NEW YORK, NY – OCTOBER 15: The new Google Pixel 4 smartphone is displayed during a Google launch … [+]
For Pixel owners who want to blur the background on older photos, automatically screen phone calls or use Live Caption, a new update – called a “feature drop” – is on the way that brings new skills to current and older devices. But this isn’t your typical software update.
This isn’t the deluge of new features that comes with a new version of Android every August/September, rather it’s a mid-cycle feature update that refreshes the phone’s abilities. It’s the mobile version of DLC in video games – something to keep users suitably impressed with shiny new things until the next phone or Android update comes out.
The promise of entirely new features – not improvements in intangibles like performance – real, genuine features you can interact with may be a new winning formula for Google and Android.
Smartphones are on a stopwatch to death from the day you purchase them. Not only does the value fall through the floor, you’re also waiting for it to slow down and for the battery to exhaust itself. It’s not necessarily planned obsolescence, but the natural life cycle of this type of device. So manufacturers often save their big new features for the next phone because why waste the PR opportunity that comes with a launch event?
Google’s feature drop is a different approach. Refreshing phones with entirely new abilities – mid-way through the device cycle – is a smart way to build loyalty but also extend the life of the device. Why is that important? Smartphone sales are down globally partly because people are holding on to their devices for longer. The days of enthusiastically buying the new handset every year are, at the very least, on the wane.
So this is the next best thing. Keeping phones up to date – not with security patches – but next generation features without having to buy a new phone. It’s a win for consumers and it’s also environmentally friendly (and it tallies with Google’s plan to reduce the carbon footprint of Pixel phones).
It’s probably not a surprise Google has gone down this path, it has always emphasised its software over its hardware when it comes to Pixel phones. That’s evident in the dated design of the last two Pixels and their respective problems with RAM and battery life. But I hope this is a trend other manufacturers follow – especially if they can solve the problem of battery shelf life – because breaking the yearly release cycle is not only a recognition of consumer trends, it’s also better value for money for buyers.
$800 phones shouldn’t be limited use items that are discarded after 12 months – not least because of the environmental impact of that. Instead they should be fixable, improvable devices that change and evolve with our needs. ‘Feature drops’ like this are an important step on that path.
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