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The seismic shift in the traditional hardware release cycle

HardwareBlog
by James Plafke, 12 Feb 2013Blog
The seismic shift in the traditional hardware release cycle

Last week, we learned that the Ouya – the $99 Kickstarter-funded Android gaming console – would get a yearly hardware refresh, which would be sold for the original price of $99 (it’s expected to be priced at £99 over in the UK). The Ouya isn’t a traditional game console, so a non-traditional release cycle isn’t entirely mind-blowing. Beneath this news, though, there’s a much more interesting story: The Ouya’s rapid release schedule is representative of a seismic shift in the hardware release cycle, both for game consoles and consumer electronics in general.

Perhaps it is fitting that the Ouya, a new type of game console, is planning a new era of release cycles, since traditional release schedules were always prominent in the world of video games. On average, every five or so years would see the release of a new console, and a sequel to a prominent game franchise would release around every three years.

Aside from games, the major leaps in iPods were spaced out – the fourth generation iPod (colour) was released about four years after the first-gen Classic, while the first iPod Nano was also released at about that time. Then, the iPod Touch was released three years after that. It was all about big changes happening over regular cycles.

A traditional release cycle made sense – and was practical – for two reasons: We, as consumers, wouldn’t want to drop a ton of money on new hardware only a year after doing the very same, and a longer release cycle gave manufacturers more time to make upgrades. Now, however, companies have figured out how to dispense with traditional release cycles, and dump hardware on us as quickly as possible without us uttering a word of protest.

Most hardware nowadays has departed from the traditional, spaced-out cycles by significantly narrowing the space between releases. Aside from the Ouya, hardware isn’t cheap – and the Ouya is only cheap relative to how expensive other hardware (computers and their components, smartphones, tablets, other game consoles) is. It’s not like we accepted a new iPhone releasing once a year because they’re only £50 – we accepted it because of the two biggest boons to the shortened, non-traditional release cycle: The upgraded model, and incremental upgrades.

Most big-name hardware companies have perfected both the upgraded model and incremental upgrades. Apple, for instance, with the help of standard two-year network contracts, has perfected the upgraded model methodology with its phone releases. One year, a new iPhone model will release, designated by a whole number. The following year, that model will be upgraded with an “S” slapped on after the number. These iterations tend to release every two years after the previous one, which helps Apple keep customers on either the primary refresh release cycle (effectively the tock), or the “S” model release cycle (the tick).

Buyers stay happy because they’re either getting the “better” upgraded version or the spanking new main model. Rather than complain that phones are now underpowered, the units stay relevant and powerful enough for us to follow the doctrine of “I’ll just wait for the one after this new one.”

Incremental upgrades come into the above upgrade mentality as well. Again, looking at Apple, MacBooks tend to refresh every year. This satisfies new customers that they’re getting the newest, strongest model, but doesn’t bother people with older models because the newer ones aren’t that much more powerful in the grand scheme of things. Basically, in just about every consumer tech market that isn’t focused on dedicated gaming machines, companies keep us happy because nothing is changing very much while we’re inundated with new versions of hardware that we just spent a large chunk of money on a year ago.

Game consoles

Now, at long last, the video game console industry is changing as well. Every five or so years, we get a new generation. However, the PS3 and Xbox 360 generation (of which the Wii U is not a part) has lasted longer than most generations, whether or not either company manages to release follow-ups this year.

Aside from that, though, something the dedicated games industry figured out is that the iterative console refresh disrupts a traditional release cycle as well. The Game Boy Advance was refreshed three times, so savvy gamers knew to hold off on the original DS, because a refresh was likely only a year or two away. Then, the original DS was refreshed three times, so consumers knew not to early-adopt Nintendo’s 3DS because a refresh was likely to release within a year. After the release and subsequent success of the PS2 Slim, consumers knew to hold off on the PS3 until a Slim released.

Release cycles are being disrupted in other areas of the tech industry as well, and through other means. Samsung is attempting to push out the upgradeable smart television, which is a TV that has a cartridge-style piece of hardware you can slip into the back to upgrade the unit. In theory, this would slow the release cycle of new TVs, as the cartridges would ideally keep the unit competitive for longer.

Meanwhile, the PC gaming hardware scene – a market that releases new, more powerful hardware components faster than any other – is slowing down. The hardware is still going strong, but the rise of the indie games and MMOs, stylised graphics and unique concepts, as well as a longer lasting lifetime of play, has quelled the need for lightning fast upgrades to satiate cutting-edge graphics’ thirst for more power.

Mobile device and computer overhauls are now releasing once or twice a year, and Samsung aims to make TVs last longer than they ever have before. Gaming consoles – and by association PCs – are eking out a longer existence for the first time, but that’s all about to change. The Ouya – a well-backed gaming console that is poised to make a bigger splash than anyone ever expected – is saying nuts to the inveterate, patriarchal game console cabal and releasing once a year. The kind of hardware release cycle we were used to – one with a handful of years between major overhauls – is now a thing of the past.

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