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The Recipe for a Successful Smartphone Is Getting Bland

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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 (s goog) 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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57 Responses to “The Recipe for a Successful Smartphone Is Getting Bland”

  1. shujoy

    The author cites evolutionary changes in specs such as more pixels in camera and more inches to the display. Yet he cites retina display as a revolutionary candidate. why? isn’t that just evolving as well. since when does packing more pixels make a revolution?
    No we have to look beyond the hardware which have structured changing cycles. Interface will give us the next level. Perhaps the next step for google is to find my lost shoe or car keys, and not just keywords in the net…
    Once an accepted design paradigm is accepted and completely dominating it reduces innovation. indeed this is true hardware wise at the moment. But on the interface front things are going to move faster towards innovation. Disruptive innovation will happen there, & start changing the hardware in the process.

  2. No Trolls

    Wow, how did this get posted on a reputable site? I think you just broke the record for the biggest troll I’ve seen on the internet.

    If you actually USED any of these phones, you’d know why they’re superior to their predecessors.

  3. There has been a big shift to Agile Project Management. One of the big results from this shift in software development is the development cycle.

    The agile development cycle is about 2 weeks. These shorter cycles mean less big bang development. We are seeing these small incremental changes, with a lemming like flocking around something that seems to be successful. Over a year or two things will be quiet different, but if you are focusing on the second by second change things are progressing slowly.

    Have some perspective once there is some massive global LTE rollout the mobile world will be unrecognizable from today.

  4. Michael

    Evolutionary change over time is revolutionary. The iPhone is in many ways just the evolution of the original iPod–a wearable computer that now happens to make phone calls among other things. How good does the camera in an iPhone or Droid have to be before it nukes the point-n-shoot camera industry? How good does the HD camcorder in an iPhone have to be before it nukes the Flip Video or even the consumer camcorder market. How powerful does the processor in a Droid or iPhone have to be before it can double as a docking PC that drives a 24″ 1080P monitor and runs productivity software? Look for the revolution elsewhere. It comes when everyone can afford a superphone. It comes when the underlying tech behind the superphone is embedded in our refrigerator, our TV, our car, our clock radio, our e-Book reader, the treadmill. It comes when all our devices talk and share data transparently without turning everyone into IT pros. The big question is whether either Apple or Google can take us into that future without screwing it up along the way. Don’t underestimate the challenge of not screwing it up.

    • androiduser

      The revolution begins when I press a button at work and my susie-home-maker-oven cooks one of my favorite RECIPES before I hit the doormat–that’s the recipe of revolution…and uncorks the wine. No, I’m happy with this iphone coming out wednesday–i am simply committed to not breaking the thing–that is lame.

      Revolution: Interface with my home computer. Let me capture text images with the camera and translate to my language and edit them. Let me talk to my phone like it’s Hal. Let me choose my own carrier per phone call. Let me talk to anyone on the globe at the same price. That’s how you start a revolution…name your demands and be demanding.

  5. Norton

    I won’t be truly impressed until someone (the ubiquitous “they”) is able to deliver everything always anywhere for nothing in a device no bigger than a pair of sunglasses (that can double as a cocktail stirrer or tire pressure gauge).

  6. upL8N8

    The capabilities of these phones are becoming similar to the capabilities of a PC. At a certain point, there won’t be many noticeable differences, just quality improvements in the hardware that we already have.

    The Droid X has a substantial increase in screen size. At this size, you’re bridging the gap between phone and tablet. Phone screens are too small for many things, and Tablets are too big to carry around. At this size, you’re getting the best of both worlds. Any bigger, and it isn’t pocketable.

    I would like to see improved battery life and improved browser / connection speed. I hate playing a game only to watch my communication device run out of juice on the road. A kinetic or body temp charging system would be fantastic, or simply a breakthrough in battery tech that won’t explode in my pocket.

    I like what Nokia is doing with the ability to pay for things with your phone. Who needs credit cards taking up space in their wallets? If this becomes mainstream, then that’s a game changer in my opinion.

    At a certain point, it just comes down to the core essentials in the phone. Speed / screen / camera / memory / connection. It’s up to the software developers to use that functionality to build quality tools for the end users. The hardware in these phones is nothing without the software developers. The improvements in these basics lets software devs do much more.

    • That level, at least for personal travel, was reached in 2008 with the iPhone 3G. Within 6 months I quit carrying a laptop for anything but international and business travel, and I only broke the laptop out a couple times on personal international trips in early 2009. There are still some things that require at least a netbook (mainly stuff requiring peripherals or a large amount of storage space), but the majority of things I need to do when I’m not working are reasonable on my phone.

  7. Kevin you sound ridiculous. Your not impressed with the current crop of superphones because they havent innovated in 6 months? Your crazy. The evo and its huge screen just came out in June.

    Nexus one owners are waiting on Froyo and the ability to run flash on a phone along with doubling the speed!!! IPhone 4 is coming out with a high resolution screen 4 times its predecessor. There is plenty to be excited about.

    • “Your crazy. The evo and its huge screen just came out in June.”

      You realize the EVO and it’s huge screen isn’t that different from the HTC HD2 that launched in November of last year, right? Same screen, same CPU and a smidge more RAM. EVO does have a kickstand though. ;)

      As far as Froyo, I’ve been running it for nearly 4 weeks and while it does add a slightly noticeable performance boost, it doesn’t feel like a doubling to me.

      • Come on Kevin, the HD2 is using a dead platform in MsMobile. That doesn’t count. You sound like the rich kid who gets bored with his toys after a few hours.

      • Kevin, he’s right. You’re complaining that recent updates seem incremental when you look out over the past several years. Well, yeah, of course that comparison looks that way. I think you are jaded, though, and forgetting how fast the smartphone industry is moving right now. Please, show me a consumer electronics industry that has ever moved as fast as smartphones are now.

        For some perspective, check out Slashdot’s story today on how the smartphone industry is making PC developments look stagnant. And if you really want to talk about stagnating, maybe you should look at desktop monitors…they’ve mostly standardized on 1080p resolution with no improvements to quality, dots per inch, etc etc in about a decade.

      • Dave, fair point, but moving fast doesn’t always equate to revolutionary changes.

        And Jake, if I was bored with my toys in a few hours, I would have upgraded my current phone several times in the past six months. Instead, I’m using a Google Nexus One from January. ;)

  8. Concerning the following sentence in Kevin Tofel’s recent article (“The Recipe for a Successful Smartphone Is Getting Bland”):

    Sure there are differences between the Nexus One, Incredible, EVO, Droid X and Galaxy S, to name a few hot handsets.

    I think you meant to write “…differences AMONG….” When comparing more than two items, one uses “among” instead of “between.” There IS no “between” among three or more items.

  9. Barkleyfan

    “I don’t have to be faster than the bear, I just have to be faster than you.” Incremental is lucrative. You spend less on r&d, and convince people this one improvement justifies the expense. When it gets stale enough to lose sales, THEN you pull out something profound to recapture market share.

  10. In 1984, Apple introduced a revolutionary UX change with the graphical user interface and mouse on a PC. It then took over 15 years to fill in all the gaps and grow it for multiple consumer and business uses. One who grew up with it didn’t see anything revolutionary, but software and hardware grew significantly over that time from MacWrite all the way to Photoshop and beyond.

    In 2007, Apple introduced a revolutionary UX change with the multi-touch display and apps on a mobile phone. (Yes, they were done before, but weren’t easy-to-use or easy-to-buy.) Now we’re in the phase of filling in all the gaps and growing it for multiple consumer and business uses. We likely won’t see a revolutionary UX change but software and hardware will grow significantly – and many more things will be done on a smartphone in 2015 than in 2007.

    In between, Netscape introduced a browser in 1994, which also led to a revolutionary UX change. We’ve since been filling in the Web in ways that look evolutionary, altho much has changed since 1994.

    Instead of seeing what is happening now as boring, you should’ve seen 2007 as something revolutionary, something you may only see a few times in your lifetime.

  11. In 1 – 2 years, mainstream smartphones reach $150 price (at retail without 2 year subscription required), features to be equivalent to today’s iPhone 3GS / 4G.

    In 1 – 2 years, most premium smartphone’s or ‘superphones’ will have 3D image capture for videos, pictures and 3D conference calling. Also, 1 – 5 Mpbs broadband data access will be common.


  12. Eh. I’ve been saying this for s few years now. Oh well, topics always come back around.

    If we want innovation in mobile, then we have to demand it. Asking and fawning over the features of this month’s smartphone is no different than what the auto industry does when a new model comes out and “breaks the mold.”

    The onus is on us to demand more. Innovation, look at the Wii or MS Kinect. Ask for that. Innovation, look at Nokia Life Tools. Innovation, when was the last time the mobile industry went crazy over a mobile made for those without sight. These are things out now and should be demanded of the “normal” smart phones within our hands.

    Lastly, it’s much easier to not be bored with mobile when you shift your focus from specs to enablement. I can testify that doing so exposes more innovation in more creases of mobile than just what the affluent and loud amongst us can see.

  13. Michael

    Common, you can’t expect to have a revolution every year. By it’s very definition, revolution is a once-in-a-while happening.

    It will takes years of the same features converging for an innovative company to come up with a disruptive ground breaker, the way Apple initially did with the iPhone.

  14. Great points.

    I think you’re correct that it will come down to software – both power/ease of use and the cultural competition to become the standard that people think of when they think “smart phone”.

    I think another subtle differentiator is hardware quality. It doesn’t make much difference to the average tech blog reader, but the look and feel of such a prominent item is an important differentiator. Apple might have an interesting differentiator with their all glass and metal design, which certainly looks to outclass the competition – then again, the appeal of those big Android screens might negate that.

  15. I understand your argument but I think it’s one-sided. While it would appear that the — evolution or revolution — of smartphone hardware has plateaued; we have to look at the entire ecosystem.

    There will simply come a moment — albeit brief — when smartphones will look very similar; in feature sets. These mobile operators are getting the same chips, displays and other hardware from the same pool of manufactures.

    So what will set these smartphones apart? I think that applications and service must be part of the argument. There needs to be a standard applications market place, where I can easily get applications that improve the quality of my life. This marriage is doomed to fail without a fair and flexible data plan; which is supported by a mobile operator that has a ubiquitous HSPA+ or LTE core network.

  16. I agree, Kevin. The thing is that’s just the way it is, the remarkable becomes the commonplace after a while.

    I think the iPhone introduced a step change to the industry, however now there are multiple good quality touch screen media phones to choose from and it has become a class of devices rather than unique. That’s not a bad thing I suppose.

    When that happens it all comes down to branding. Apple are top dog here just now but have the problem all ‘cool’ brands have – once they become popular they lose a large amount of that coolness (I remember this happening with CK Jeans in the UK back in the 90s!). I’m sure that they realise this and will do the same thing they did when the iPod stopped being a fashion statement and became a commodity, that is they’ll diversify the product range.

      • “…iPods never had strong competition…”

        Are you kidding me? There were MP3 manufacturers before the iPod (e.g., RCA, Creative) and after (e.g., SanDisk, Zune). Apple did what Apple does best: They take a relatively complex device and made it simple. I understand that operating an MP3 player isn’t difficult, but before iTunes came on the scene, syncing the music was.

        The iPod was never significantly better than any of the other MP3 players on the market. It was, however, one of the easiest to use and had the best software integration — something other companies STILL can’t figure out.

  17. Mahalobagel

    Argh! Finally someone blogs what I’ve been thinking & saying all this time!
    Attack of the Clones, not just a mediocre Star Wars flick, but the definition of the incremental upgrades within the smartphone, cellphone, superphone, compu-phone … whatever the hell you want to call it.
    There is no innovation – merely grades of imitation.
    At this point it would take a software / hardware / cellular company offering a smartphone from the planet Cybertron with the nomenclature “Bumblebee” that would not only intuitively broker each of my stocks, but make breakfast, display Apps appropriate to fulfill my needs that day, transform into a 2009 Camaro, never drop a single cellular call & have stellar unrivaled battery life. And a 80 megapixel camera.
    But alas, it’s just phone companies one-upping another Cloning ideas, never innovating … sigh …

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. Valley Bob

    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.

  21. 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.


  22. Rob W.

    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.

  23. 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

  24. 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.

  25. 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”

  26. 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.

    • 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?

      • A Booth

        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.

      • 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.

  27. 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.

    • 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