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Summary:

Perhaps I woke up on the wrong side of the bed today, but I’m getting a little bored with the current crop of “superphones,” as Om likes to call them. Most of the recent top-end smartphones appear to be slight enhancements over what’s currently available.

Perhaps I woke up on the wrong side of the bed today, but the upcoming Motorola Droid X that appears on Verizon’s site has me a little bored with the current wave of “superphones,” as Om likes to call them. That’s not a knock against the new Droid specifically — the device is improved over its predecessor — but most of the changes are evolutionary, not revolutionary. That got me thinking about these superphones in general, as the newest features in recent top-end smartphones are also evolutionary. Where are the monumental improvements in today’s phones, like we saw with the capacitive display of the first Apple iPhone  or from the introduction of Qualcomm’s 1 GHz Snapdragon?

Unfortunately, it takes time for all of the pieces of a great smartphone to come together — time to test, design, integrate and build. A chip manufacturer, for example, can’t provide a new chipset from scratch in just a few months time. And developing or upgrading a platform to run atop such chips is no small task, either — it took Google more than three years from the time it purchased Android to deliver its first phone, the G1, in October of 2008.

Although I understand why these business cycles take time, the similarities mean I’m still not jazzed as much by the latest and greatest devices as I was six months ago. Sure there are differences between the Nexus One, Incredible, EVO, Droid X and Galaxy S, to name a few hot handsets. But most of those differences are fairly incremental — a few more megapixels for the camera, an extra third of an inch on a display and the addition of the kickstand, for example — not the kinds of changes that will take things to the next level. Even my own list of suggested iPhone 4 alternatives has more similarities than differences.

Perhaps the problem is that handset makers can’t decide what the “next level” will require. Certainly it’s new connectivity such as the WiMAX radio in Sprint’s HTC EVO 4G. The high-resolution Retina Display of the upcoming iPhone 4 is another qualifier, as is the recent addition of 720p recording on a handful of handsets. But after that, I come up a little dry when it comes to what the next course of the smartphone menu will bring. Am I being too cynical, not giving software enough weight in this situation, or do I just need to wake up on the other side of the bed?

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  1. Specs are becoming almost even, with the exception of something like the Retina display or Samsung’s exclusive Super AMOLED. I think you’re not paying enough attention to the software, UI and apps though, as each can make a similarly-spec’d device a completely different experience.

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    1. Retina display is no invention, if you put more pixels per inch than the eye can make out, you can zoom in as much as you want without pixelation as long as the phone is far away from the eye. Anyone can do it at the cost of processing power/cost of screen, Super AMOLED display, I am not too sure, I havent played with it yet

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      1. You’re confusing the ability to conceptualize something with invention.

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  2. Kevin, that is a great thought. However, if you look at the life cycle of various technological products, it follows a very predictable model.

    We start with very crude features. Over a period, the industry defines the specifications (physical) and a “dominant design” evolves. Once the players agree on the dominant design, it is usually incremental from that point until someone introduces another radical innovation to challenge the dominant design.

    The smartphone industry seems to have figured out the dominant design and we will continue to see incremental innovation until everything is close to perfection. Even with all these phones, there are lot of things that are missing or not well developed. In any case, most value is created in software and not in hardware.

    Having said that, I would admit that at this stage of smartphone development, we should see far more improvements than we are seeing currently. Especially the latest iPhone 4 announcement was a lost opportunity IMHO.

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    1. Good comment. We’ve seen a progression of dominant designs: briefcase – brick – an ever-slimming candybar – clamshell – candybar w/keyboard – and now tablet.

      Marin’s comment is also on point – Swype and Gesture Search have transformed the way I use my Nexus One.

      If you think of phones as tools for taking in, storing, transferring, analyzing and representing information, then think of the huge array of information you are exposed to each day, or want to be exposed to, there is room for a whole series of disruptive leaps forward. Who wants to ditch typing out our thoughts to others? Who wants to increase the phone’s display bandwidth by orders of magnitude with immersive displays (OK, not the American Automobile Association)? Who wants to capture, store, communicate and filter more of the massive data stream that passes us as we walk around or meet with people?

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    2. Now if manufacturers would think about perfecting voice quality. Surprising that this is still an issue. Quality should be as good as a landline.

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      1. Voice quality is simply a factor of using a frame relay approach of bandwidth sharing on a single node or cell tower. Each has a limited capacity that cellular companies increase, by reducing signal resolution. The busier the network, the worse the audio quality. It’s not a fault of the technology. It is simply a decision by the cell companies to allow the quality to degrade to that level, to enable more users on the network, therefore, more income for the same bandwidth. They have created a culture where we expect crappy connections, because the consumer blames the phone, or passing a large building or some other factor where, rarely, you blame the carrier, when it is the carriers fault.

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      2. A Booth,

        I agree with your techical points, but you have dubious comprehension of the zeitgeist when you propose that, regarding bad cellular voice quality,

        “rarely, you blame the carrier, when it is the carriers fault.”

        The preponderence of evidence is that, in fact, the carrier is exclusively blamed, no matter what the cause.

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  3. I think this is a lot of value in the focus shifting from the phones themselves to the applications running on them. Isn’t this what happened with the PC? The stability of the iphone/pad/touch development target has contributed to its success vs. prior years in the wilderness on random HW platforms.

    I believe you are frustrated that the market is inching its way towards a “plateau of productivity”

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  4. I was hoping Apple would take mobile payments even at physical locations to the next level with some kind of NFC chip in the new iPhone but that was not to be. To be sure, Nokia has done this several years ago and now says all its smartphones will come with NFC from next year. But the kind of momentum that is required to rally the financial institutions and persuade the ecosystem to adopt Apps etc. is only something that the likes of Apple can do.

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  5. This reminds me of how Brodie from Palm would say that smartphone design is a commodity. Of course that was before the iPhone launched.

    -sent from my iPhone

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  6. I agree with your observation. That is why Apple requires the margins they get, and reinvests them in great industrial design. Software innovation is easily duplicated by fast followers, providing news, but not sustainable advantage. Internal hardware innovation also spreads quickly in the Taiwan device ecosystem and can be duplicated by anyone company in less than 18 months.

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  7. I believe that the next big thing with smartphones will be “phone-based computing”. Basically, your phone becomes your computer.

    You want to use a desktop PC? You slide your phone into a dock on your desk. The dock is connected to a monitor and a keyboard. Voila! You have a desktop PC. You want use a tablet? Just slide your phone into the slot provided in a dumb tablet-sized frame. There is your tablet. Hell, your phone will even be your TV! Just slide it into the dock that is connected to your TV and stream content from Google TV to the screen.

    Today’s “superphones” have as much computing power as the Chrome-based tablets. So, there is no reason why we can’t have phone-based computing in the near future.

    Cheers.

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  8. Sorry, the fact that you called them “superphones” calls into question your impartiality and expertise on the matter, making what could have been an insightful post suspect at best.

    If google announced their next phone was a “super-duper phone”, would you adopt the term as well? The general industry term is still “smartphones”. No, it’s not a perfect term, but at least it’s not the product of one company’s over-zealous marketing team.

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  9. Nice thoughts, you are mostly right. Maybe it is the intuitiveness of the UI. For example, just like search results relevance, one must be displayed what exactly they want in the menu options…people would really like that.. iPhone 4 was a bump up from 3GS but not too many improvements, except maybe the display, but it looks like playing field is level and AAPL can only charge a premium based on the UI.

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  10. Even as an iPhone user from its launch, I have to say that I’m impressed with the Android platform and the software for it. The first few weren’t great, but the hardware seems to solid now. The software is pretty similar though… very “icon grid”-ish, and I guess I’m waiting for shiny new UI more than novel hardware advances.

    Perhaps that’s why I’m excited about Windows Phone 7. It seems a little more in tune with the way I use my iPhone, kind of eliminating a few steps here and there. Disclaimer: Yes, I work for Redmond, and as skeptical as I was, I’m becoming a believer if the hardware manufacturers build nice stuff around it.

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