We're living in the second half of the great mobile product cycle.
In many parts of the world, anyone who will ever buy a smartphone probably has done so, and now we're on to the steady business of buying a new one only when we break, lose, or need to replace our old phones. When analysts discuss growth predictions for cell phones and their ilk, they signal nothing but caution. Predictions hinge on words like "single-digit," "slowing," and "static."
Google bears out the cooling interest. Tracking enthusiasm over time for the search term "mobile phone," this chart shows interest in 2012, 2013 and 2014. Interest overall is down from 2012, but neck-and-neck (or very close) for the last two years.
CNET's own leaderboard shows exactly the same pattern. The CNET 100 index puts smartphone interest year-over-year at almost exactly the same. The ratio is uncanny. Fourteen months ago in our CNET 100 launch month, five of the top 10 products were smartphones. This month, five of the top 10 products are smartphones. Interest in cell phones is flat as a prairie.
But look a little closer and there's a subtle shift: Last year's top phones dominated the top 10 spots because they were relatively new and exciting. This year's own the top spot for different reasons. At first glance, the first four products look predictable -- after all, they're some of the best-selling phones in the world:
January 2015 cell phones in the CNET 100 top 10
1. Samsung Galaxy S5
2. Samsung Galaxy Note 4
3. iPhone 6
But the very top phone, the Galaxy S5, has popped back to the top this month from last month's third-place spot after spending a few months further down the list.
Rumors of the future alter the present
Why would a 10-month-old phone suddenly become more interesting -- enough to get more attention than the iPhone 6? Two words: news cycle. In the past month, rumors of the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S6 launch have forced their way onto the scene ahead of March's expected Mobile World Congress launch, and the interest peaked with the released invite for the big reveal.
Because our leaderboard factors in three types of data -- inbound referrals from Google searches, traffic on CNET itself, and our review score -- even subtle shifts in overall interest drive change. In this case, search volume to the Galaxy S5 went up asabout the Galaxy S6 and how it will and will not depart from the S5.
In other words, we're starting to care more about phones that don't exist yet than about the phones we have now. We're so used to the devices we currently own or that dominate today's market that we're distracted by what could come next.
If we're at the end of a cycle, then what's next?
Let's look at the rest of the top 25 for a moment for a glimpse of what's to come after the cell phone market cools. Eleven of the total are phones, so what are the other fourteen? These products are a mix: there are four televisions, two tablets, two headphones, a router, a laptop (oh, how far the mighty laptop has fallen), one Kindle reader and one product that's nearly impossible to define: The, even though it's still not available to the general public and Amazon is eking it out to those who pre-order the "invitation-only" device. Again, is this a case of caring more about a product that doesn't exactly exist yet than those we have available now?
We're also starting to see the masses ride the next wave of gadgets, those we write about a lot but our readers buy in much smaller numbers than they buy phones: The sensor-based wearables and Internet of Things products like the Amazon Echo. Our top 25 also includes a fitness band (the) and a networked security product called , which is essentially a contract-free security system for your home.
And of the eight products that have made the cut every month since our launch in December 2013, only three of those are phones: the Galaxy S4, the Motorola Droid Maxx, and the Galaxy Note 3. Rounding out the long-lifers list are two routers, an Asus and Apple's AirPort Extreme; the Jawbone Up24; a media streamer, the Roku 3; and a smart-home device, the Nest thermostat.
Look farther down this month's CNET 100 ranks, and the list gets more and more diverse, full of headphones, Bluetooth speakers, streaming sticks, thermostats, smart watches, and vacuums. After so many years of cell phone mania, it's downright refreshing. But wait -- there's a common thread: at least half of these devices, many of them new categories born during the past few years, require a cell phone to power them or to act as their control center, to host to their apps, or store the music they stream. Long live the cell phone.
What is the CNET 100?
Fifteen months ago, we decided to use our huge trove of data as the world's biggest publisher of consumer electronics reviews, to map the ups and downs of our industry where it sits right at a given moment. Never mind the predictions, and never mind the past -- what does the intersection of quality and reader interest mean about what's hot at this moment? Consider it a Billboard 100 for tech.