Hello and happy new year. I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that innovation in smartphones has plateaued, and we’ll only see incremental upgrades this year. The good news is that innovation in smartphones has plateaued and we’ll only see incremental upgrades this year.
Since Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone back in 2007, we’ve seen these pocketable devices come a long way. The smartphone in your pocket is a perfectly capable computer now. But that’s where it’s going to be for a while. Manufacturers will introduce features that make this device easier to use, but you won’t be seeing a major revolution in 2016.
The CEO of Xiaomi recently echoed this when he said that moments that “wow” consumers will be harder to find, and instead, brands will focus on features that help enhance day-to-day usage for customers.
All of this sounds bleak and pessimistic, but it’s actually a good thing, if you ask me. For once, as customers, we won’t have to choose between different devices based on a must-have feature that is exclusive to one. Instead, as smartphone innovation plateaus, our focus turns to the more important thing: buying a phone which makes our lives easier.
Innovation isn’t dead, it’s slowed down
The smartphone in your pocket is already a powerful piece of machinery. Heck, Microsoft thinks that with its new Windows 10 phones, you can actually use your phone as a functional Windows PC!
We already have fast-charging batteries, high-capacity batteries, and power banks. We have high-resolution screens, high-megapixel cameras, high-performance processors, and so on. We can talk to our phones and they talk back. They automatically remind us when we have a flight or a movie booking in our calendar. All of these parts, and others, will get incrementally better and smarter. And current performance will get cheaper.
In 2016, we’ll probably see Android smartphone manufacturers adopt something similar to the pressure-sensitive screen on the Apple iPhone 6s and 6s Plus. We might even see docks that turn your Android phone into a Chrome OS PC, like the Windows 10 phones.
The most game-changing phone element for Indians in 2016 is going to be Reliance’s pan-India 4G network, Jio, slated to launch in April-May. You don’t need hardware innovation for 4G—a lot of phones already have it, and they’re available across different prices.
The larger point is that this year probably won’t see the launch of a phone that makes you think, “Wow, that is completely different and a game-changer. I must have it!” And that’s a good thing. We don’t need “new” as much. We need to utilise the phones we already have.
2016 is about customers, not engineers
Right now, there are plenty of smartphone users who either don’t know about the many things their phones can do, or don’t care. Adding a faster processor and more RAM is meaningless if people aren’t already using what’s available to them. And so companies are making it easier for users to understand their phones and utilise the features in it.
For example, even though Android has a healthy apps ecosystem, a lot of people don’t use it. Parents will ask their kids to look up a service centre, when a quick Google search can do it in a minute. New radio cabs like Uber and Ola are still not used by a large percentage of people, who would find these convenient. When buying a new phone, most people will look for an exchange discount for their old phone from the shopkeeper, rather than getting a better rate on Quikr or OLX.
Micromax made a small step in the right direction with the Around Yu integrated service platform in its Yutopia phone. Similarly, the Yutopia also launched an exchange scheme, so that you can upgrade to next year’s model with at least a 40% buyback discount. Gionee launched an app, Gionee Care, to figure out your closest service centre, check your warranty, and get any technical help.
In the word “smartphone”, the “smart” is now not about what it *can* do with hardware, it’s more about what it *will* do with software. And smart software usually doesn’t give that “wow” experience. But it makes lives better in the simplest way: by helping you do more with what you already have.
What all this means for you
So if smartphone innovation is stagnating or plateauing, what does it mean for the consumer? Well, first of all, your purchase price just dropped significantly. Even inexpensive smartphones come with hardware that is good enough for most users. Yes, a Snapdragon 820 processor is better than a Snapdragon 800 processor, but it’s not such a huge upgrade that you need to change phones. Similarly, the 400-500 mAh gap between a 4000mAh battery and a 3600mAh battery isn’t as substantial as the same gap between a 2000mAh and a 2500mAh phone.
You also get a longer life out of your electronics. They won’t get or feel outdated as fast as they willl have a couple of years ago.
As a user, 2016 can be a great year. You get good hardware at affordable prices, and it is sufficiently future-proof. Which gives you the time to learn how to use it well and really maximise the experience. It’s not exciting, it’s not revolutionary—and that’s a good thing.