Has the Smartphone reached its Climax?

Exhibit A:

  • Apple’s much vaunted iPhone 7 disappointed the pundits in terms of hardware innovation. Sure it’s a better phone, has some cool features (minus a headphone jack), but is it really that different from the iPhone 6s?

Exhibit B:

  • Google brought out its Pixel phone after much speculation, and an avalanche of leaks, and the world was underwhelmed. I mean, it’s a great phone, but nothing to write home about from a spec point of view, specially at that price range.

Exhibit C:

  • Samsung packs so much innovation into their Galaxy Note 7, that its batteries literally explode when fully charged.

Has smartphone hardware innovation reached a plateau? Or have our expectations simply been unrealistically high?

We have been spoiled with yearly releases of models. Year after year we’ve been astounded with new features, 3D Touch, fingerprint reader, NFC, faster processors, eye detectors, gyroscopes, pressure gauges… that we are disappointed when this doesn’t continue. Indeed Moore’s Law has been going strong for decades, and we expect it to continue, though even that venerable law is starting to slow down. But smartphones are moving from the Early Adoptor stage to the Early/Late Majority, and their features have dropped to the “hygiene factor” level within Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. What was once a “luxury feature” is now simply expected, and is not a differentiator anymore. It’s a “ratchet effect”: we simply expect phones to have high resolution screens, speech recognition, fingerprint readers, to be fast, to be connected, to last long… If you transpose that to the automobile industry, when I bought my first car, air conditioning was considered a luxury. Today, if a car does not have A/C, power steering, electric windows, remote locking, then you figure it must be destined to the Third World.

On the other hand, innovation is striving on the software front. Aritifical Intelligence (AI) is big on the agendas of Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Facebook. Google has spent a good deal of time promoting Google Assistant during their conference, trying to play catch-up with Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Echo, amongst others. Uncharacteristically in this highly competitive industry a partnership has emerged between the giants to promote AI (partnershiponai.org). What was once in the domain of Research & Development labs — and science fiction — has come to a retailer close to you. The potential in convenience and ease of use is huge of course. But as machines learn more and more about us, so this also opens burning questions around privacy (and even ethics). We will not escape the pervasive quandary in the trade-off between improved convenience (or security) and the associated loss of privacy. (But that’s a topic of another post).

The smartphone is reaching what I call the “appliance stage”. It has become part and parcel of an ecosystem of interconnected devices, not quite taken for granted, but takes a back-seat to where the innovation is emanating. Think mobile payments, car functionality, Virtual Reality, Artificil Intelligence, robotics, IoT, wearables, connected home/car. It has become a means to an end, a cog (albeit an important one) in a big machine. And this is only just beginning.

The next model smartphone is important — but the window it opens up to us is even more important.

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