Smartphone Innovation Is Dead

Smartphone Innovation Is Dead

There’s a load of hype around smartphone models such as the “Facebook phone” and the “budget” iPhone. But they’re budget phones! Why would anyone care? Because smartphone innovation, right now, is kind of dead, even though the smartphone market has never been more vibrant.

In a relatively short span of time, we’ll know the full details on HTC’s latest “Facebook” phone (tentatively titled the HTC First, if reports are to be believed), but at the time of writing, it appears that it’ll be a distinctly mid-range smartphone. Frankly, I’ll be stunned if it’s anything but a mid-range phone, if only because HTC already has a premium phone in the HTC One. Why would you try to sell two premium phones at once in an already competitive market, and especially if you’re already in the middle of reported supply problems?

Likewise, the rumours about the proposed “budget” iPhone just won’t go away. Undoubtedly part of that is the general Apple rumour halo effect, which suggests that by now I should be watching Game Of Thrones on my 3rd generation Apple TV panel at the very least. Still, many analysts think that it would be a sensible move for Apple to enter the budget iPhone space, just as it has done with the iPad Mini.

So why get so excited about what should just be run-of-the-mill phones? It’s because the smartphone market, as it currently stands, is a mature market. Most of the innovation of this generation is essentially done and dusted. The current state of smartphone innovation is dead.

Yes, processors will get better and screens may get a little sharper — and hopefully a little less power-hungry — but that’s an evolution of time issue, not one of revolutionising the smartphone model as it is right now. Software is where we may see some slight innovation, such as Facebook’s purported Home Screen, the various apps that Samsung’s throwing into the Galaxy S4, or whatever it is that Apple does with iOS 7 if it ever comes out. Smartphones sit in the same kind of mature categories as laptops, printers and other established technology categories right now.

Does that mean that any kind of revolutionary change is impossible? Certainly not. Like it or not, Apple did revolutionise the mobile phone space with the iPhone back when it launched, shifting the focus away from pure phone calls into the world of additional applications and centralised software repositories.

To draw on the laptop example, if you look at a laptop from 15 years ago and one from today, while there are style differences and a whole lot of speed differences, the core underlying model is the same, and identifiably so. That old beige laptop looks much the same, and works much the same way as an Ultrabook. Grab a 15 year old mobile phone and a Galaxy Note II, and the difference couldn’t be more stark. Indeed, that 15 year old phone has a lot more in common with the 40 year old model than it does the Note II.

No doubt, the boffins at Samsung, Motorola, Microsoft, HTC, Sony, and, yes, indeed, Apple are beavering away at the next revolutionary change in smartphones, if they’re not all beaten to it by the next big smartphone company that’s yet to emerge. Perhaps it’ll be flexible phones. Maybe it’ll be smartphones we make ourselves on 3D printers. Possibly it’ll be eyePhones.

I’m not entirely convinced that we’ll see any of those within the next couple of years, however, which means that the currently accepted smartphone model is here to stay. A few tweaks around the processor, a few gimmicks in apps and a lot more of a play towards the niches that haven’t jumped on the smartphone bandwagon just yet.

Who are those people? They’re not the high-end adopters, because that’s the first place the now-mature smartphone market went. They’re the people who “just want a phone as a phone”, or those holding onto old handsets until they quite literally fall apart in their hands, at which time they’ll want a new, but cheap phone replacement model — which means even more budget and mid-range models to come.