Follow-Up: Smartphone Desperation (And Innovation?) At MWC

Last week, based on a peek at the Mobile World Congress offerings, we speculated that smartphone innovation was dead (for now). Now we know more. And much of it ain't pretty.

samsung-beam

The Pico Projector Play

Samsung is guilty of trying to imply innovation in its smartphone lineup by delivering dozens of ever-so-slightly different phones, but its latest move in the Galaxy range is perhaps the boldest: The Galaxy Beam. It's recipe is simple: Take a chunky but reliable Android 2.3 handset with otherwise fairly typical specs, then add a 15 lumens picoprojector. That wins you headlines like this: "Samsung Galaxy Beam: Play smartphone games on a 50-inch screen" and it sure stands out from many of the other Galaxy phones, and most other big-name Android handsets.

But is it innovative? Not really, as phones with pico projectors have been around for a while now. Admittedly because it comes via Android's ecosystem and has Samsung's weight thrown behind it with special apps and the suggestion of thousands of game titles from Samsung's own app stable it's likely to do better than these earlier devices. But many smartphone games are all about the unique motion-control input you can manage with a handheld sensor-stuffed phone, and that's just not gonna work with a pico-projected image on the nearest darkened wall. Neither are many apps likely to be written especially for this platform, as there's no margin in it.

And yup, you'll need a darkened wall as, though Samsung says it works in daylight, 15 lumens is pretty dim. This thing's real strength is projecting a bigger image onto the seatback in front of you on a flight on an overnight flight. But that bumpy plastic's not the best screen surface--and may really bug your fellow travelers.

Clever move by Samsung? In a way, yes--but really this smacks of depserately trying to pad out a smartphone range with no real innovation.

The Chips, Chips, And More Chips Play

According to Bit-Tech.net, MWC has gone "ga-ga for chips" with a lot of the attention focussed on the different platforms that phones use as their silicon chip engines, and endless claims of bigger, better, faster, more. There're CPUs based on ARM's Cortex A9 architecture, now coming to budget phones, its high-end multicored A15 architecture, compared to Nvidia's Tegra 3 Kal-el CPU, and Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4.

If you've gone acronym blind already, then steel yourself: It gets worse. Intel's Atom "medfield" Z2460 got a showing. Huawei's own-effort system-on-a-chip the quad-core K3V2 is also a standout, as it means Huawei is trying a soup-to-nuts ownership of smartphone technologies, including a custom power management chip that draws less than its rivals and 16 separate graphics cores.

These chips of course power phones: HTC's attention-grabbing One X phone is perhaps the most-talked about this far, and it's mainly based on its 1.5GHz Tegra 3 CPU, which lets it run blisteringly fast.

And that's about the size of it. Is it innovative to soup up the current meme, strap it into a warmed-over core phone design and take it in the same direction every other phone maker is taking their product? Not necessarily. Plus you risk confusing, irritating or completely blind-siding the phone-buying public with all these names and specs.

The Better Camera Play

Meet Nokia's 808 PureView phone. It's got a 4-inch display, a 1.3 Ghz single-core CPU that's not going to win too many speed prizes, aging but reliable Symbian OS and a 41 megapixel camera behind a premium Carl Zeiss lens. Yup, that's 41 megapixels, foiks (sure, there's some jiggery-pokery involved in averaging pixels down to the final stored image, but it's clear that this phone's sold on this main strength).

Remember our concern that the pointless megapixel war was coming to the smartphone? This is that nonsense in action. Because it's not all about the megapixels: Photography's all about the optics that lets your camera capture light. Even serious pro-level Canon DSLRs only sport 16 megapixels, but have gloriously large sensor pixel sizes so their low-light performance is amazing, and they can slot some serious glass lenses in the front to take amazing photos using all the tricks of the trade like variable depth-of-field and proper tilt-shift. None of that's going to happen within the few square millimeters of Nokia's sensor nor inside its roughly one centimeter front-to-back depth.

It may be better than many smartphone cameras, but that's not necessarily a universal statement nor is it necessarily something that'll attract consumers. And it's definitely not an innovation.

The Not-A-Phone Play

Asus is trying an unusual trick with its Padphone device--using much of the hardware in a smartphone to power a bigger-screen tablet package that the phone piggybacks onto via a special dock.

Clever, and means you don't have to take "two bottles into the shower," needing both a tablet and smartphone when going on a long commute, say. But you do still have to carry the two bits of hardware, so the real saving may only be on price. And like those famous hair-cleaning products, it's possible that a one-for-all system like this isn't as ideal as letting you choose the device that suits you from both worlds.

Innovative? A little--though the tech is just an evolution of the laptop-becomes-desktop PC meme. One that'll rock the mobile computing world? Nope.

The Actually Clever Play

Meanwhile over at Kickstarter there's a fascinating little product that you could do worse than pay attention to. It's called Node, and it's a modular smartphone-connecting sensor suite that comes with its own Arduino cores, apps, and plug-in hardware modules. 

Why's it interesting? For starters its perfect for hobbyists to tinker with novel interfaces for their mobile computers, which could lead to some clever innovations in, say, mobile gaming controls that the big makers may pay attention to. But also because its modular nature may ultimately let you plug in a chemical sensor, a radiation sensor, an infrared thermometer or any one of a million other extras. This turns your smartphone into a truly amazing tool--the equivalent of Doctor Who's famous sonic screwdriver perhaps, able to be pointed at almost anything in order to do almost anything.

It's clever, lateral, truly innovative and much more interesting than nearly all the "my phone is faster than yours" shenanigans going on at MWC. In the near future, this is where the real innovation in the smartphone world is likely to lie.

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.

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2 Comments

  • Kit Eaton

    Exciting idea isn't it? I wrote a while ago that one of the truly amazing strengths of smartphones was the peripherals they can interface with and thus control/relay info from. This would seem to be the jack-of-all-trades of those peripherals, complete with low-power auto-connect Bluetooth 4. Wonderful stuff.