Apple will announce the newest lineup of iPhones in less than a week. The “Wonderlust” event on September 12 is supposed to include talk of a new USB-C port, the death of the notch, and even higher prices. If those things fill you with a mixture of wonderment and dread, that’s because it’s now officially gadget upgrade season, and innovation just isn’t what it used to be.
Don’t get me wrong: The devices that power our lives are amazing, and they keep getting better. The same guts that powered the first iPhone have gotten smaller, faster, and cheaper, which means that things like smart speakers and AI-powered security cameras are essentially ubiquitous in American homes. But those improvements have slowed down dramatically in the last decade, so much so that the smartphone industry is currently facing a recession. People just don’t want to buy new phones if they don’t have to. Why would they? The phones they already have are amazing.
Let’s face it: There’s no need to upgrade your phone. The era of trading in your device every two years and getting new, life-changing features ended some time ago. The new age is more exciting. If things continue in the direction they’re heading, you’ll be able to repair your smartphone instead of replacing it. And when the time comes to upgrade, it will be because of a quantum leap in chip technology, one that means buying a new phone fundamentally changes what you’re able to do with it. At least, that’s what some tech companies want you to believe.
Qualcomm, the company that makes the chips that power almost all of our smartphones, is gearing up for a big event of its own next month in Maui. Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon said in an interview this week that the announcements “could create a new upgrade cycle for phones.” Which sounds like a tech executive trying to build buzz around his company, but the specific kind of leap he’s probably talking about is inherently buzzy. Yes, it’s AI. Qualcomm wants to lead the way into a future where the computing that enables generative AI, like ChatGPT, doesn’t just happen on servers in data centers. It actually happens on your device.
On-device AI seems boring at first, though it has some obvious utility. Not having to rely on a data center to run AI-powered software is useful in a car, which is not necessarily connected to the internet at all times. This is already happening with Qualcomm chips powering new vehicles like the Cadillac Escalade IQ. On-device AI is potentially useful on a laptop, too, where an AI-capable chip could make photo editing faster or playing video games more fun. And this is happening with Microsoft and the Snapdragon Compute Platform, which is also a Qualcomm project. Clearly, Qualcomm is very enthusiastic about on-device AI and selling the chips that can do it.
It’s a little bit less clear how it would make smartphones so much better that you’d have to get a new one. Privacy is one upside, since keeping all the processing power on the device means you’re not sending private data to far-off servers and just hoping they keep it safe. But the killer app for putting AI-enabled chips in smartphones is the fact that it’s more efficient (read: cheaper). Generative AI applications that run in the cloud require lots of computing power, which means they cost lots of money. That’s why companies like OpenAI, which makes ChatGPT, are now charging fees for people to use their chatbots. If these services were free, more people would use them, and they would get better and more useful. And that cycle of innovation would continue.
Qualcomm is not the only company pushing this idea, by the way. Earlier this year, when Google announced PaLM 2, its new large language model — that is, the set of algorithms that enables generative AI to work — it said a version of it would work natively on devices. Meta announced in July that its Llama 2 large language model would also start powering on-device AI experiences starting next year, thanks to Qualcomm chips. What those experiences look like, well, we have to take Qualcomm’s word for it that they’ll be cool.
Marketing or not, the idea of a smartphone that can run AI software without connecting to the internet or paying an extra fee at least sounds innovative. It also sounds a bit like what Apple did a decade ago when it launched the App Store and blew up our conception of what our phones were good for. A new kind of framework or technology that will change the way we use our phones — that would be a reason to upgrade.
Who knows how long it will take that exciting-sounding future to arrive. Maybe it never will. In the meantime, keep your good-enough phone for as long as you can. It’s getting easier to repair your device, although there’s a long way to go. And even though you’ll soon be inundated with offers to upgrade, just wait. Next year’s model will be even better than this year’s.
A version of this story was also published in the Vox Technology newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!