Are Phones Finally Faltering?

I don't particularly like phones. I do not camp out in front of Apple stores. I use my phone as infrequently as possible, which isn't very often. I leave home without it. I am not a phone guy. Mainly, I disapprove of phones because they are anathema to high-quality audio and video playback.

Here are some of actual phone-related things that happened today: A family went to dinner at a restaurant and the kids used their phones the whole time, not conversing at all. A student sat in the back of the classroom and phone-surfed, instead of listening and taking notes. Instead of sending a thoughtful, well-written email, a girl just texted and added an emoji. A guy was texting while driving and drove onto the shoulder and hit a woman on a bicycle.

Here is an actual home-theater thing that happened today: A guy listened to Beethoven's 9th Symphony, Georg Solti conducting the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Okay, I admit that I am kind of biased. Like I said, I don't particularly like phones. That's because, rightly or wrongly, I blame them for sucking the air out of home-theaters. Why? First, consumers can only be attracted to so much shiny tech at one time; phones are more shiny, and turn attention away from home audio/video. Second, the financial pie is only so big; with all the money spent on phones, phone plans, and subscriptions, there is scent money left for home audio/video. Third: the small screen/earbud playback quality of phones is offensively bad. Fourth: phones are soul-crushing; when music or film is well-reproduced, its emotional content is unimpeded — a powerful passage might make me tear up; with a phone, that's never going to happen. Do we really want a phone-centric future?

So, I was heartened when I saw the latest smartphone sales figures. In North America, smartphone shipments have hit a 5-year low; for 2019, sales are predicted to decline 4.4%. The global picture isn't much better. According to research firm IDC, global sales for 2019 are expected to fall 2.2%, the third straight yearly decline. IDC predicts particularly tough sledding for Apple, with a 15% decline in shipments worldwide.

The slowdown in sales is not too surprising. As with any technology, once people have a reliable device that is "good enough," they tend to hang onto it. Unless or until there is something better, or perhaps cheaper to own, sales slow down. This is exactly what is happening to phones. Manufacturers can make the screens bigger, they can make the screens foldable, they can add more cameras, they can add processing power, and that's all good. But if consumers don't perceive the benefit or the value, they won't buy. The market is saturated. Phone becomes commoditized.

Now, many people in the phone industry are not bothered by the sale slump. They contend that sales will bounce back in 2020 because the next generation of phones will have 5G. I'm not so sure about that optimism. At least among my friends and family, no one is bating their breath while waiting for 5G. And I suspect that aside from a minority of techies, the average customer doesn't care about 5G.

Another data point: 5G has been rolling out in China since June, but so far it hasn't ignited phone sales. In August, phone shipments were down 5.3% year-on-year. In time, of course, all phones will be 5G (or higher) but that's just a natural tech evolution, not necessarily indicative of a sudden sales bump.

I am a tech guy. It would be impossible to imagine all the ways that tech makes the world a better place. Yes, tech creates problems, but the upsides far outweigh the downsides. I don't hate phones, it's just that I love home audio/video a lot more. So if our enthusiasm for phones and open pocketbooks for their makers slacks off a little, and people start loving home theaters again, I wouldn't mind one bit.

This reminds me of a meme I saw recently, "Texting: Killing genuine human interaction two thumbs at a time." Hmm, maybe I do actually hate phones.

jnemesh's picture

What do you get with a new phone? Better camera...a slightly faster CPU...but it does the SAME DAMN THINGS your old phone does. I am DONE paying $1000 every two years for a new shiny phone. My current phone is an LG Stylo 4 that cost me $250. It does everything I need it to do (although I would like a better camera). My next phone will probably be a mid-range Pixel (4a?) But I am in no hurry whatsoever to replace it yet. Companies like Samsung that bet their whole financial year on the success of their phones need to change their business model...stat!

Self Righteous's picture

I like a phone that I can actually get into my pocket (like the iPhone SE that I have). Don't agree re sound quality. LG have had some terrific sounding models for the past three or four years, and mine if good when partnered with an external DAC, but I do agree about the anti social aspect.

Olaf the Snowman's picture

We can talk to the phone and ask it to open the door when we get to the front door, open the garage door when we pull into the drive way, ask what song is playing on the speakers when we are sitting at the bar, book an airline ticket, make a reservation at a restaurant etc. etc ......... Phones are already doing those multi-tasks and are gonna do some more in the future :-) ........

John_Werner's picture

Many years ago as a kid of about 12 I saw a thing in Stereo Review magazine about the first cell phone. It wasn’t a big thing probably in the new products byline. I still thought “who cares, and apart from a phone is a form of an audio transmission…what does this matter to me who wants hi-fi related content?”. I couldn’t have imagined the impact the product this little blurb was telling me about would become eventually: a front-end for the masses music listening habit - and would kill the hi-fi component market I so was in love with.

I’m totally with you Ken. I too actually forget my phone many days if I’m not going out of town. I think the music over my phone and BT earphones is good but falls flat in that it would never inspire my joy of listening like hi-fi gear has always managed to do. I admit phones have flatlined in many ways. They have about reached their logical maturity in form and factor.

Of course as Ken has pointed out mobile phones have managed to do a lot of damage to hi-fi as well as social graces. Even insidiously promoting ill manners - it is practically anti-social whenever we see groups of people sitting around with most only interacting with their mobile phones.

So bring on the age of product maturity. category boredom, and the realization of the mobile phone is a lousy way to experience the best in sound reproduction. It’s not unlike the TV as an “idiot box” lulling the masses into a dumbed down waste of time and energy. I’m ready for the next revolution in home hi-fi gear. Components that maximize the finally fully realized digital and the (hopefully) continued resurgence of analog. I’m for making both America and hi-fi great again.