Here’s Why We Shouldn’t Be Surprised by the Lack of Stand-Out Phones at CES

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As you’ve no doubt noticed, with this year’s Consumer Electronics Show now a memory, the team here at Pocketnow has grown a little retrospective. We’re still processing all the announcements, new gear, and surprises the CES had to deliver, and thinking about just what all this news means for the mobile industry, especially concerning how the industry is likely to evolve over the next twelve months. There’s a degree of disappointment to a number of our CES impressions, and while some of that might be due to setting hopes too high, we’ve also got to consider that maybe CES just isn’t going to be the trade show to end all trade shows from here on out, and we shouldn’t really be surprised to see so many manufacturers hold back their most impressive products for other venues.

So, what’s changed? I think we can identify a few shifts in the industry itself, as well as a number of specific considerations for the wind-up to this year’s show in particular that could have been indicators of a less-than-mind-blowing CES turn-out.

Maybe I’m just being cynical, but announcements of new smartphones today don’t seem to pack the “wow” factor they did just a few years ago. A lot of that, I think, is due to how ubiquitous they’ve become. When smartphones were still novelties, it was easy to make one stand out at a big show like CES. Even after the iPhone arrived, we still had a few years of innovative hardware and software, as manufacturers really felt things out and learned both what they were capable of making, and how we would react to these products.

Nowadays, though, everyone seems to understand how to “do” a smartphone. We don’t have any more 3D displays, or crazy designs like the Kyocera Echo’s; instead, each new iteration brings faster processors and prettier screens while staying within the same basic structure of its predecessors.

Now, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and while I love seeing a little “something new” now and then, once you get a formula for a phone that consumers respond to, by all means: stick with it. The problem is how to make procedural updates feel compelling, and at an event like CES, where so many industries are trying to get the press coverage they’re looking for, spec bumps just aren’t going to cut it.

This year in particular, the timing really sucked for manufacturers who are just starting to get on the 1080p bandwagon. If the first time we ever heard confirmation of these incredibly high-resolution, pixel-dense screens was at the CES, even if that news was coming from a number of disparate companies, it would have been pretty darn interesting. Instead, with the way HTC “spoiled” 1080p last fall, these announcements lost a whole lot of their pizazz.

I think that trend’s going to continue, with manufacturers rushing to be first with each latest spec bump, irrespective of what trade shows are on the horizon. For the rest of the pack, we could start seeing them focus more on events like the upcoming Mobile World Congress. The big difference there is the landscape is solely focused on mobile electronics, and smartphones don’t need to compete with the likes of 4K UHD TVs and smart refrigerators. At MWC it’s a lot easier for less groundbreaking hardware to get the attention it deserves, even if that means having a whole lot more of it all at once to sort through.

Of course, the best way to be seen may be to ditch the trade shows entirely, and throw your own shindigs. Apple’s been hip to this for years, and Android manufacturers like Samsung are beginning to wise up to such tactics. It can be a bit of a catch-22, though, as you’ve got to have something really work sharing in order to put together this kind of event without it coming off as shameless self-aggrandizing. That’s got a lot to do with building up a brand, like how at this point we’re going to be hugely invested in the announcement of the Galaxy S IV, even if it ends up being some out-of-left-field Tizen device that might not otherwise capture our attention so strongly.

We’re still going to hear about hot new phones at CES in years to come, like Sony’s Xperia Z and ZL this year. But more and more, I think the really interesting news will be found elsewhere, with phone-centric events and private functions taking up the slack.

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About The Author
Stephen Schenck
Stephen has been writing about electronics since 2008, which only serves to frustrate him that he waited so long to combine his love of gadgets and his degree in writing. In his spare time, he collects console and arcade game hardware, is a motorcycle enthusiast, and enjoys trapping blue crabs. Stephen's first mobile device was a 624 MHz Dell Axim X30, which he's convinced is still a viable platform. Stephen longs for a market where phones are sold independently of service, and bandwidth is cheap and plentiful; he's not holding his breath. In the meantime, he devours smartphone news and tries to sort out the juicy bitsRead more about Stephen Schenck!