Will I get belittled ten years down the line (or more likely, five minutes from now) for arguing that smartphones have nearly reached their pinnacle, feature-wise? Probably. But like Bill Gates and his famous (though most likely misattributed) 1981 quote about 640KB of program memory being all the world will ever need, I’m willing to set myself up for a possible ruthless mocking, simply for the sake of stoking a spirited discussion.
So here goes: while not all high-end features have reached each and every smartphone, on a feature-by-feature basis, we’re currently at the point where upgrades are mostly incremental in nature. Let me give a few examples to illustrate my point: Back when the Treo 600 was really the only smartphone worth considering, its 160 x 160 pixel color display had a huge way to go in terms of quality, and everybody knew it. Its replacement, the 650, quadrupled the number of pixels to 320 x 320, though it was clear to the naked eye that this screen still looked nothing like the printed page.
Flash forward to 2010 and the introduction of the iPhone 4, whose Retina Display — which may or may not actually exceed the eye’s physical ability to discern pixels, but that’s irrelevant — is clearly on par with the quality found in a book or magazine. Even the WVGA (800 x 480) resolution found on most high-end handsets is more than capable of very fine image and text reproduction, with pixel densities that exceed the desktop monitors most people use as a benchmark.
Let’s look at processors next. Although the earliest of smartphones were unquestionably underpowered that Treo 600 ran at 144MHz — even models from several years ago began implementing chips of 400, 500, and even 600MHz. Today’s Snapdragons, Hummingbirds, and A4s all meet or exceed the 1GHz mark, which becomes obvious from the snappiness of the software. In fact, apps launch and switch with such little lag, and web pages render so quickly, it seems like bandwidth is the primary factor limiting mobile devices these days, and not CPU speed.
Or how about cameras? We’ve seen a slow but steady improvement in smartphone optics from the earliest VGA and 1.3 megapixel cams to the monster five and eight megapixel, HD video-capable beasts at the modern top-of-the-line. Heck, Altek is about to ship a 14 megapixel Android handset with 3x optical zoom and a point-and-shoot-sized sensor. Granted, none of these phones is going to replace even a low-end DSLR (and would you even want that, really?), but they do produce shots comparable to many pocketable digicams — pushing the Canons and Casios of the world to differentiate their own products through innovation in the process.
Finally, take storage capacity and RAM (we’ll ignore wireless connectivity for now, because as mentioned before, that’s a separate issue of network capabilities). Early Palm owners remember what it was like trying to shoehorn all their apps into 2MB AND 8MB of memory, and even some modern handsets provide far too little storage space. But the general trend today is multiple gigabytes of internal storage (32GB is the flavor du jour), and barring that, there’s usually the expandability offered by a microSD slot. And frankly, will local storage even be such a big deal as everything moves towards the cloud or remote streaming? Likewise, with the next wave of handsets promising over a gig of RAM, we may quickly be hitting the point of overkill — just because you CAN run 50 apps at once, when do you really NEED to do it?
So if we’ve reached the apex in so many of these feature categories, where do we go from here? Shouldn’t manufacturers just close up shop and call it a day? Well, not quite. Because, you see, there are always NEW features to add, although I’ll suggest that those have started providing incremental value at best. HDMI port? Handy, but far from vital. Gyroscope to supplement the accelerometer? Fun for sure, but we could easily live without it. Built-in pico projector a la the Samsung Beam? Ah, now we’re talking.
In my opinion, it will be the projectors and foldable/rollable displays that really drive progress in the smartphone sector for the next few years. These are technologies that attempt to solve a conundrum that has been hounding engineers since the first laptops and PDAs: how do we pack a big screen into a small device? Well you can fold it or roll it up, and that is precisely how we’ll finally achieve gadget utopia.