Do you remember the time when Steve Jobs would appear like clockwork every year to announce the latest iPhone? The tech world was going mad, absolutely stunned by what modern technology could achieve. Over the following five years or so, we saw queues of people waiting in line outside of Apple stores every time the company released a new handset. Lines would extend around the block.
But those days are now well and truly behind us. It is hard to imagine the smartphone ever recovering its rock star status – at least not in the near future.
Why Are Smartphones Becoming Less Interesting?
Economists like to talk about S-curves of progress. You see them all the time in technology. At the start, gains in performance are small. Then, once a technology reaches a critical point of development, improvements multiply dramatically. Then, eventually, engineers start hitting hard limits, and progress tapers off again.
Usually, it takes decades for this process to peter out. For solar panels, washing machines and batteries, the process can take generations. But for smartphones, it all happens rather quickly. In 2004, everyone had Nokia brick phones with black and white screens. Then in 2007, the first iPhone came out, and by 2009, smartphones were almost the norm. Capabilities increased dramatically until around 2014, and then they began to taper off. Engineers imbued their devices with practically every feature that technology would allow them to perform.
However, from around 2015 onwards, we entered a different era of the smartphone. Devices were ubiquitous, but users couldn’t look forward to massive upgrades anymore. Next year’s devices looked very similar to last year’s.
And that’s the crux of the smartphone problem. Today’s devices are fantastic. But they aren’t changing much. There are still many people walking around with 10-year-old phones that are working just fine and do everything that they need them to do. In a sense, they’ve become boring.
It’s Okay That They Are Boring
The fact that smartphones are now a little boring is okay. In fact, it is a strange, topsy-turvy sign of progress.
Why do all fish look similar to each other? Because they have a design that works. Being a single streamlined piece allows them to shoot through the water with minimal energy expenditure.
We’re seeing a similar thing with smartphones. Remember back in the day when phones came in all sorts of different shapes and designs? Well, those days are long gone. Now practically all phones are rectangular glass bricks with large displays on the front and cameras on the back. There’s nothing particularly novel or innovative about it. But the technology fundamentally works. When you buy a phone today (unless it is from Motorola flip phone), you can expect practically the same experience every time.
That’s not to say that mobile phone makers are sitting on their laurels, doing nothing to innovate. Samsung is desperate to bring folding phones to the market so that users have more screen real estate. But such attempts haven’t worked well so far, and don’t seem likely to succeed until better materials come along.
Ultimately, though, it’s okay to be boring. Boring actually means that the market is working. It’s producing phones in high volumes at low cost that do the things that consumers want them to do. Experimentation is now largely behind us because we have a formula that works. We will still see companies tinkering around the edges, but for the most part, form-factor changes are over.
Prices are also an indication that improving mobile phones is becoming much more challenging. It wasn’t long ago that you could buy a flagship phone for under $500. The components were relatively cheap and pushing the envelope didn’t require going up against hard physical constraints. But now if you want a top-flight phone, you’ll have to pay enormous sums of money. Apple is trying to flog the newest version of its handset for up to $1,500, while Samsung is asking for $1,600 and even value-conscious Google wants you to part with $1,000 for a Pixel.
Prices are going up because phone companies are running out of ideas to eke out more performance. It’s just incredibly difficult to do with today’s material science.
Where Are Phones Still Progressing?
Small spec changes don’t fire up consumers and get them to buy expensive phones. But things that improve their practical experience of a device can incentivise them to buy. That’s why you’re hearing so much about smartphone cameras. Companies are looking at clever ways of combining multiple digital cameras and software to produce optical camera results.
You’re also going to hear a lot more about software too. We’re still very much in the early teething stages of AI right now. But the technology might progress rapidly over the next few years. In which case, expect to see phone manufacturers harp on about mobile assistants and how their phones can help you organize your life.
We’re also going to see massive upgrades in phone integrations with other appliances. While manufacturers brought cameras and radios inside phones, they still can’t do photo printing – something that many consumers want.
Integrations with the IoT and other devices will likely improve over the coming years. In fact, the process is happening already. Even golf monitors today work with iOS and Android devices.
Boring Needs To Happen Faster
However, if we ever want phone prices to come back down again (like other consumer electronics), we need them to become more boring. Sticker shock will only disappear when handsets become genuinely commoditised. Once multiple firms in the market work out how to implement all key technologies at low cost things will change. Price premiums will likely disappear.
What’s more, all of the features on the top-tier handsets will start appearing on entry-level models. This is largely the case already, with top of the line phones only offering slightly upgraded performance. From a practical perspective, most consumers can’t really tell the difference.
So, in summary, consumers want more, but they probably aren’t going to get much for a while. We need transformations in material science and AI to take smartphones to the next level.