Phone designers are running out of options. This year’s phones show less innovation than in years past.
Samsung’s Galaxy S8 goes on sale this week. The early 2017 phone picture is now complete. We now know what the mainstream phone market will look like until Apple reveals its iPhone plans.
Here are ten things we’ve learnt about the state of the phone market:
1. Samsung fans are forgiving, maybe too forgiving
You couldn’t step on a plane at the end of last year with cabin crew reminding you of problems with the Samsung Note 7. Every safety announcement told passengers it was dangerous.
The Note 7’s exploding battery was news for weeks. The tech business has rarely seen such damaging publicity. It seems Samsung raced the product out before completing testing.
2. S8 ain’t done until Bixby runs
Bixby is Samsung’s voice-controlled virtual assistant. If it works it will rival Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa.
Samsung says Bixby is different because it strings tasks together. It then manages complex tasks the others can’t. Among other things, Bixby can wrap-up and send your most recently taken photo to, say, your partner. It promises to hunt down, then stream a specific video to a Samsung TV set.
Soon after announcing the S8 Samsung said Bixby features will not all be available on day one.
Unfinished software is not on a par with unfinished and unsafe battery designs. Yet it seems Samsung hasn’t learned all the important lessons from the Note 7.
If the signature feature of a new phone isn’t ready by launch, you might wonder if Samsung still cuts corners. Will anything else emerge, Note 7-like, after the launch?
3. The case of the disappearing bezel
Bezel is the name given to the rim around a phone’s screen. All phone makers have reduced the size of their bezels in recent models. Huawei and Oppo’s 2017 phones have tiny bezels.
Samsung has taken this almost to the logical extreme. There is almost no bezel on the Galaxy S8. The front is almost all glass.
In practice this means two things. First, you get more screen in a smaller package. The display on the Galaxy S8 is larger than the display on the Apple iPhone 7 Plus. Yet the S8 is roughly the same size as the non-Plus iPhone 7.
4. Much ado about fingerprint scanner placement
Put Note 7 fires and Bixby to one side for a moment. What is the main aspect of the Galaxy S8 that every phone reviewer wants to discuss? Is it the camera technology, the processor speed or large 5.8-inch screen?
It’s none of these. Almost every review mention Samsung’s decision to move the fingerprint scanner. A smaller bezel on the phone’s front means there’s no room for a fingerprint scanner. Samsung moved it to the rear of the phone.
Using the S8 fingerprint scanner is now a little more uncomfortable and a touch more awkward.
Both points are true. It says a lot about phone innovation that reviewers focus on fingerprint scanner placement.
5. Cameras, cameras, cameras
Every phone maker at every launch says their latest model has the best camera on the market. I’ve been to five launches in the six months or so and have heard five different phone makers make that claim. They can’t all be right.
For what it’s worth, all premium phones have great cameras. They can all take excellent pictures in the right circumstances. Exactly what makes up the right circumstances varies a little from brand to brand.
To a degree the camera innovation battle has moved on from hardware to software. At least four of the five big phone brands now offer some form of software-generated bokeh effect. 1
6. Enough with the fashion parades
So far this year Samsung, Huawei and Oppo have all had big splashy phone launches with a fashion theme. Each launch included beautiful people from the fashion world.
Oppo took this furthest with a Sydney Harbour boat cruise. It featured lurid coloured cocktails, a DJ and fashion models cat posing with phones.
A fashion-industry big wig made a speech. She told boat passengers to throw their iPhones overboard and replace it with an Oppo.
It’s worth pointing out that fashion-themed phone launches are not new. LG held a similar event in Auckland 10 years ago.
The message, in case you didn’t get it, is that premium smart phones are fashion items.
7. Hardware innovation slows in 2017 phones
Related to the fashion metaphor is the fetish with phone colours. There are different shades of black, metallic blues, greens and reds and so on. Again, we’ve been here before with premium phones.
In a sense modern phones have reached the point American cars got to in the 1960s. Then Detroit covered cars in chrome and added tail fins. They did this to create the impression of innovation where, in fact, there was little new.
Innovation isn’t quite dead in the phone business, but it has slowed to a crawl. The fact that people fuss over the fingerprint scanner tells you that.
Almost every hardware improvement in the last year has been incremental, cosmetic or unimportant. Screen resolution passed the point where the human eye could notice a different a few years ago. It’s been even longer since a phone processor wasn’t fast enough for all everyday tasks.
8. The price isn’t right
Premium phone price have climbed faster than inflation. This isn’t because of currency effects, phone prices are going up everywhere.
In part this is because phone makers did not make much profit in the past. Although Apple has always enjoyed a good margin. Even Samsung struggled at times to earn a decent amount from selling hardware.
In 2013 the Samsung Galaxy S4 cost NZ$1150 and the 16GB iPhone 5S was $1050. Today the cheapest iPhone 7 is $1430 and the bottom of the range Galaxy S8 is $1300. You can go all the way to $1830 with Apple or $1500 with Samsung.
You can argue that you get more phone, or at least more memory and more screen. But that’s not the point, it now costs Apple fans over 30 percent more to buy the least expensive iPhone. Samsung customers pay around 20 percent more.
Huawei has pushed its prices up even faster. Four years ago it made bargain basement phones, today the P10 is NZ$1000 and the Mate 9 is $1100.
Bucking the trend Oppo’s $700 R9s has most of the features found in a Samsung phone for almost half the price. There’s a huge opportunity for a brand selling good phone hardware at that price.
9. Everyone has a phone
Almost every person in the rich world who wants a modern mobile phone now has one. This means phone sales have slowed to a crawl compared with the past decade.
It also means phone makers rely on shortening the upgrade cycle to turn over more product. That keeps the money rolling in. There is one big problem with that…
10. There are few compelling reasons to upgrade
Today’s premium phones are good. When it comes to practical functionality they are not much better than the handsets on offer two years ago. Most of the changes in that time have made little difference to an owner’s everyday life.
There are always going to be performance obsessed geeks who argue for some esoteric reason they need an even faster processor. But in reality, it’s been a long time since phones were slow in everyday use. Likewise, any new hardware feature, is often only of interest to a minority.
Few people will hold onto phones for, say, 10 years, as they do with PCs. Apart from anything else, they take a physical beating day-in, day-out and get dropped or otherwise worn out after a few years. Most users who are not on plans have already moved away from annual or bi-annual phone upgrades. In the future more of us are likely to hang-on to devices for even longer.
- I can’t remember if Sony or Oppo mentioned anything about blurred image backgrounds. Apple, Samsung and Huawei all did. ↩︎