Remember when folding phones were going to be the next big thing…and then the party for a new era of phones seemed a bit premature? It’s caused something of a lament for the lack of ambition and innovation in smartphones.
But there’s another way to look at the current era of phone releases, seemingly endless iterations on glass rectangles: it’s actually okay. It’s better than okay, in fact—it’s a good thing. While we’ve more or less settled on a form factor for the vast majority of phones, we’ve also reached a point where even the cheapest phones out there are at least good. Some of them are even great!
And now that constant access to the web and applications has become a nearly indispensable part of modern life, having great, affordable electronics available to everyone isn’t just good, it’s necessary. We’re at a Model T moment in the smartphone world: most people can afford one, benefit from one, and genuinely enjoy one, even if they’re not ready to drop four figures on the latest model.
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Alright, so maybe multiplying cameras and a pop-up selfie cam are the biggest innovations we’re getting this year, and 5G is a mess that won’t be useful for some time. Maybe we’re not getting phones that look like sci-fi props before the end of the decade. All things considered, we don’t have much to complain about.
Glass Rectangles All the Way Down
This time of year is ripe for smartphone leaks—the bread and butter of technology news. And since Samsung is still hesitant to commit to a release date for its Galaxy Fold, and Huawei is pushing back its Mate X (for a variety of reasons), reactions to new glimpses of phones like the Pixel 4 or iPhone 11 are decidedly muted.
“Oh, another barely-notable update to a tired formula,” say the pundits. Okay, so that’s a bit of a strawman, but we can’t deny that it’s hard to get excited about another notch variation or a square-shaped camera module. Samsung briefly considered getting rid of a few buttons on the Galaxy Note 10, and it could have been the most notable change in the company’s phone design since they accidentally sold small glass-covered grenades. The most significant leap forward at the moment, assuming the whole “folding phone” fad doesn’t take off, is a pop-up selfie cam module that finally lets us get back to…unbroken rectangular screens that we had before the iPhone X came around.
You can see how this chorus goes. “Phones are boring now.” And compared to ten years ago, when smartphones were exploding into new markets and segments, they are. You can’t go into a carrier store and see iPhones, Blackberries, Palms, and a dozen different flavors of Androids with slide-out keyboards and built-in gamepads and e-readers glued to the back. It’s glass rectangles all the way down, in roughly two sizes: big and very big.
It’s telling that the biggest point of differentiation, and thus innovation, is cameras. Both optical and image processing technology is leaping forward quickly—perhaps because manufacturers have found that they can’t do much more in terms of screens, batteries, or straight-up silicon power at the moment. It’s not as if screen and power tech is frozen in time, but progress is going to be slow for a few years, with new fabrication and material technology currently in various experimental stages.