has come down drastically over the past few years, with mid-range smartphones now being fully capable of fulfilling the needs of the average user. Plus, chances are that the broad use cases of people’s media consumption and communication remain the same— what do you do differently on your phone today compared to what you did five years ago?
There isn’t enough change in our very needs and expectations to warrant the risk of innovation.
Yes, we now create more content daily and consume more vertically than horizontally. Yes, we now have 5G and blazing-fast data speeds everywhere, if the carriers are to be believed (they’re not). But the novel idea of the smartphone as the magical epicenter of a thousand technologies is over a decade old now. This vision has materialized into a glass slab smartphone that can do pretty much everything you can throw at it, with the only variation being the degree of its proficiency.
The hardware has matured, the software has matured, and the only tangible gains left to achieve are in the synergy between the two and the ecosystem play, areas that Apple recognized early on as its home ground. Whether this realization comes to every other company allegedly on its own or whether they’re trying to mimic the big multi-trillion-dollar company is a moot point. Sure, phone companies that can’t achieve this synergy and ecosystem will risk it with innovative wordplay like “blockchain” and “metaverse” tacked on, but it won’t take too long for consumers to blow the vapors away from what essentially remains a glass slab smartphone.
2023 is going to be more incremental upgrades for flagships
If you thought 2022 was boring, you’ll have to brace for 2023. We’re going to see even further refinements and fewer wholesale changes in the name of “innovation.” Most OEMs will focus much more heavily on the end-user experience on their flagships instead of any pure hardware upgrades. The hardware-software synergy that remains quintessential to a seamless user experience requires more than a year and a product cycle to perfect. With Apple continuing to nibble away at the top end with its superior ecosystem play, OEMs have no choice but to double down on creating a great cohesive user experience. This means that risks and “innovations” will stay away from top-tier mainstream flagships — this is not the segment where the wheel shall be reinvented.
Where you will see more experimentation is in the mid and premium-mid ranges, at least when compared to the top tier. We saw Nothing challenge status-quo with the Nothing Phone 1, a phone that did not aim to be a top-tier flagship. As well, devices like the Vivo V23 and V25 series feature color-changing back panels, but the tech remains missing from flagships.
We’re already seeing murmurs of what to expect on key flagship lineups in 2023. I would prefer not to get into specific leaks at this stage — they are leaks, after all — but from what I can see broadly, the idea that a flagship phone line will introduce drastic changes over its predecessor is long behind us. This is a far cry from the earlier years of smartphones, where every new year brought a phone that had its own novelty. In the past, you’d get one of the following as a distinctly new point of “innovation”: a new display tech, a higher resolution or refresh rate, lesser bezels, more premium build materials, a new design, better camera hardware, more camera hardware, faster charging, and so on. Now, all flagship phones have their baselines set, and OEMs are increasingly unwilling to deviate too much and shock users as far as they can avoid it.
Flagships are not products, they are experiences. And that is not going to change.
This quest for refinement also means that phone OEMs will spend more time choosing individual hardware components with more headroom for YoY improvements, like what we see Google and Apple doing with their camera sensors. Apple has even overhauled the internals of the iPhone 14 to make it more repairable, pointing to a future where consumers gladly keep their phones around for longer. Software update promises are adding the layer of confidence that consumers needed to have faith in this longer-term vision, while incremental upgrades on upcoming releases become the final push needed for them to not make the jump onto a new phone.
I’m excited by how boring smartphones have become
Again, hear me out on this. Phones have become boring, and that is great. It indicates maturity, and that good tech has been democratized and made widely accessible to all. It also means that not a lot sets the $1,000 flagships apart from the $500 mid-rangers. It’s similar to what we see for devices like laptops, computers, cameras, and more — tools that get out of the way to enable us to better perform specific functions. Most users rarely remember a specific laptop model, but instead, assign their goodwill and experience to a broader generation of releases, each incrementally better than the one before it. We’re seeing exactly that happen with phones, where what the Pixel 8 will bring to the table individually becomes less important than what the Pixel 8 series will bring to the past few years of the cohesive Google Pixel experience.
The quest for overkill “Ultra” smartphones and foldables will keep the fire burning for hardcore enthusiasts and those with deep pockets. But for the rest of the population? A Pixel 6a will do just as well. You never needed to upgrade every year anyway.