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Smartphones Traded Their Wow Factor for Peace of Mind in 2022

The “next big thing” in personal technology may not be an immersive augmented reality headset or a phone that folds in half. It could just be finding new ways to get more out of the phones we’re already using. 

That message rang clear throughout 2022, as companies like Apple, Samsung and Google introduced new ways to make our phones more practical, reliable and private. This year’s offerings lacked the wow factor that defined the smartphone’s first decade, instead including upgrades that could make our phones last longer and feel more useful. Among the changes: lengthier Android software support for Samsung devices, free new privacy features for fledgling Pixel phone owners, and better safety features for the iPhone. 

These subtle but noteworthy changes say a lot about the state of the smartphone industry. Mobile devices have matured to the point that annual hardware improvements don’t feel as monumental as they once did. As it becomes more difficult to impress consumers with new technologies, tech giants increasingly keep existing users hooked by making phones feel more essential in everyday life. That’s as important as ever in 2022 as inflation has dampened the appetite for new smartphones, making it even more challenging to drive upgrades.  

Your phone as a safety net

It’s difficult to define precisely how smartphones evolved in 2022, because there isn’t one common dominant theme as there has been in years past. It wasn’t, for instance, the year smartphones got ultrawide camera lenses, or fast charging capabilities. 

“Smartphones over the last five, six or so years — it was all about how many cameras, how big the cameras were, screen size, battery improvements,” said Aaron West, a senior analyst covering the smartphone industry at Omdia. “And now it’s kind of plateaued a bit.” 

But a couple of shared themes become evident once you dig below the surface.

The first is peace of mind, and that phrase means something a little different for each new major smartphone we saw in 2022. For the iPhone 14, it’s the ability to automatically detect car crashes and connect to emergency services via satellite when cell networks aren’t available. Google’s Pixel phones have supported accident detection for years, but it’s a first for Apple. It’s also one of the few features that separates the iPhone 14 from the iPhone 13

A screen showing an iPhone with the Emergency SOS feature

Emergency SOS via satellite. Apple unveiled the upcoming feature on Sept. 7.


Screenshot by CNET

For Samsung, it’s knowing that your Galaxy S22 or Galaxy A53 5G won’t feel outdated anytime soon, since it’ll get up to four generations of Android version updates. That even outlasts Google, which provides only three years of major Android OS support for its Pixel phones. Both companies provide five years of security updates, but Samsung’s extended support means you’ll get new systemwide features for another year. 

For Google’s Pixel 7 and 7 Pro, that means having the option to browse the web more privately with a free, built-in VPN. You’d otherwise have to pay $10 per month as part of the premium tier of the Google One subscription service to get that feature. It’s another example of how Google is using exclusive software perks to distinguish its new Pixel devices from other Android competitors.

The problem, however, is that features like these don’t always coerce people into buying a new phone. 

“Security is an emotional enhancement,” Josh Lowitz of Consumer Intelligence Research Partners said in reference to the iPhone 14’s new safety features. “But it doesn’t change your day-to-day living.”

How your phone is becoming more important

screenshot from Google I/O May 2022 presentation

Google wants you to store your driver’s license in Google Wallet.


Google

Tech giants also tried to make phones feel like a more essential part of our daily lives in 2022. Most notably, Apple, Samsung and Google each made improvements to their digital wallets. Mobile payments have existed on phones for years, but these companies ramped up efforts to store government IDs and other essentials on phones in 2022. 

The goal is to make it so you can leave your house with almost nothing but your phone as it gradually replaces your physical wallet. The announcements came as mobile wallet adoption is increasing. In September 2022, 32% of smartphone owners across regions including France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the US reported using a mobile wallet in the past month, according to Jack Hamlin, a global consumer insight director at data and consulting company Kantar. That’s a 3% increase versus the previous year.

Phone makers also expanded their ambitions to cement the phone as the center of the other digital services and devices we use — another means of making them more critical. It isn’t a new trend, but the products we saw in 2022 underscored the idea that your phone isn’t just a phone, it’s the gateway to the other apps and gadgets in our lives. Google, for example, released its first consumer smartwatch, called the Pixel Watch, in October. It’s perhaps the search giant’s biggest gambit in years to lure shoppers into its Pixel landscape, replicating Apple’s strategy.

Google Pixel Watch on top of a Pixel 7 Pro

The Google Pixel Watch and the Pixel 7 Pro.


Andrew Lanxon/CNET

“One of the things that is keeping people locked into Apple’s ecosystem is once you buy an Apple Watch, it’s really hard to leave,” Techsponential analyst Avi Greengart previously said to CNET’s Imad Khan regarding the Pixel Watch’s launch.

That’s just one of the most prominent examples of how tech companies are broadening their respective ecosystems. Apple expanded services like Apple Fitness Plus and Apple TV Plus in 2022 by bringing its workout subscription app to iPhones and announcing plans to air Major League Soccer matches on its streaming TV platform.  

Building up an ecosystem is more important than ever for tech companies now that it’s become more challenging to sell new phones. Not only does it keep current users locked into their current phone of choice, but it also gives companies another way to monetize those devotees. iPhone owners can become Apple Watch or AirPods customers. They may even subscribe to Apple Fitness Plus, too. Galaxy S22 owners might opt for Samsung’s Galaxy Watch 5 rather than a Fitbit tracker or the Pixel Watch. 

It’s harder than ever to convince people to buy new phones

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Smartphone sales looked bleak this year. In the third quarter of 2022, the global smartphone industry suffered its fifth consecutive decline, according to the International Data Corporation. The second quarter of 2022 wasn’t any better; Canalys reports that shipments fell 9% year-over-year. Both company’s reports cite as contributing factors economic challenges and weakened demand. 

At the same time, people are holding on to their phones longer. In the 12 months that ended with the September 2022 quarter, 29% of buyers had their previous phone for three years or more, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners. That’s an increase from the same quarter one year ago, when that number was 23%. The average age of devices turned in through trade-ins also crossed three-and-a-half years for the first time, according to Assurant, an insurance provider that also helps companies develop trade-in programs. 

With that in mind, you can also begin to understand why annual phone releases aren’t as exciting as they used to be. Phone makers aren’t just catering to shoppers who upgraded their phone last year or the year prior; they’re targeting legacy phone owners.

“It’s all well and good comparing an iPhone 13 to an iPhone 14 and saying there’s very little development,” said Hamlin. “But with consumers holding on to their devices for four years now, that’s a consumer moving from an iPhone 10 to an iPhone 14.”

Apple iPhone 14 against a colorful background

The phones in Apple’s iPhone 14 lineup are the company’s first to have car crash detection and emergency SOS via satellite. But the regular iPhone 14 (pictured) otherwise has a lot in common with the iPhone 13.


James Martin/CNET

Perhaps the biggest lesson from 2022 is that the phone as we know it likely won’t change for the foreseeable future. Yes, phones will continue to get faster processors and more-advanced cameras. But the current iteration of the phone that exists today is the one that many people will be using for a long time, despite the industry’s efforts to accelerate the adoption of foldable phones.

That’s why tech companies may have to work harder to keep consumers intrigued, especially as new features become less visible than the flashy hardware leaps found in previous phone generations.

“Phones now are the right size,” said West. “The cameras are as good as they’re going to get. The batteries are pretty much as good as the size allows. So what else can we do with them?”

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