Smart Isn't Smart Enough
HWM Singapore|November 2019
Yes, the tech we have in our smartphones now is the best they’ve ever been. But are the features in your latest smartphone really revolutionary anymore, or just incremental upgrades from what came before?

IT’S OFFICIAL. THE SMARTPHONE IS THE SINGLE MOST USED DEVICE IN OUR LIVES TODAY.

We rely on it for communication, entertainment, recreation, some of us actually do work on it, and some even treat it as a status symbol.

Yet, even the most hardcore iPhone fan will have to admit – it’s been a while since anything truly revolutionary shook up the smartphone world. Take a sweeping glance into any mobile phone store, and you’ll probably be hard-pressed to tell one model from another just from the front. Let’s take a look at the four main differentiating aspects of any smartphone: Form factor, Display, Camera, and Connectivity to see where’re they at and how they could be better.

HOW DIFFERENT DO WE REALLY WANT OUR PHONE TO LOOK?

Today, one of the loudest complaints you’ll hear about the newest smartphone is that it looks too much like last year’s model. Words like “iterative” get thrown about in every review. The iPhone 11 Pro Max? Oh it’s great, but it looks the same as the iPhone XS Max! To be fair, not all of these statements are intended as criticism – the 2018 and 2019 iPhones do look very similar and it’s impossible to get away from that fact.

But you’ll also hear the average consumer lamenting that the latest kid on the block doesn’t feel exciting enough. After all, we’ve gotten so used to smartphones as slabs of glass and metal year after year that you can hardly blame people for looking for the next big thing.

That said, it’s almost easy to forget the massive changes the mobile phone has undergone over the past couple of decades. We’ve come quite a long way to get these slim and shiny pocket computers, and the 2000s alone saw us make the leap from good old Nokia feature phones to the very first iPhone.

But let’s turn the clock back further. Today’s smartphones can perhaps trace their roots back to the Simon Personal Communicator, which was unveiled in 1992. Built by IBM, it was only available to buy in 1994, and went on to sell roughly 50,000 units in just six months. It cost US$1,100, which works out to around US$2,000 in today’s dollars. That’s more than the iPhone 11 Pro Max, which starts at US$1,099.

The Simon Personal Communicator had a monochrome LCD touchscreen and a middling 1-hour battery life. Its feature set was also almost laughable, comprising email, an address book, faxes, support for a stylus and predictive typing. In a quaint turn, you could even plug it into a regular phone jack to make calls on your landline, which was cheaper and offered better connection.

The following years saw companies like Nokia, Motorola, and Ericsson find success with an assortment of traditional candy bar-style feature phones and flip models. There were also slider phones like the Nokia N95 that used a sliding mechanism to achieve a more compact form factor. Then came BlackBerry with the 5810, which targeted business-minded folks with a physical QWERTY keyboard.

Fast-forward to 2007, and everything changed. Steve Jobs announced the iPhone at Macworld, a device that ditched the physical keyboard entirely for a full touchscreen interface. The rest, as we say, is history. The smartphone market exploded, sparking off waves of devices from competitors that adopted the same basic form factor. Arguably, we’re right back where we started. The only diff erence is that they’re more advanced than before.

Along the way, there have been some intrepid players who’ve attempted to try something new. There was 2016’s LG G5, which introduced a modular design that let you swap in various accessories like a camera grip or portable DAC. That suffered a tepid reception though, and LG ditched the idea entirely. Google’s Project Ara didn’t even get off the ground. Lenovo is still soldiering on with its moto mods, but it hasn’t gained enough traction to change the smartphone market significantly.

Ultimately, it feels like the traditional slate-style smartphone isn’t going anywhere. Even when smaller outfits like Nextbit and Red try to do something different with the Robin and Hydrogen One, they still stick to the same tried-and-tested form factor. The smartphone as a glass-and-metal slate is here to stay for a while longer, and it’s a testament to the fact that sometimes the simplest and most elegant solution is the best one.

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