The stalling of mobile innovation

‘Not much has changed’ is Apples latest marketing slogan, currently being spun on TV in the UK at present to advertise the iPhone 6S. The sentiment being that not much has changed, but really lots has, or something. The advert lists the phones ability to respond to the pressure of a finger, use the screen as a flash and, at a push, the fact it comes in gold as the only discernible hardware changes made. Lets give Apple some credit here, the advert is only one minute long and they can’t be expected to list all hardware advancements just to please every scrutinising tech blogger out there. This phone is also an ‘S’ iteration and bigger advancements can hopefully be expected with the iPhone 7. However this slogan is unintentionally all too reflective of the state of mobile phone innovation at large.

Before touchscreen smart phones things were a little more… primitive. You couldn’t take blisteringly high definition selfies, easily cheat on a pub quizzes or throw your half baked ideas onto the internets for all to see. However what you did have were arguably more solid phones, longer battery life and, some may argue, simpler user interfaces. The below picture is that of the Nokia 3310. It is 15 years old, has a resolution of 84×48, runs on 2G and offers snake as its flagship mode of entertainment. However due to its near-indestructible build quality and standby battery time of over a week this device today still enjoys healthy sales numbers on eBay. Other models such as the equally ancient Nokia 8210 or the Nokia 8800 regularly sell for north of £50 ($75 or €70).

Nokia 3310 Mobile Handset
Photo by Akedalmans

Without wanting to sound like a hipster lamenting outdated technology for the sake of it, how often do you notice people using smart phones with cracked screens on public transport? Or how often do you find yourself cycling through apps to close to conserve battery power, or find that your phone is barely making it past the 24 hour mark without a charge before dying? Battery life remains disappointing and buying a touchscreen smart phone without a case is still borderline suicidal. Looking to newly available technologies one example of complicity in stagnation is that despite the fact that wireless charging has been available for 2-3 years now, most manufacturers seem to be their dragging heels on implementing it. Even if a device is launched that incorporates this technology, it is largely left to third parties to actually produce the docks.

So what new and exciting areas are the major phone manufacturers actually concentrating on it the minute? Well in a bid to make all their gadgets razor-thin Apple are rumored to be considering the removal of headphone jacks from the iPhone 7. We have already seen the reintroduction of the Macbook line minus USB ports and the recently released magic mouse 2 bizarrely places its charging port under the mouse, so that when you’re out of juice then you’re out of a mouse. The introduction of such inconveniences to the average user, from a company that are supposed to be technological pioneers in harmonising new advancements with user experience, marks a worrying shift from the Jobs era take on the Bauhaus harmonisation of form and function. Looking elsewhere LG and Samsung have recently brought flexible phones onto the market and more remain in development. While it’s too early to tell if this will result in stronger phones over the longer term, at this stage to be focusing on flexible phones before focusing on stronger screens feels a little premature.

fairphone presentation
Photo by Massimo Mercuriali

There are however glimmers of hope coming from companies such as OnePlus who at least look to merge premium components with a respectable price tag, or the companies looking to follow Google’s Project Ara initiative such as Phoneblok or Fairphone. At first glance the upcoming Fairphone 2 looks to hold very similar components to those of the major manufacturers, but it distinguishes itself by providing a very high level of repair-ability. Due to the modular construction of the Fairphone 2 a cracked screen need not result in having to choose between a new phone or an expensive repair bill. The screen itself costs only €71.50* ($78 / £51) to pick up from Fairphones store and with an iFixit score of 10/10 replacing the screen can be carried out by just about anybody. Whether or not the small number of companies experimenting with the Project Ara initiative will be successful remains to be seen. However hopefully even modest sales of such companies may force the bigger players to reconsider pricing, or at least start to push the boundaries of innovation again to justify the comparatively premium pricing of their own products.