Why Gadget Upgrade Cycles Are Getting Longer


My wife cracked the screen on her MacBook last week. That’s when it occurred to me just how old it is. How old is it? If I tell you, you’ll think I’m a lousy husband or at least a worthless family IT guy. The former may be true, but the latter is not, at least I don’t think so.

The problem is that we have so many gadgets now that upgrading has become an annoying, time consuming, expensive pain in the rear end.

Maybe it’s just me, but the older I get and the more technology comes to dominate our lives, the more I realize that the last thing I want to do is spend the precious moments I have left on this planet screwing around upgrading a boatload of gadgets every cycle.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a tech dinosaur. I catch up eventually. I’m just pretty darn methodical about how I spend my time and money so my current philosophy is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it … or upgrade it.

Actually, it’s not just me. It seems that upgrade cycles for smartphones are getting longer, prompting one analyst, BTIG’s Walter Piecyk, to cut his price target on Apple. Why that’s happening is anyone’s guess, but I’d be surprised if the nation’s top wireless carriers abandoning subsidies didn’t have something to do with it.

Meanwhile iPad sales have been declining for years, despite an impressive array of new versions and models. Why? There’s simply no compelling reason to upgrade. As an iPad Air owner, I can attest to that. While I do like the new 9.7-inch iPad Pro, I’m not quite ready to plunk down $599 for the rare occasions I take written notes.

It’s still early days for smart watches, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see most consumers hang on to them for years and years. When Tim Cook launched the Apple Watch, he called it the company’s “most personal device” yet. Well, folks tend to get attached to things they feel a personal connection with, including watches.

The trend to longer upgrade cycles isn’t limited to tech, either.

The U.S. auto industry celebrated near record sales last year, but if you normalize for population growth, there’s actually been a long-term decline in new car sales on a per household basis. Apparently just 3.4% of the population bought new cars in 2009. That’s the lowest percentage since the Great Depression. The best years were 1978 and 1986.

I’m sure that middle-class income stagnation coupled with the rising price of everything, including new cars, has a lot to do with that. But I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that we’re also starting to think of cars as just another gadget, albeit a larger and pricier one than your average computer. If you simply upgrade your car less frequently, that frees up cash for all sorts of other stuff and adventures. That’s what the Tobaks do.

It boggles my mind when The Fed talks about how low inflation is. Yeah, right. Everything costs more. Homes, rent, cars, healthcare, appliances, utilities, insurance, gas, clothes, food, taxes (no matter what they say) and of course, all those gadgets, lease agreements and service contracts that just keep going up and up, year after year.

The funny thing is, the more time we spend with our eyes glued to a screen, the more we buy and download: apps, videos, songs, books, podcasts, the list just keeps getting longer and longer. Besides, I’m sure some of you spend more every month on Amazon or at Costco than on your rent or mortgage. All that stuff adds up.

Don’t even get me started on smart home technology. Less than a decade ago, the Tobaks built a new house and designed in a then state-of-the-art smart home system with integrated audio and video, communications, security and some other stuff. You don’t want to know how much it cost. Then came iOS and Android and now all that equipment is obsolete.

Will I upgrade it? Like I said, not until something breaks. Maybe someday the gadgets will be smart enough to just go out and upgrade themselves. Until then, I predict that we’ll continue to see a growing trend toward longer upgrade cycles.