Phones are Kinda Mature Now

As someone who watches the tech industry, I cannot escape the famous “what phone should I buy?” question given to me by the people around me. Then, as time goes by, I realized that it’s getting harder and harder to even find a bad phone. Years ago, there’s a clear and distinct class division of phones in a company’s lineup. The top flagship phone has all the feature that you can imagine: cameras, colored high resolution screen, email and browser, Office file reader, and occasionally, a funky and radical design. As you traverse down the series, you’ll end up with the basic, lower-end phones: monochrome screen, GSM only connection, plastic design, and a beeper speaker. Back then, low-end phones are astronomically inferior to the flagship and there’s a somewhat clear spectrum of goodness. However, as of today, that gap has been vanished, or at least greatly blurred.


Fast forward a few years, Android and iOS equipped phone rose to dominance. Dubbed by the novel word smartphone, this kind of phone promises an extensive software feature, just like a flagship phones used to be, that can be expanded as time goes by via a centralized application repository. One notable feature of Android (we’ll talk about iOS and Apple later) is that it’s open source; every company can modify it and use it on their phone freely. This leads to a few revolutionary implications, mainly that the OS and its content can trickle down to the lower-end phones faster and market entry barrier is lowered.

Because it trickles fast, it leads to one of many things that we enjoy from a contemporary phone, that is standardization. As Android rose to ubiquity and its app repertoire is diversifying, it’s simply more efficient to just use Android rather than developing a whole new mobile OS and its features from the ground up. By months, an entire company’s phone lineup has become smartphones and the gap between a low-end phone and a flagship phone has shrunk significantly; every phone can go online, every phone can read Office document, every phone can use any IM service available to the store, every phone can use a GPS navigation service, and every phone has a voice assistant. In short, every phone can use majority of the apps available in the centralized store (apart from few apps that are not compatible). Moreover, if you want to do something different with your phone, there’s probably an app for that that you can just download from the aforementioned store. Cheap phones are pragmatically nearly as good as the expensive one.

I also mentioned that it’s lowering the market entry barrier. Old phone makers had to develop both their software and hardware for it to be sold, and with the standardization of the OS, there is one less thing to tackle. This phenomenon has 2 possibilities: either you don’t have to spend that much money to develop a same-specced phone or you can develop a higher specced phone for the same cost. Many new companies emerged (particularly from China) and prices drop. This effect is further magnified by a new and efficient business model started by Xiaomi, which reduces any wasteful margin and maximizes profit. All of a sudden, the market got super competitive.

But those very things that catalyze the market, to my eye and quite counter-intuitively, are also the things that lead to its slow down. In such a super competitive market, there’s very little breathing room: a company that conforms will have more chance of survival than a company that wanders around. Sure, if you can invent something that turns out to be game changing, you will caught yourself paying dividends, but if your exploration turned out to be a waste of investment or not executed right, you will have to cut cost and cost-cutting is the enemy of creativity.

Take Sony for example. Sony, with its Japanese weird-but-novel style engineering, has managed to give us some new atmosphere to the consumer electronic industry for the past decades or so. On the phone side, Sony (previously Sony Ericsson) has also managed to offer us some of the brilliant non-conventional phones in the industry. One contemporary example is the Compact series phone which match a flagship specification in a smaller footprint without any spec reduction besides the battery and the screen size; in a world full of phablets and two-handed phones, Sony took the opportunity to challenge the status quo and appeal to a sliver of customers who dislike the change. Too bad that they didn’t market them widely and the public barely knows it. Other than that, I personally have had the honor to own an Xperia PLAY, Sony’s attempt to merge its Xperia and PlayStation brand. Boy, what a massive potential that it has. It has a slideout PSP Go style keypad that can be used to play supported games and an exclusive PlayStation Mobile store that consists mainly of PSX games, but sadly, its execution was bad. For something that is built for gaming, its silicones were underpowered, it didn’t even support an official Android 4.0 (ICS) upgrade because it will hurt the performance even more; and for something that has a PlayStation logo, its game store was badly maintained.

There are still lots of would-be-great Sony products that has been executed imperfectly and those things inevitably lead to its downfall.

Xperia PLAY. Courtesy of Slashgear.

The market represses further wild experiment, including the good one. One such victim is Phonebloks, an initiative to modularize smartphone for the sake of repairability, environmental friendliness, and customizability. Although it’s not initiated by a company, it manages to alert smartphone industry. Motorola manages to help and named it Project Ara, then Google bought it and had a lot of progress. But suddenly, in 2016, the project has been ‘shelved’, because they said that consumers “don’t really care about modularity”. Indeed, my definition of ‘good’ is a little bit biased because the idea of adding option also adds complexity and it doesn’t necessarily equate to mass appeal. Nevertheless, it has the chance to radically revolutionize the smartphone (it had a lot of progress too), and at the end it didn’t happen, because of their unwillingness to take a risk.

Project Ara. Courtesy of Google.

The market only left us with a few big companies that have the spare money to burn over not-so-wild experiments. Examples such as Samsung with their Note line, which challenge our notion about enormous-screened phone, also Samsung with their edge screen, Sony with their waterproofing, which soon became a standard, and HTC with their dual camera on the M8. Those _are_improvements, but not as much compared to the classic phones, where phones such as Nokia’s N-gage, the Blackberries, Nokia’s Communicator, and the aforementioned Xperia PLAY trully offer a bold differentiator against each other.


Apple {#238a}

When it comes to experiment and thinking differently, Apple used to see themselves in a whole different playing field than Android; they used to be the source for inspiration for the rest of the consumer electronic industry.

Unfortunately, that is simply not the case when Tim Cook is in the lead.

Former Apple, with Steve Jobs as its head, is full of breakthrough products. Examples of such products are the iTunes (and the whole idea of digital media collection), iPhone (and the whole idea of a smartphone), iPad (and the whole idea of a tablet), and MacBook Air (and the whole idea of an ultrabook). To put it in a more metaphorical term, they used to have an ideal picture of how the world of technology should be, not just for the sake of “because the market wants it”.

With the left of Steve, there also goes most of the innovative side of Apple. With Tim leading the way, their goal seems to be more focused for even more mass appeal. When everyone else is making a smartwatch, they made a smartwatch. When Microsoft’s Surface sales figure went up, they made a matching pro iPad (with a stylus that Steve originally hate). The iPhone is no exception: in a sea of bigger screened phones, first they made the display taller, then they enlarge the screen, and then they made a sister version that’s even bigger (despite of Steve’s opinion about big phones); when their competitor sports a water resistant casing, they rushed to do the same thing; they experimented with dual camera sensors when their Android counterparts are doing the same thing; and finally, with the iPhone X, they made the screen almost bezel-less, just like the rest of the gang.

Apple has been known for their genius — to the point that it is almost delusional — marketing. As a result to that, Steve has given Apple the legacy of a cult-like fans and a tenaciously possitive customer sentiment; with marketing words such as Retina Display, iSight Camera, TouchID, and whatnot. Add it to the collection of things that Tim has been doing, they’ve got nothing but more market share. As an implication to all of those, theoratically they are able to do wild experiments without the risk of significantly losing customers, but unfortunately they’re using this chance poorly. Walt Mossberg once wrote that post-Jobs Apple has soared financially but lacked breakthrough product, and I fully agree with him. To me, aside from the 2013 ‘trash can’ Mac Pro and the biometric revolution, the rest of their products has been — for lack of a better word — pseudo-breakthrough, such as USB-C only laptops and removal of the headphone jack.

Apple too is not as bright as its former self.

Apple’s questionable design decisions. Courtesy of Jonathan Morrison.

What’s Next {#3c08}

To say that the phone industry is approaching stagnation, is probably an overstatement. There are still things that smartphone makers could do to potentially revolutionize the industry: there’s the anticipated RED Hydrogen One, that is taking another shot at the concept of modular add-ons with a professional-level camera as a cherry on top, there’s the VR/AR thing that is waiting for mass adoption by a game-changing application, and there’s also the field of Artificial Intelligence that has promised us a technological utopia. But all of those things don’t challenge the fundamental things about the smartphone itself, they are simply putting something on top of it; incremental. A more proper word would be mature: it has hit all of the right check-boxes and has developed so much that we didn’t even think we’re missing anything anymore.

So yeah, I guess phones are kinda mature now.