Android Intelligence Analysis

LG's super-fantastic, industry-shifting idea*

* ...that's being attempted for all the wrong reasons and has practically no chance of paying off.

LG Smartphone Release Cycle
PIRO4D (CC0)

I never thought I'd say this, but LG might be onto something.

The company that I've long criticized for having compelling pieces but no cohesive vision has come out with a radical declaration: It's no longer gonna play by the rules and release new phones at a regular clip just because that's what everyone else is doing.

The word, as reported by The Korea Herald, came out of a CES press conference last week. The paper quotes a company exec as saying LG will "unveil new smartphones when it is needed" and won't launch them on a firm yearly schedule "just because other rivals do." Instead, the quote says, the company will "retain existing models longer" and offer more "variant models."

Now, before we give LG too much credit, let's be real: The reason for this change is almost certainly not noble. LG has long struggled to create phones that stand out from the pack and, y'know, actually make money. Reports suggest the phone-maker may have even scrapped work on its next-gen flagship entirely and sent its designers back to the drawing board, with an unnamed official telling the Herald-owned Investor that LG "hasn’t been able to find a strong selling point" for the device. (Huh — who woulda thunk?)

But set that aside for a moment and consider the idea of companies releasing new phone versions only when they're warranted — say, every other year instead of annually. Call me crazy, but from a phone-owner's perspective, that seems like a spectacular shift.

Think about it: When was the last time we actually saw back-to-back phone releases that both truly felt necessary? Sure, in the early days of Android, we'd have monumental launches every year (or sometimes even more often). But back then, smartphone hardware was evolving at a breakneck pace. Practically every new device was meaningfully faster than the last, with a noticeably better display, dramatically upgraded camera, and all sorts of other transformative technological advances.

Nowadays? The vast majority of phone launches represent incremental improvements. The standard cycle for most manufacturers has become one wholly new model every other year and a mildly refined update — one that typically boasts some added bells and whistles and feels like: "Well, we've gotta put out something that seems new-ish, right?" — in the subsequent "off" years.

And it's no wonder: Smartphones themselves have been reduced to mere vessels in our mobile tech adventures. The major hardware progressions are few and far between; instead, it's now the software, ecosystem, and overall user experiences that have become most impactful.

So just as we've seen in the realms of laptops and other more mature appliances, moving to an every-other-year (or "as warranted") device launch cycle could actually be a sensible change. For most people at this point, there's no real reason to buy a new phone every single year. If you do, it's strictly because you want to — nothing wrong with that — and even then, the year-to-year enhancements are increasingly subtle.

But the right flagship device can easily last you two, even three years without anything significant lost — if the device is properly supported and updated for that entire period. And that, of course, is the caveat: Other than Google, which now promises a full three years of timely OS and security updates for its Pixel devices, no Android manufacturer makes ongoing updates a priority. If a company is going to claim its phones have longer shelf lives, it has to make it clear those devices are actually up to date and not on the brink of abandonment for the full time they're being sold and through at least a couple years thereafter.

In theory, moving to a less ambitious device release cycle could free up a company to focus on such effective support for its existing handsets. But that's in theory, and I suspect it's still an idealistic notion. LG in particular has always done a lackluster job of keeping its devices up to date, and the company's given no indication it plans to step up those efforts. Its launch schedule pivot is more desperate Band-Aid than bold statement.

There's certainly an argument to be made that serving customers well and keeping phones up to date can build loyalty and pay off in the long run, but until third-party Android device-makers start seeing tangible results tied to that idea (or tangible losses tied directly to their current attitudes of indifference), none of them — least of all LG — seems likely to start investing the resources required for proper post-sales support.

Ultimately, it's all about the bottom line. With the sole exception of Google, after all, Android device-makers make money almost exclusively by selling phones. And putting out regular new devices with fresh marketing-friendly features is what keeps the dough rolling in (again, with the exception of Google, for whom post-sales product improvements actually do have an immediate payoff). With all the realities of today's smartphone environment, being the one company to step away from that cycle and not have a "hot new" product on display is only going to put LG a step behind everyone else.

Still, the thought of an every-other-year flagship launch cycle is nice to consider, isn't it? Less forced obsolescence, more long-term support, and more bang for the buck with each new device arrival. Think how compelling each new smartphone model could be if it were to incorporate two full years' worth of improvements. Think how much easier it'd be to justify an expensive device purchase if you knew the product had been built with a longer shelf life in mind.

Hardware hasn't been the driving force of phone evolution in quite some time, and the elements that are progressing generally don't need new devices to exist. In an ideal universe, LG's move away from the rat race would alter buyer expectations and upend the mobile phone market. In our current reality, though, its main effect will likely just be making LG even less relevant than it already was.

Maybe some day, someone will figure out a better way.

Android Intelligence Twitter

[NEW: Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld!]

How to protect Windows 10 PCs from ransomware
Shop Tech Products at Amazon