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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Time for smartphone makers to take a year off

Relentless renewal cycle leads to buggy products amid sluggish demand

Several users of Google's Pixel 2 XL smartphone have complained about screen burn. Jeff Chiu / AP
Several users of Google's Pixel 2 XL smartphone have complained about screen burn. Jeff Chiu / AP

Assassin’s Creed Origins, released last month, is a very good video game. In it, players take on the role of Bayek, a law-enforcing Medjay in ancient Egypt, bent on getting revenge against a mysterious order that caused the death of his son.

It’s the latest instalment in Ubisoft’s blockbuster series, which has sold more than 100 million units since its debut in 2007.

The reason it’s so good? It’s because there wasn’t an Assassin’s Creed game last year.

Sensing that the gaming public was tiring of its annualised releases – and that the franchise was starting to buckle under the weight of repetitiveness – France-based Ubisoft decided to take the year off.

Doing so meant a big hole in its all-important holiday season lineup, where game publishers make the lion’s share of their annual revenue.

But it also delivered some big upsides. Assassin’s Creed Origins feels fresher. It’s expansive, impressive and lots of fun to play.

Every game is also bound to have its share of bugs, but this one runs particularly fluidly, an amazing achievement given its size and scope. Ubisoft’s developers clearly benefited from more time to work on their product.

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The hardware industry – especially smartphone makers – could learn a thing or two from the game maker’s approach, given the rash of malfunctions, missteps and problems they’re currently dealing with.

The latest came last week, when it emerged that Apple’s newly released iPhone X is having problems functioning in cold weather. Several users reported on social media that their keyboards were freezing up when it was freezing out.

Apple has copped to the issue and is promising a fix, but the timeline is unknown for now. This is obviously not a issue for customers in the UAE, but with winter coming in the northern world, it’s not a good look for the company and its US$1,000 flagship device.

The iPhone news comes shortly after revelations of screen troubles with the recently released Pixel 2 XL smartphones.

As several media outlets reported a few weeks ago, some of Google’s devices have a tendency to suffer from burn-in, which is where traces of an image can remain on the screen after being displayed for too long.

The company says the issue is affecting only a small number of review handsets. But as with Apple’s snafu, it isn’t the sort of thing that inspires confidence with consumers.

The two issues seem minor, so far at least, when compared to Samsung’s battery apocalypse last year, where Galaxy Note 7 phones spontaneously burst into flames. The situation ended with a recall that cost the company at least $5 billion, not to mention a damaged brand and the goodwill of many customers.

Put the incidents and other similar ones together, and it seems like there’s a quality-control problem in smartphone production today. It begs the question as to why deep-pocketed technology giants can’t release products that work properly, without developing major malfunctions.

The answer is likely that they’re all feeling competitive pressure – a need to release new products on an annual basis whether there’s a call for them or not, simply because the other guys are doing so.

Google can’t take a year off because Samsung won’t. Samsung can’t take a year off because Apple won’t. And Apple won’t take a year off because an overwhelming portion of its revenue – more than 60 per cent – is generated by the iPhone.

Apple is in fact going in the other direction by releasing more than one smartphone annually, with the iPhone 8 joining the iPhone X this year. But that also seems like a wrong move.

The year isn’t over yet, but consumer demand for the more advanced and costlier iPhone X is looking healthy. Demand for the more iterative iPhone 8, however, hasn’t been as hot. As one Canadian cellphone carrier recently put it, it’s actually been “anemic.”

Apple is unfortunately in the driver’s seat here. As a company that is largely dependent on hardware, the likelihood of taking a year off is close to nil, despite the fact that consumer demand is indeed hitting a plateau. This year, smartphone sales have alternated between low single-digit gains and slides, depending on the quarter.

That’s too bad, because all of the major manufacturers could benefit from fewer releases. Giving developers an extra year could result in fantastic products, just like the latest Assassin’s Creed game, and possibly even stronger consumer demand.

At the very least, the extra time could mean phones that neither explode, nor malfunction when the weather gets cold.

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