The Smartphone Revolution Is Over (For Now)

smartphones

Ahead of the Mobile World Congress event next week dozens of new smartphones are being revealed or teased to stir up the tech press, get potential customers excited, and, of course, drum up sales. Among the varied designs, operating systems, and technical specifications coming from a long list of manufacturers, one thing is clear—there's really not an enormous amount of innovation going on. The smartphone, it seems, has hit an evolutionary dead end.

As a case in point, look at the behavior of Chinese firm ZTE, which has revealed eight new phones ahead of the MWC show. With names like PF200, N910, and Mimosa X, the phones cover the spectrum from 1.2 GHz processors to 1.5 GHz, one sports a quad-core CPU, they run Android 4.0 or Windows Phone 7, they have different screen specifications and cameras, and so on. But they would all appear to be monolithic touchscreen phones, wide, tall and shallow front-to-back with a minimum of buttons and no distinguishing features that set them apart from a dozen phones from other Android and Windows Phone 7 makers. ZTE is trying the shotgun approach, or what you might consider product spam, to try to boost its revenues.

Panasonic has also revealed hardware ahead of the MWC, but it's trying to distinguish its Eluga device from the array of competing ones by adding in a couple of extras: As well as being pretty vanishingly skinny, it sports built-in NFC, connectivity to same-branded TVs, and is both dust- and waterproof. Those features are definitely a boon to many users, and may well attract consumers who've dropped previous phones into the toilet or out of their pocket onto a hard glass-shattering floor. But the Eluga is still a monolithic block with a large touchsreen, a rear-facing camera, and has Android running inside, and from 10 paces away you'd find it hard to spot in a lineup of its peers. Also Samsung has revealed its latest phone in its seemingly endless range of Galaxy smartphones, the Rugby Smart, and while it's distinguished by its low price, it's also waterproof and rugged, just like the Eluga.

Meanwhile LG's Optimus 4X HD has also been outed, and it's got a larger-than-usual 4.7-inch screen and a fast 1.5 GHz quad-core Tegra 3 CPU humming inside. But it's again a slab-like touchscreen, Android-powered smartphone like many others. The LG Optimus 3D Max, on the other hand, is the world's first with 3-D video editing—ready to empower people who use its rear-facing 3-D video-recording cameras and who enjoy its glasses-free 3-D display. But again, apart from the gimmicky 3-D it's generally similar to almost every phone we've talked about so far.

This image explains it all:

phones

We've got the iPhone to thank. It set the pattern for the current smartphone paradigm because its design departed so radically from pretty much everything that had gone before—so much so that some people scoffed at the very idea that it could be successful. It's sold so very well and has transformed the entire market to the extent that it's inspired all of these iPhone-esque designs (some of which Apple accuses of all but cloning its ideas).

It's also the reason that MWC for this year and probably next will be very samey-samey, with all the innovation restricted to honing features like processor speed, screen technology for vividness, brightness, or pixel density, incorporating better camera technology, variations in the touch interface and the OS and the UI that controls how users interact with it. Phone CPUs will get more cores (and marketing folks may try to spin this to an unknowing public as a benefit, much as during the megapixel wars when digital cameras were becoming popular). NFC and other sensors and interactive tweaks will be added. That's all innovative for sure, but it's hardly revolutionary—it won't take mobile phone tech in an amazing new direction.

This is why Apple may give its iPhone 5 a radical design overhaul, to move away from its existing and previous looks, perhaps adopting a very curvaceous chassis. It's an aesthetic trick, and one a designer at Ciccarese Design has used to put together a concept graphic that while improbable technically is at least an aesthetic departure from the slab-like iPhone 4S (check it out at this link).

Nevertheless, even Apple's tweaks won't move the smartphone paradigm forward much. We're not complaining, of course—the mobile computing revolution is changing many aspects of modern life after all, and is enabling whole new industries to grow up. But maybe this stalled innovation is why Google is trying to invent something new with its augmented reality/mobile communications Android goggles, which is something really new (unless Apple aces it with isomething like an iVisor).

[Images: Flickr users philcampbell, Michel Schmid, and via Josh Heifferich]

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