Why Smartphones Got So Damn Boring

The iPhone 11 and Galaxy Note 10 follow an established playbook, leaving consumers with few truly unique options

This week, Apple announced its latest iPhones, including the photography-oriented iPhone 11 Pro. It has all the bells and whistles that a semi-professional could want from their phone. For dedicated mobile photographers, it might be an exciting release. But at a time when hardware innovation has slowed down, they’re the only niche Apple seems to pander to.

In recent years, the design of smartphones has become homogenized, leaving anyone who wants niche features — like a hardware keyboard for those who type a lot, or even a smaller phone for people with smaller hands — out in the cold. Take a look at flagship phones from AppleGoogleSamsung, or even the beleaguered Huawei and you’ll see largely the same thing: a mostly featureless slab with a screen taking up as much of the front as physically possible. The camera might bulge out of the back a bit. There will be three, maybe four buttons on the side. No headphone jack, sorry, but if you’re lucky you might get a fingerprint sensor on the back.

When most major phones follow this formula, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for hardware innovation. Drastic changes to the form factor are rare, and when they appear they’re often attached to subpar phones that could never stand toe-to-toe with some of the more popular handsets on the market.

One of the few genuinely new and potentially useful innovations this year came in the form of Samsung’s Galaxy Fold. This device, as its name suggests, is designed to fold closed into a phone shape and unfold into a tablet. It’s an interesting development, but given the unpopularity of Android tablets, it’s unclear if a larger Android screen is much more useful than a normal phone would be. It doesn’t help that it cost $2,000, far more than buying a high-end phone and tablet combined. And the product was so poorly designed that Samsung had to delay its launch for months and even cancel all preorders until the company could develop a fix for its hinge.

In the modern world, almost everyone needs a phone, so sacrifices have to be made.

Foldable displays may yet have their day in the sun, but it’s telling that Samsung — which sells more smartphones globally than any other single manufacturer worldwide — has had to resort to such lengths to sell a phone outside of its normal line. Despite listing 26 distinct models of handsets on its site, most of Samsung’s sales come from its Galaxy S10 or Note 10 lines.

Beyond foldable displays, hardware differentiation is scarce and often purposeless like RED’s poorly-performing “holographic” phone. This year also saw a few phones with pop-up cameras. This module allows the front-facing camera to hide behind the screen until needed, making it possible to eliminate notches on phones with small bezels. This can appeal to tech reviewers who find bezels to be a big deal, but consumers don’t seem to care as much.

Worse yet, it gets in the way of a more practical feature: facial recognition. Recent iPhones, and the upcoming Pixel 4, use facial recognition to unlock their phones. This would be harder to do if you had to manually open the camera every time you unlock your device. For all the engineering prowess it takes to create a pop-up camera, it adds little to the device beyond chasing an impractical bezel-free design. It’s more of a gimmick than a hardware innovation.

It all raises the obvious question: Where have all the weird, specialized phones gone? In 2012, Samsung tried making a phone with a built-in pico projector. A year prior, the company introduced the Galaxy Note with a large screen and a stylus (one of few experimental lines of phones that have continued to this day). In 2010, HTC launched a phone with a laundry list of new-for-the-time features, including a front-facing camera, a 4G wireless connection, a wireless hotspot, and even a built-in kickstand. The first round of Galaxy S phones included one with a keyboard. Despite demand for them, phones smaller than five inches have become increasingly rare. Yet prior to 2012, small phones were so common that anything bigger than five inches was labeled a tablet-sized phone or “phablet.”

In 2004, Nokia unveiled the 7600, an unconventionally shaped device with interchangeable faceplates marketed to fashion-focused consumers. You wouldn’t see something like this today. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty
In 2004, Nokia unveiled the 7600, an unconventionally shaped device with interchangeable faceplates marketed to fashion-focused consumers. You wouldn’t see something like this today. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty

Compare this to other electronics categories and the lack of product diversity is stark. If you were to buy a new laptop today, a salesperson might ask you what you want to use it for. Do you want something you can use to draw? Maybe you’ll be interested in something like the Surface Book 2 with a touchscreen, stylus, and detachable keyboard. Want to do some gaming? How about this beastly Alienware laptop? Need to do video editing or graphic design work on the go? A Macbook Pro with its crisp Retina display and customizable touch bar might be up your alley. Your kid needs something cheap to do schoolwork on? You can get a touchscreen Chromebook for just a little over $100. These laptops focus on different things, and they’re all good at what they do.

Phones, on the other hand, tend to be monolithic. Most phone sales come from a small handful of models. When a company does make niche models that cater to smaller audiences who want features like smaller screens, hardware keyboards, or headphone jacks, they tend to skimp on other specs. Google’s Pixel 3a, for example, features a headphone jack but a slower processor, no water resistance, and it lacks wireless charging. As a consumer, you can be forced to make huge sacrifices for even the basic features you want. If they’re available at all.

A common explanation for this phenomenon is that people don’t really want those features very much, but that may be putting the cart before the horse. When asked by MVNO Ting to rank what features matter the most to them in a new phone, the three most common ones were price, operating system, and specs. If a new phone was cheap enough, ran the OS of their choice, and wasn’t too slow, that made more of a difference than anything else.

In a world where smartphones are a necessary commodity, this makes sense. What was more surprising is how little any other factor mattered. Only 5% of survey respondents ranked screen quality as their highest concern. Battery life fared even worse at 4%. It’s not as though phones are known for their stellar battery life, but… well, what are you going to do? Just not buy a phone because they all have sucky battery life? If you can’t get what you want, you take what you can get.

And this dynamic highlights the core issue with smartphones: We need them. Therefore, we can’t be too picky. Someone who can’t find the right laptop might settle for a decent tablet. If DSLRs are all too expensive, you can just buy a point and shoot (or use your phone’s camera). But in the modern world, almost everyone needs a phone, so sacrifices have to be made.

This problem is exacerbated by the celebrity status of flagship smartphones. For its latest iPhone announcement, Apple broadcast the presentation on YouTube for the first time. The stream peaked at around 1.86 million concurrent viewers. For comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launch, YouTube’s second-biggest live stream ever, clocked in at a peak of 2.3 million. Simply put, Apple launches are a cultural event. Having the latest iPhone is a status symbol. Samsung, though it doesn’t command quite the same cultural cache as Apple, presents its phones in a similar way. Each major release is The Phone for that year. Everything else is so much set dressing.

Could Samsung — or Apple, or Google, or any other manufacturer — split their product line and cater to more specialized audiences? By splitting its line into slightly different variants, Apple seems to be flirting with the idea, but outside the better lenses, the iPhone Pro isn’t substantially different from its cheaper little brother.

Any major difference risks taking the wind out of the sail of their big product launches that catch the attention of the world. They could also risk cannibalizing the sales of their other product lines. Ten phones each selling a million units doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as one phone that’s selling 10 million units. In fact, the last time Apple tried forking its product line with the smaller iPhone SE — unusually released midway through a cycle at a $400 price point — the company had a slower than usual year for iPhone sales.

By focusing most of their marketing efforts on a cohesive product line, Samsung, Apple, and, to a lesser extent, Google can ensure there’s always hype for their newest phone. In the process, whether intentional or not, they also create a self-fulfilling doomsday prophecy for any other features consumers might want. Why are there no phones aimed at heavy typists or audiophiles or people with tiny hands? Because no one’s buying those kinds of phones. Why is no one buying those kinds of phones? Because they don’t exist. And on it goes.

Eventually, cameras on phones will get good enough that a better one might not be enough to sell new handsets. Apple’s foray into marketing its latest cameras “for professionals” suggests we’re nearing that point. At that point, maybe manufacturers will turn their attention to some other areas of improvement. But for now, hoping for a diverse product line that caters to more than one set of needs at a time seems to be the one moon shot Silicon Valley doesn’t seem keen to tackle.

All Rights Reserved for  Eric Ravenscraft

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