Smartphone innovation has stalled, but that’s OK
(CNN) — Here’s a short message to smartphone makers before you try to wow us with a bunch of glitzy features in your next device: Don’t do it.
It’s been more than seven years since Apple introduced the original iPhone and reset our expectations for what a smartphone should be. But Steve Jobs was right on the money. It took some five years for the competition to catch up to the iPhone.
Now, with newly launched high-end devices like the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S5, it almost doesn’t matter which phone you buy anymore. The best ones are all pretty much on par with each other.
Recent reviews of the HTC One and Galaxy S5 had a common theme: They’re both great devices, but neither has any sparkling features that make them worth upgrading to unless you’re in dire need of a new smartphone.
Some critics have gone so far as to say smartphone innovation has stalled.
I think that’s a good thing.
There’s a reason the three best phones on the market — the iPhone 5S, Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC One — seem boring on the surface. They all focus on simple stuff most people care about: screen size and quality, camera, design and battery life.
Meanwhile, the me-too smartphone manufacturers seem desperate when they try to stand out with absurd or gimmicky features like 41-megapixel cameras (Nokia), customized designs (Motorola) and awkward volume and power controls on the back of the device (LG).
After years of flashy phone launches, it’s easy to feel jaded about the state of innovation today. “The new iPhone is boring!” the pundits scream with every new release. But they’re missing the big picture.
The best smartphone makers know what matters most to users, and they focus on those items. And over the course of just a few years, our standards for what makes a good smartphone have gone way up. Innovation may not happen overnight, but that doesn’t mean it has completely stopped.
If you step back and look at the evolution of smartphones as a whole, you can see we’ve come a long way in a relatively short time. It’s not because manufacturers tried to reinvent the smartphone with every new release but because they focused on what matters.
For example, the original iPhone was a major dud by today’s standards. It couldn’t record video. It didn’t have an app store. You could use the keyboard only in portrait mode. The screen was pixelated and dim. You had to sync it with your computer if you wanted to update the software. But with every new iPhone and release of iOS, those things got better.
Today’s iPhone 5S, with its sharp screen and vibrant content ecosystem, feels like something out of a dream compared with its ancestor. Now, imagine what smartphones will be like after another seven years of iterative improvements.
Companies that try too hard to differentiate their new phones with “wow” factors end up hurting smartphone innovation in the long run. The best example of this is probably last year’s Galaxy S4, which came packed with so many over-the-top features like touchless gestures and eye tracking that consumers complained it was too hard to use.
Samsung backtracked with the Galaxy S5 and either turned off many of those features or made them an optional download. The result was a streamlined phone that was much more refined.
It’s easy for pundits like me to lament the end of smartphones with every major new release, but it’s the so-called boring phones that are arguably driving innovation forward. They’re focusing on what matters instead of trying random gimmicks and hoping one sticks.