USA TODAY US Edition
SMARTPHONE INNOVATION HITS A WALL
Recent technological breakthroughs are few and far between
You’re pretty satisfied with the smartphone in your pocket, especially if you got it in the past year or so. The screen is lovely. The device is relatively zippy. The camera takes perfectly acceptable pictures and video.
Yeah, you groan here and there about a missing feature, declining storage, or — the complaint I still get most — a battery that dies too soon. But none of these things is driving you to upgrade. Where’s a killer feature when you need one?
Reaching folks like you is a tall order for the companies exhibiting here last week at Mobile World Congress, from a market leader like Samsung, which un- veiled its latest flagship Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 edge devices, to any number of handset makers who don’t have near the resources or clout of the South Korean tech giant.
It’s apparently becoming more of a challenge for Apple, too.
To be sure, smartphones almost always get better through each model step-up, and with beefier specs. Still, it’s worth asking: Is better, better enough?
“The challenge is how do you make money in an environment where everyone can source components that are good enough?” asks Avi Greengart, an analyst with Current Analysis.
Indeed, smartphone innovation appears to have run smack into a great big wall, with most tech breakthroughs hitting other corners of tech, such as autonomous cars and virtual reality.
According to Gartner, global sales of smartphones grew by just 9.7% (to 403 million units) in the fourth quarter of 2015 over the same period last year, the slowest rate of growth since 2008.
“I was just in the car with our head of engineering reading out specs of one of the launched phones here and it was like, ‘Is there anything that’s different?’ And the answer is it’s really hard to tell,” says Rick Osterloh, president and chief operating officer of Motorola, now owned by the Chinese tech company Lenovo.
Motorola didn’t launch any major new devices at MWC, though Osterloh says, “We think we’re working on some stuff ... that will hopefully change things in the coming future.” He wouldn’t elaborate.
Another Chinese company, Huawei, now the third-largest smartphone manufacturer in the world, also didn’t announce major new smartphone hardware, pushing instead a Windows 10based tablet hybrid called MateBook.
Colin Giles, an executive vice president at the company, says Huawei has been concentrating on smartphone fundamentals: in camera, display, battery, fast charging and performance management.
“Now as Huawei becomes the clear No. 3 (in global share), the responsibility turns to us as one of the market leaders to do more in terms of our innovation.” Giles says Huawei devotes 16% of revenues to R&D.
One company that actually re- vealed something different at the show is LG. Its new G5 is built around a “modular” design, in which you can remove a bottom piece of the phone, slide out the battery and slide in accessories, for starters a camera module (with extra battery), and a module featuring high-res audio. LG’s approach is interesting and bears watching, but the idea of bolting on accessories, however it is done, isn’t entirely novel.
The approach that HP is taking with the HP Elite x3 Windows 10 phone that launched here isn’t entirely a new concept either. But the pitch behind this robust Windows 10 phablet, which is due out this summer and for now is squarely aimed at enterprise customers, is that through the Windows 10 technology known as Continuum and optional accessories, a single device can serve as your phone, your notebook and your desktop computer. There’s no guarantee, though, that Windows 10 phones will gain any meaningful traction. Phone designs inevitably change over time, sometimes more dramatically than other times. Manufacturing tweaks lead to curved glass and edges. Do phones with flexible displays have a future? Or phones that exploit multiple displays? Samsung devoted a little more space on the S7 edge to the secondary “edge” display that can take over part of the main 5.5-inch screen.
Speculation is that after enlarging the size of its screens with recent iPhones, Apple may go small again with models that could launch next month.
Materials can change, too. Manufacturers use high-quality metals. Or in the case of the new top end flagship XI 5 from China’s Xiaomi, a ceramic body.
“You haven’t seen massive change in hardware. It’s a piece of glass,” says Glenn Lurie, President & CEO of AT&T Mobility. “Now we’re starting to talk about ... what’s going to happen behind that piece of glass to make it more valuable?”