It’s a remarkable thing to go back and watch Steve Jobs’ announcement of the iPhone from 2007. Though it was only six years ago, returning to it you quickly get a sense of just how revolutionary the device was. Even now-basic things like scrolling on a touch screen or having Google Maps on a phone were genuinely revelatory, separating the iPhone from every device before it.
Fast forward to today, and there is barely any difference in functionality between each subsequent, over-hyped smartphone release. The best from each of the top-tier manufacturers are largely indistinguishable black slabs, with only the most minor differences in features or services between them. Put simply, the era of the “superphone,” in which every new release marked a significant step forward, is over. What’s more, the idea that the smartphone represents the latest and best of modern technology seems also to be coming to an end.
There’s no clearer sign of this than the recent introduction of Motorola’s Moto X. Though it was announced alongside the usual high-end phones like the Droid Ultra, with a half-billion dollar marketing budget, the Moto X is clearly the focus for Motorola’s new owners, Google. What is perhaps unique, however, is that far from representing the newest, best technology, the Moto X’s primary features are about convenience and personalization rather than tech specs. It has a screen with a lower resolution than the best from Samsung, HTC and LG, comes with a camera that isn’t top of the line, and it doesn’t push the boundaries of either thinness or lightness.
And yet, this obviously less-than-flagship phone accomplishes almost everything a modern consumer might want. It has a wide availability of apps, and runs them quickly. The wireless connection is fast, and the camera is acceptably good. Much like how today’s inexpensive computers now perform almost all necessary tasks, the smartphone has entered a similar phase of normalcy.
It’s not that manufacturers aren’t trying to invent flashy new features to produce excitement. Take the new LG flagship G2 phone announced this week, a phone largely indistinguishable from Samsung’s Galaxy S4. Each device has an absurd array of features, from an infrared port to control your TV, to being able to wave over the device to answer a call. Some high-end models even have a barometer in them, for heaven’s sake. In an effort to drum up hype, these companies have gone the route of throwing as many gimmicks into their top-end phones as they can.
But of the incredible 187 million Android smartphones sold last quarter, the vast majority weren’t top of the line models, but cheaper ones. Even Apple’s latest iPhone 5 only accounted for half of the company’s smartphone sales last quarter; the rest were the older iPhone 4 and 4S models, in large part because they too are “good enough.” What’s clear is that consumers are starting to recognize that the latest and most expensive slab may actually be more than they require.
Companies like Motorola, Samsung and even Apple are thus all faced with a similar problem: what to do if a mid-range phone is already starting to surpass most users’ needs. Rather than cramming ever better screens, cameras and gimmicks into all phones, it is wiser to focus on personalization, accessibility – and, importantly, profits. By resisting the trend of constantly implementing the newest components, tech companies can reduce manufacturing costs and yield higher margins in a tightly competitive market. This has the additional benefit of being able to pitch those devices to developing markets in which true smartphones have yet to overtake the dominance of feature phones.
All of this is to say, forget the superphone. We are about to enter the era of the “good-enough phone.”
The fact that unremarkable, mid-range phones can still do so much also goes a long way to explaining why late entrants into the smartphone space are having so much trouble. If a one- or two-year old iPhone performs almost as well as the latest Blackberry flagship Z10, it’s no wonder the Waterloo-based company is having trouble enticing customers. Similarly, though Nokia is trying to woo customers with features like high-quality cameras with its Lumia line, the barrier of switching to a less mature operating system seems too much for most users. When even older models are still good enough, newer devices inevitably seem less exciting.
Worse still, all of that is underpinned by a straightforward fact: we seem to have a hit a limit in what a small, handheld computer-phone can do. Unless there’s a switch to flexible screens or completely transparent designs, the smartphone has reached a kind of peak (waterproofing and marginal battery life improvements do not a new mountaintop make).
When the iPhone was released, it was an embodiment of the most bleeding-edge in technology. The smartphone is no longer that symbol. The role of “most futuristic tech” has been usurped by Google Glass, the smartwatch and others. This is just the way of technology: that which seemed magical just a short time ago, now feels mundane.
It isn’t such a bad thing, either. Now that smartphones are “good enough,” they will also become more affordable – and thus, by becoming ordinary and ubiquitous, will institute a different kind of revolution.
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