When will phones be revolutionary again?
The title of this editorial is, in itself, contradicting. The cellphone alone is a revolution, and we’ve seen that through the course of humanity in the last three decades. Even though it took the world more than a decade to actually make the cellphone both portable and affordable, it was clear that the invention would change the way we handle communications.
Revolutionary according to the dictionary refers to something that has a major, sudden impact on society or on some aspect of human endeavor. The cellphone, along with the television, the automobile, the airplane, and even its older sibling, the telephone, have all revolutionized human behavior and interaction. That said, the cellphone has been one of the only products that has evolved to revolutionize itself over and over again.
For example, the birth the cellphone revolutionized mobile communications. If you remember, back then all you had was 1-bit displays because all you really needed was to see the phone number you were typing. Later, text messaging between cellphones became the next killer feature that spun a new form of communication. This feature alone demanded new user interfaces and form-factors. You’ll remember that displays later became digital, with dot-matrix user interfaces that allowed text to be readable, even though we still typed on our phones with a T1 keypad.
Once GPRS Internet communications came to town, the phones evolved into smartphones, and this demanded dramatic changes. We began to see how the PDA that we carried separately became our phone, and how large displays and QWERTY keyboards became necessary for interaction. I still remember the day that I sent my first email through my first HTC smartphone, or when I could chat through the MSN Messenger on my Pocket PC smartphone. Glorious days indeed.
I guess my biggest concern with the mobile market is that the current revolution is turning 5. Android and iOS, which were the underdog platforms of 2008, are now the incumbent leaders in a revolution that’s honestly lasting too long. I don’t think any of the stages that I mentioned before lasted more than a couple of years, and now this new paradigm has lasted half a decade. Today the world is about phones that can be more than just phones, or PDAs, or two-way pagers. Applications have existed ever since Palm OS and Windows Mobile, but it’s Android and iOS that have really figured out how to make them a mainstream. As a result, the last five years have been about the evolution of the smartphone, since Apps now allow you to do things you could never do with a phone before.
The limits of this revolution are so vast, that this should all be good. Sadly, that also makes me wonder if this phase of constant evolution and rare revolution will ever change. This, in a way worries me, and here’s why:
Comfort stagnates revolution
Surely the wheel was only invented once, it revolutionized a lot of things, and then evolved to be what it is. The same with the automobile once somebody figured out that four wheels and an engine were the best way to get it to work. Still, if fixed-wing flying was the only way to fly that was ever perfected, helicopters wouldn’t exist, right?
In the same way, I worry that OEMs have all settled with the iPhone revolution of 2007. The QWERTY keyboard is dead, and phones have come to a point where companies are all suing each other because all smartphones today look identical to each other. As a result, we no longer see the experimentation that we saw before the iPhone. Surely there were some odd times where we saw devices like the Pantech Duo, or the Kyocera Echo, but those were great times because OEMs were still pushing the boundaries of what a smartphone could be.
Today, everything is a slab of glass and plastic, or some aluminum here and there, and now it’s all about the software.
Software evolutions aren’t revolutionary enough
Lately everything is about the user interface or the ecosystem. I still find it funny that some of us argue over which UI or ecosystem is better than the other, when all of them are really almost the same thing, and just presented to you differently. Whether Android has widgets, or Windows Phone has live tiles, or iOS has a launcher, once you organize your home screen in the first hour of owning your phone, what’s next? Once you upload today’s photo to Instagram, or comment on your friend’s status on Facebook, or took a photo of your lunch, you’ll notice that even though you might’ve done it on a different platform, the process is no better on neither of these, they’re just different.
I honestly feel that software updates or new apps are not revolutionary, or at least not revolutionary enough. Surely I can agree that a Facebook app revolutionized my social interaction with friends, but that mainly revolutionized Facebook and not necessarily the smartphone.
I still remember when LTE was launched in the United States. What I felt about it then, I still feel about it today. Unless you’re using your smartphone as a hotspot, I find it pointless to use LTE speeds on a mobile browser. The browser isn’t as powerful as the Internet speeds to take advantage of them anyways. That, along with lots of other things, needs to change.
The bottom line – We need a change
I keep asking myself, what’s next? Whether it’s innovation in design materials, form factor, user interface, or even features, we do need a change. Surely I do agree that there are some current standards that need to be perfected, like the terrible battery life that we have to deal with today, but that shouldn’t hinder the pace of revolution in other areas, as these basics are perfected.
I do agree with Joe Levi though, every time he says that it’s a great time to be alive. We’re all part of the Generation X, and have all been lucky enough to grow up without a lot of the gadgets that we currently use. Maybe I’ve been used to so much revolution in the last two decades, that I might be spoiled by it. Maybe I should let companies slow-down their revolutionary ideas in order to really perfect what they’re currently doing, right? Well, I’d agree with that if so many companies that I loved a decade ago weren’t either inexistent or bankrupt today. As odd as it may sound, more companies survived in the periods of revolution, than they have today. That’s sad.
What about you? Do you feel that smartphones have stopped revolutionizing our usage patterns, or would you agree that we should let OEMs continue to evolve what’s currently the standard? Leave us a comment.