Why do companies keep promoting thin devices at the detriment of other features?
Each year, phones inevitably get thinner, just as they inevitably gain larger screens. Each year, there are thousands of blog posts complaining about how the thin device war is just to the detriment of other features, such as battery life and thermal management. Indeed, even polls suggest that people would prefer a thicker phone if they had a larger battery. Yet manufacturers continue to push the trend to the very limits, dropping off ports as you go. Why is this?
The thing is, people – not enthusiasts, but your average consumer – don’t really want a thicker phone. On a completely practical level, of course they want a durable, heavy phone, with a battery that lasts days. However, on a different level, they expect to be wowed, impressed, given the stimulus to upgrade. And manufacturers have spent a long time equating thin and light with premium, again reinforcing the idea in the consumer’s mind that this is a substantial upgrade because it feels so different in the hand. A new, thin phone feels like much more of a step up than one which has the exact same thickness but vastly improved battery life. As innovation begins to plateau in the marketplace, manufacturers are seeking other ways to differentiate themselves by pushing the boundaries on how light you can get a device. An interesting point is also made in this article, claiming that it is a way for companies to ‘stroke their design egos’. And as one manufacturer goes thinner, others feel compelled to follow, otherwise they will look dated and becoming inferior products in terms of design. Don’t believe me? Just look at the new Retina Macbook. There’s no denying comparing it to the old Macbook Air it is a far less powerful and slightly less long lasting product. The keys have no travel. You’ve got a low res camera. But holding it in the hand makes it feel much more advanced, and yes, futuristic than the older Macbook. And that sells. I guarantee over the next few years we’ll see a proliferation of similiar models to the new Macbook, just as the Macbook Air spawned the Windows Ultrabook. In fact, while we’re on the subject of the Macbook, thinness can also spur on new innovation. The new Retina Macbook, although widely panned for having only one USB type-C port, will spur on development of wireless/type c accessories. Many legacy ports were abolished when the Macbook air was revealed.
Furthermore, whereas most people want better battery life, they can live without it, and anyway most thin phones do offer decent battery life, perhaps excluding the most recent Snapdragon crop thanks to reduced efficiency. (take the iPhone 6S+ and the Xperia Z3 as examples). Sure, it would be nice to go without charging for a few days, but most people charge every night as a habit – battery life becomes something you are accustomed to and tolerate. You can even buy an external battery pack, whereas it is pretty hard to slim down your phone. Again, it’s this idea about brand image. In emerging countries such as India and China, this slimness craze is a way of establishing you have the latest and greatest. But it holds true for everyone. This idea of thinness being a status symbol is something that again drives manufacturers to shave off those tenths of millimetres. But that’s all a moot point.
Another, more worrying problem, is that by slimming things down user repairability goes out of the window. Battery life stays more or less at par with predecessors at best, or gets worse. All these things contribute to making a more disposable product, and thus one that people will be incentivised to drop quicker for the new even thinner shiny thing. Whether this sort of planned obsolescence is actually intended is a matter of debate that Jacob will pursue in his article, but it is definitely something to consider.
The point is people buy for flashy features first, then complain about long term effects later (such as the knock on effect on battery life). Whilst consumers are keen to have more battery life in theory, take them to the average phone store and most likely they’ll be attracted to the nicest looking phone, which will also tend to be the thinner one. The result? Manufacturers keep pushing form over function. Of course, it can’t last. Manufacturers are rapidly hitting the limit beyond which the trade offs on other things finally start eclipsing aesthetic appeal for buyers, but for now, thin phones are here to stay.