All the world's a scratch paper, and life's events merely scribbles. They have their exits and entrances, and one scratch paper in its time plays many parts.
For the longest time, smartphone manufacturers have had a clear trajectory on their feature roadmaps. Tweak this spec and that, and the consumer cash will keep rolling in. Well, we have now reached a point where the spec wars are about to come to an end. Not just because consumers now care less about numbers, but also because the specs themselves are nearing their functional zeniths. Let’s look at each major spec battlefield and see how close they are to that point.
1) Pixel density
Real innovation on this front pretty much ended when Apple first came up with the Retina display back in 2010. I mean, how can you beat something that already beat the limits of the human eye? Yes, the other OEMs caught up, but often to the point of absurdity. The pixel wars of today go well beyond retina territory, but whether it’s 326 ppi or 441 ppi, it doesn’t matter so much anymore. If anything, it mainly serves as marketing ammunition. I can’t imagine what else they can do next year except to improve the harder-to-market qualitative aspects of sceeens like brightness and color saturation.
2) Screen Size
Barring Apple, the OEMs have somehow convinced the public that bigger is more advanced and hence, more expensive. The Galaxy S series serves as an excellent industry yardstick. The first Galaxy S was a 4-incher. It then grew to 4.3 inches with the S2, 4.8 inches with the S3, and now 5 inches with the S4. I wonder if they would cross over to phablet territory next year. If so, then the S pen would be the only differentiator with the Note series. Speaking of phablets, it’s also a wonder if they would still grow bigger to become full-fledged tablet phones. I doubt this though since we have this curious phenomenon where consumers pay a lot less when they perceive the product to be a tablet rather than a smartphone.
3) Processor Speed
I see desktop processor speed parity as the would-be ceiling for mobile processors. Of course, it’s not an apples to apples comparison since it’s essentially x86 vs. ARM. It’s also true that a phone can never be too fast, but I think that since the dual-core wars of 2011, we’ve crossed the point of diminishing returns. Moving to quad-core in 2012 was already overkill, and the release of octacore this year is just insane. Device performance is supposed to go beyond a mere battle of cores and clock speeds, but companies still find this to be their feature roadmap’s low hanging fruit even when they don’t mean much anymore. Apple provides a breath of fresh air here, adamantly going with lower clock speeds and cores yet still blazing the trail in performance. This year, it opened up a new battlefield venue with 64-bit mobile chips, so at least for the coming year there’s still something for manufacturers to hold onto. Beyond that, it’s cloudy.
4) Camera Quality and Megapixels
This battle is not just for smartphone cameras but for cameras in general. No matter how many times it’s been clarified, the general public still somehow believes that more megapixels lead to better pictures. This year, we’re in the midst of the 13 megapixel battle. There are even standout ones with more megapixels like the 20.3 megapixel Sony Xperia Z1 and the 41 megapixel Nokia Lumia 1020 which unfortunately just propagate the megapixel myth. Consumers have to understand that these are outstanding cameras not because of the megapixel count but because of the sensor size, OIS, and bigger pixels. It’s nice to see Apple bowing out of the race with the iPhone 5s, which ‘only’ has 8 megapixels but takes amazing pictures. In general,the camera is still a fertile battlefield, and with the rise of photo sharing, one that is more important than ever. The room for improvement is still huge, with the ceiling being SLR-caliber point and shoots like the Sony RX100.
5) Battery Life
The most fertile ground in my opinion. It’s the one aspect consumers care a lot about yet very little is being done. In fact, the whole smartphone revolution has been a big step backward for battery life. We’ve seen some promising solutions such as the Razr Maxx and the Note series, but whoever can genuinely solve this issue will be hugely rewarded by consumers in the years to come.
6) Removable battery and expandable storage
Another big step backward for the industry. Most OEMs who have gone the Apple way turned out to shoot themselves in the foot doing this because the anxiety of common consumers over storage and battery life outweigh the benefits of doing without them like beauty and thinness. Actually, I surmise that the real reason is because OEMs want to earn more for their higher storage capacity SKUs, something Apple has hugely profited from. I reckon it’s why consumers are now flocking to Samsung in droves, because it’s one of the few companies to really understand that consumers come to Android mainly for the flexibility, and it’s something that shouldn’t be taken away from them.
7) Other bells and whistles
Last year, it was NFC. This year, it’s IR blasters. And there’s even more for software, from voice assistants to gestures to faux multitasking. Then you also have the specialized bells and whistles… your S pens, fingerprint scanners, and IP67 water resistance. With differentiation and improvements in the other aspects now harder than ever, expect most of the innovations to come in the form of even more bells and whistles, specific features that set a handset apart from otherwise identical slabs of gargantuan-screened, high-megapixel, multi-core, and pixel-dense freaks of nature.
Barring a surprise in the bells and whistles department (like flexible screens or holograms), the innovation roadmap for smartphone hardware seems to be down to battery life and camera quality. These two specs are important, but they might not be eye-catching enough to convince consumers to part with their money. Even this year, upgrades are starting to slow down since the previous year’s flagships are still way above the ‘good enough’ category. That’s why the talk on wearable computing is getting louder and louder. It seems like the smartphone market is now poised to be as boring as the PC market before long. That’s why gadget manufacturers are scrambling for the next hundred-billion dollar market. Everyone wants the answer to the question: after smartphones, what will be the next big thing?