/ Technology

Why are we buying fewer smartphones?


The latest smartphone sales figures make for bleak reading for the big brands. For the first time on record, global smartphone sales have fallen, down by 5.6% in the last quarter of 2017, compared to the same period in 2016. Have we fallen out of love with smartphones?

According to analysts at Gartner, almost 408 million smartphones were sold around the world in the final three months of last year.

Sounds impressive, but in the same period last year, 24 million more smartphones were sold. That equates to a 5.6% fall and the first year-on-year decline since the research firm began tracking the market in 2004.

So why are sales figures down? Gartner reckons it’s down to two factors:

  • Low-cost smartphones are poorer value than high-quality feature/simple phones
  • People are keeping their expensive smartphones longer because they can’t afford to keep upgrading

Reading your comments in a recent conversation about simple phones, I don’t think this comes as a surprise.

These highlighted just how good simple phones have become and how negatively some of you feel towards the big brands that charge an arm and a leg for the latest models.

Moya Stewart summed up the thoughts of many, saying:

‘I am very content with my Doro phone, I can make calls, text, use MMS, take pictures and press the button on the back, which automatically cascades calls to family if I need help. It has large buttons and a decent-sized screen, too.’

Clive M added:

‘I had no interest in possessing a mobile phone until it became necessary to be contactable when not at home. I now have the simplest type possible and see no need for anything more complex.’

The end of our throwaway culture?

Our data shows that cheaper ‘smart’ phones sometimes offer less value for money with inferior cameras, poor performance and shorter battery life.

So why buy one when it’s going to offer a disappointing experience in the long run?

If you choose to buy an expensive smartphone, such as the £1,000 iPhone X, replacing it after two years or even selling it at a reduced price, is rightly hard to justify.

There aren’t many product categories we review and test at Which? where the buyer is expected to get rid of their product under two years later. Imagine regretfully boxing up your flatscreen telly 18 months after you bought it? You’d call it total madness. So why are smartphones any different?

Perhaps we’re finally beginning to call time on the culture of throwaway tech?

Over to you

I’d be interested to see why you choose to replace your smartphone, or whether you even feel as though you have a choice about it when you do. Perhaps you’re more confident in keeping a phone for longer, and are better at saying ‘no’ to your mobile provider when they offer you an ‘upgrade’. Or maybe it’s because you’re fed up of big phone companies charging huge prices for tech they hope you’ll want to replace. On the flipside, perhaps you’re perfectly happy to get a brand new phone every 18 months…


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When you buy a replacement phone battery you must try to sort out the “fakes” (which might be OK) from the “genuine” ones. Price is often a good guide, but not infallible. I chicken out and go direct to the phone manufacturer; I don’t want a melt down. Same with chargers.

There has been a fair amount of criticism of those who buy expensive phones. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t see the criticism if someone chooses to spend £40k on a car. Alternatively they could buy a large expensive TV, an expensive stereo, r a home cinema system, a new kitchen, or a variety of other products that can cost far more than the well known brands of smartphones. For many, their smartphone will be the most frequently used product.

Why is it OK to spend money on an expensive car but buying a one of the market leading phones causes so much concern?

It doesn’t cause me concern. As I said at the outset “Let those who have the money spend it duncan 🙂”. Applies to anything. However I would maybe criticise people who don’t have the money, spend it, then complain about the cost of overdrafts though 😀

Hopefully we can all agree about that, but even if money is not a concern the comments in our Convos are more critical of expenditure on smartphones than on other expensive products.

The range of acceptable smart phones reviewed by Which? goes from around £80 to £999 – a ratio of 12.5 times for something that “does the job”. Which?’s car review for acceptable vehicles ranges from around £9000 to £78000, a ratio of 8.7x again for something that does the job. “the question was asked quite rightly ” Why would anyone spend £40k or more on a car?“. Probably like spending £1000 on a phone – because they can. And why not?

Yes, but I’ve not noticed many comments about people buying more expensive cars or a whole variety of other items.

I think the criticism of expenditure on a high-price smart phone is just a metaphor for objections to all the other aspects of mobile phone use – the time-wasting, the twirling around in the high street, the filming and photographing of absolutely everything, the dangers of using them while driving, the flashing screens in the theatre, the budget-stretching monthly charges, the repetitive flicking and swiping through stuff already seen, the replacement of intelligence by the slavish use of apps, the half-dialogues [and fractious arguments] heard on the train, the watching of a live event on a tiny screen, the moaning about battery life, the unwelcome interruptions to our lives by people who are trying to fill an idle moment but have nothing important to say, . . . need I go on?

…….and the ease with which they are used carelessly, dropped down loos, in puddles, on concrete, and the way they are used rudely in company where electronic conversations with those not present are seemingly preferable to interacting social with present company…….

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Oh dear. I think I will carry on using my four year old smartphone constructively and as far as possible avoiding the points of potential criticism. It is jolly useful for tethering my laptop and I’m not keen on using free WiFi.

Phones get wet because many carry them in their hand everywhere the go and in all weather they do not think of putting them anywhere even if is pouring with rain

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I suggest posting on the New Which? Convo Conversation, Duncan. That’s where we have been asked to post about problems and might be the only one that the technical guys frequent.

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I don’t know what your production costs include duncan. Perhaps you would link to them. Part of the cost of a product is in research, development, manufacturing tooling, sales and marketing, and then the distributors’ and retailers’ costs and profit margins and sales taxes. What do your quoted production costs cover?

Just post the links so we can evaluate them, Duncan.

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Well, I also have the costs for an iPhone from a top secret site, but I have to take care in revealing anything, in case the CIA, FBI, H Security, Black ops, Seal team A2m, the White House, the Grey House, Dept of Defense (wish they’d learn how to spell) or the nuclear command retaliation committee decide I need dealing with.

But – oh well, here goes in the name of freedom and the British way, the site is argghhhhhh…..

Only kidding: it’s here

The link shows it’s the hardware costs only, Duncan; not the labour, import, tax, or any other associated costs. In other words it’s not – as you asserted – the production cost. Facts.

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It has no history?

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Well, no, Duncan; the costs were specifically for materials only. They didn’t cover all the other costs associated with production.

And yes; I know history is stored, but if you’re not doing anything particularly nefarious why would you worry?

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duncan, that’s right. Manufacturing cost should include materials, labour, manufacturing overheads. Otherwise they are meaningless. The cost price would then include all the non-manufacturing overheads like sales, marketing, r&d, admin, premises…… Finally, the selling price ex manufacturer would include their profit margin. Then there are shipping costs, distributors, retailers, warranty cost…………All of which we have to pay.

Incidentally, manufacturers’ costs are not definite, particularly for a new product. Many of the costs will be dependent upon the quantity sold – apportioning the right share of tooling, r&d, fixed overheads, for example. Sales and marketing have the job of trying to estimate the likely sales in a given period to recover the estimated costs.

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I don’t. What do you mean?

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Back to the original question and I can’t help but wonder if there’s something much simpler going on.

We live in an age where it’s fair to say that the technology giants enjoy dominance. They thrive on bringing the newest and sparkliest products to the market as quickly as they can. This delights technophiles, notoriously poor in dealing with delayed gratification, and so the market has – for quite a while – rampaged across our buying habits like chocolate at Easter.

But the same people who always upgrade their ‘phones are often the same people who enjoy SciFi shows on TV, and there might be an interesting – and worrying – analogy there. Because most SciFi shows – no matter how good and how popular – tend to have limited runs.

The list of cancelled, yet outstanding, SciFi shows is long: Star Trek, Stargate, Grimm, to name but three of the very best, and there are many more. Eventually, after an absence, they might return – in a different guise, Star Trek being probably the best example. But the simple fact is that lovers of the new, the novel and yet the essentially transient always need a newer, better and more sparkly product to sate their appetites.

Perhaps the mobile ‘phone has reached its zenith for the moment; in another topic I wondered about where it can go from where it is. It’s already a computer, dating system, calendar, camera and ‘phone, all rolled into one rectangular package, and all the manufacturers can really do at this point is implement minor improvements – except the SciFi lovers want a lot more.

I suspect that the market itself has, for the moment, matured in evolutionary terms and is now waiting for something wonderfully new – the ‘phone with that ‘Wow!’ moment. I suspect it will be a variant of the short-lived Google Glass idea, now that processing power has improved sufficiently to produce vibrantly effective AR, but time will tell. Once they achieve true, flowing AR capability with a battery life to match, then the field will open once more; networked AR will surely be the next step. Exciting days ahead.

Smartphones have allowed many new opportunities for communications. Maybe we are now learning that meeting and speaking face to face is rather rewarding. Meeting people that you have communicated with for years is my sort of augmented reality.

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Not sure I agree with that Ian.

We are avid SciFi fans but keep most our tech until it is no longer viable.

I think it has more to do with cost and lack of any real advancement.

Nearly every new product that comes out people seem to moan that something they had before is missing, the Apple headphone jack, replaceable batteries, etc. Is this done on purpose so companies can sell a new version with that missing bit replaced?

You might be right in that I tied the apparent slowdown in new ‘phone uptake to being SciFi enthusiasts. Perhaps I should amend that to reflect that what I was trying to convey was the novel gratification phenomenon: because something is new there’s an innate desire to have the item as soon as possible.

As you say, of course, if there’s little new on a ‘new’ ‘phone then punters simply won’t be interested. But I’m not sure of the sales demographic: the most recent data is from 2015, when of Apple iOS users, 56 percent were female, compared with 46 percent of Android OS users. I suppose that does tie in with females being more discerning 🙂

But seriously, I still think this is connected with the need for novelty. The 18 – 35 generation are always hunting for the new, the novel and the exciting. It’s the reason shows get cancelled, clothes go out of fashion so quickly, language changes and people are always looking for the next big thing.

Ian – do you like the fold out phones they use in Westworld?

Yep, but I really like the Expanse models – slivers of plastic that do just about everything.

I’d already guessed that you’d like those too. I really like their attention to detail, like Miller’s having a cracked screen. It must’ve been a Sony Xperia 😉

🙂 Expanse is, I suspect, supplanting the need for the Mars Trilogy to be made, although I still hold out hope…

Here are some suggested ones by which? that are sub £200
“Hands-on: the latest smartphones under £200”

Read more: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2018/02/hands-on-the-latest-smartphones-under-200/ – Which?

I have certain specs I look for in my phone. Currently I have the Samsung s7 edge which has been the top of which? Best mobiles list (understandably) and has been an amazing phone all round, why would I update for a worse phone?
I wouldn’t move to Apple as they haven’t really changed since iPhone 4, the last one I had was the iPhone 3 which was revolutionary to mobile phones becoming smartphones for its time.
Samsung still aren’t focussing on solving the issues raised in the s8 since releasing the s9 (even though they had the technology to do so – the placement of the fingerprint scanner) until they solve the issues and start providing customers with a far better phone, we’re going to stick with our already amazing phones instead of paying out ridiculous amounts of money only to think the old one was better.
It’s a real bug bear when companies hold stuff back so they can make more money off people by adding more versions of the same phone without changing anything, it’s bad customer service and feels like they are trying to con you rather than work with you.

Many buy phones on a two year contract but now it’s possible that the manufacturer could stop security updates before it is paid for: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2018/04/samsung-to-drop-security-updates-for-some-2016-smartphones/. Black mark for Samsung.

Wow, that is disgusting customer service. My Samsung cost £600 and is only a year younger. To me, it is still a new phone that I wouldn’t expect to replace for at least another few years.

If they don’t keep it updated, I certainly won’t buy another Samsung.

The loss of smart features on smart TVs seemed to me to be the best example of planned obsolescence but this is another. I’m not aware that Which? has campaigned about smart TVs. I wonder if Samsung’s action, which was reported on the Which? website, will result in any action.

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If the consumers’ associations in Europe worked together they might be able to achieve a great deal more. Of course we can avoid cooperation, maintain independence, and just tell us which new phone is a ‘Best Buy’.

I’ve asked Which? a number of times about real cooperation and sharing work with the nearly 30 European consumer organisations. We share so many products, services and manufacturers. I’ve never had a direct reply. Out £100 million might go very much further if we pooled some resources.

Thanks Duncan. They are trying to get updates available for a minimum of 4 years after introduction and 2 years after purchase. https://www.consumentenbond.nl/smartphone/samsung-en-consumentenbond-tegenover-elkaar-in-rechtszaal

I thought that the battery on my iPhone 5s might be starting to deteriorate after four years, but what is happening is that Wi-Fi and Bluetooth turn on daily even though I generally turn them on when I want to use them, to maximise battery life. Black mark for Apple.

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Thanks Duncan. I know how to do it and have found this official advice: https://support.apple.com/en-gb/HT208086

Before the change, all that was necessary was to slide your finger up the screen and click the appropriate button, even without logging in. Now it takes a little longer and what I’m objecting to is Apple making the decision about turning these features on. Their reasoning is explained: “For the best experience on your iOS device, try to keep Wi-Fi and Bluetooth turned on.”