“Smartphones are boring now”: has the once innovative market plateaued?

It’s June 2007, Rihanna’s Umbrella is top of the UK charts, Ratatouille is Disney’s summer blockbuster and, on the 29th, Steve Jobs is revealing the future of mobile technology, the iPhone. This has left competitors like Blackberry, HTC and Samsung scrambling to produce something that can even hold a candle to this groundbreaking new device. The pinnacle of modern technology. Easily distinguishable from its competitors with its lack of a physical keyboard and singular home button. Fast forward to 2021 and its safe to say the competition has more than caught up. From the above picture, is it now as easy to tell the difference between the three phones there. Maybe you recognise the distinctive notch on the iPhone in the middle? The hole punch on Samsung’s offering on the left? Google’s device on the right though looks like any other glass slab on the market.

The years between then and now saw mobile technology move in leaps and bounds. The introduction of Siri on the iPhone 4S in 2011 saw virtual, AI-powered assistants reach the average consumer. Advancements in security like the fingerprint scanner and, eventually, face recognition made us feel closer to the future than ever before. Moving from one low quality camera to multiple, DSLR challenging lenses meaning we had access to a professional grade camera in our pockets. Small, 4.7 inch displays moved to Quad HD+ full screen displays. Each release, whether successful or not, brought meaningful changes to the market and gave the average consumer a reason to be excited for the release of the next edition.

The headlining news from the most recent batch of releases? Samsung has added laser auto-focus to their line up (sounds cool but doesn’t do a lot), Oppo’s camera bump is now slanted to be less protrusive (so what?) and Apple’s phones now have flat edges instead of curved (actually more uncomfortable to hold). The most recent leaks for next year’s models? iPhones may have a smaller notch, the bezels on another phone may be a little thinner? You get the idea. There is very little reason now, and in future, to upgrade your current phone. You’re not alone in this either; a 2019 study conducted by Kantar Worldpanel shows that smartphone users are upgrading their smartphone less often than ever before.

This is partly due to software optimisation meaning older chipsets and lower specifications can still run most apps with ease. If you own an iPhone, most now recieve yearly Operating System updates for five years; meaning an iPhone 6S from 2015 is still running the most recent software, iOS 14, which came out in 2020. Their Android counterparts are not far behind now with most offering at least 3 years. The rest, however, is due to a lack of advancement in technologies. If users can’t see a new feature or formfactor worth the expense, and their current phone is running fast enough, why upgrade? I have been lucky enough to extensively test three of the highest end phones released in recent months, the iPhone 12 Pro Max, Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and the OnePlus 9 Pro. Do they feel a little faster, charge a little quicker and take slightly better photos? Yes, but since the iPhone X released in 2017, you would be hard pressed to find a feature in any recent phone that made enough of a difference to be worth the upgrade.

The question on everyone’s minds though is whether this is the end of smartphone development. Have we reached the final form factor so that every development from here on out will be, for the most part, unnoticeable? Tech YouTuber Arun Maini covered this exact topic in a recent video on his channel, Mrwhosetheboss. Somewhat disproving the notion that the market has, in fact, plateaued. There are genuinely exciting concepts on the list, such as Oppo’s rollable, expandable display and graphene batteries that could last a week on a single charge. There has also been the rollout of foldable smartphones and patents made for completely transparent devices (yes, like in Iron Man). Does this make any change for the rest of us though? Will we soon be using these futuristic devices daily? Rolling out our phones into tablets on the Tube or losing our transparent phones at the pub? The short answer is no. In the long term, maybe. This is very early days for this technology and many “revolutionary” designs end up having too many flaws to be practical in the long term.

This apparent lack of innovation is not entirely a negative accusation of the smartphone industry. Instead, a sign of a product that has matured, like televisions and laptops. There is a similar pattern with these devices too as they went through rapid development and many experimental designs until they settled on their final form that has, and most likely will continue to be, the norm. We can also be assured that the features we have come to appreciate on our phones, like the screens and cameras, will only improve over time. There may never be another change as drastic as what we saw with the original iPhone, but maybe we have reached a point where there doesn’t need to be?

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