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Apple, Samsung and HTC need to learn the meaning of support

Column Bilking users out of their basic consumer rights
Fri May 04 2012, 14:11

Lawrence LatifAS YET ANOTHER hype-laden smartphone launch fades into memory, it is perhaps a depressing state of affairs when technology is showcased in a product that will be forgotten a year from now.

There was a time when computers were much more than just the hardware you sat on your desk or held in the palm of your hand. Companies couldn't get away with simply wowing customers with a shiny screen or a brushed aluminium surface but actually had to stand by their products for years and in same cases decades. But now thanks to the willingness of the consumer to throw money away for instant gratification, technology vendors can pursue a rip-and-replace strategy.

Smartphones and tablets are the height of disposable technology. Even headline devices that in some cases cost the best part of £1,000 to own are expected to not be supported in two years. If any other part of the computer industry took such a roughshod approach to product support there would be mass outcry from customers, and rightly so, and you don't have to look very far to see how product support should be done.

Perhaps the most obvious is Microsoft and its support of the Windows operating system. Whether you like Windows or not, Microsoft provides the best part of a decade's worth of support for a product that clearly needs a lot of support with security updates.

Microsoft still charges for its software, which means customers should be given service, but even free software vendors provide years of support. Canonical's Ubuntu 12.04 offers five years of support with software updates and security patches, which means that it will outlive two generations of smartphones.

When Apple brought out the Iphone it changed the focus from hardware to software, which was definitely the right thing to do. Since then firms such as Samsung, LG and HTC have tried to move the focus back onto hardware in the hope that they can flog more devices.

LG was the first vendor to release a dual-core smartphone back at CES 2011 with the Optimus 2X, with HTC's One X later becoming the first widely available quad-core smartphone. Both of those devices were impressive step-changes in performance, but it is hard to see how hardware advances alone can continue to contribute much towards better user experiences for much longer.

Of course smartphones are much more than the chip inside, but how many more pixels can you squeeze into a screen that is already expanding towards 5in in some devices? Now Nokia has tried to fob off a 41MP camera phone running a dead operating system, which interestingly the firm has yet to provide sample photos for in low-light conditions. The smartphone industry will increasingly need software with long-term support to flog devices, even if it uses Google's Android operating system.

The wider computer industry has started to move away from this rip-and-replace model because customers just don't buy the marketing fluff anymore. At a recent product briefing - the details of which I'm not allowed to talk about yet - a firm that will introduce a new laptop chip said it doesn't expect customers to replace their existing machines in less than three years.

This unnamed chip vendor, like its competitors, has realised that it needs to not only develop software but also stand by it for many product generations, and even work with its rivals in order to support open standards. Ironically Google's Open Handset Alliance was set to do this with Android but instead, what every Android user sees is a fragmented operating system, with handset makers begrudgingly releasing updates to existing models while leaving older users stranded.

These examples, and there are many others, all have one thing in common - they cost less than a high-end smartphone, considerably less if you take into account mobile operator charges. If Canonical, Microsoft and many others can provide multi-year support and still make huge profits then there is absolutely no excuse for firms like Apple, Samsung, HTC, LG and Sony not to do the same. But of course they won't, because punters continue to buy the latest devices every year regardless of the fact that these companies are laughing at them all the way to the bank.

When smartphone users realise there is little need to buy the newest model, perhaps the smartphone makers will have to stand by their products for a respectable period of time instead of leaving their customers to rot. It's a pathetic state of affairs that any company can get away with flogging an item for many hundreds of pounds knowing it has a life expectancy of just a couple of years at most. But then again, we as consumers have repeatedly demonstrated that we are all too easily smitten by advertising, so perhaps we should also shoulder some of the blame. µ


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