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Pinto: Smartphone industry plateauing, in need of innovation

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Pinto: Smartphone industry plateauing, in need of innovation

Yoni Pinto, Columnist

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Fifteen years ago, believe it or not, mobile phones were shrinking. Until then, phones had been clunky, large devices that were hard to carry around. The defining goal of the industry was to build the lightest, smallest, most portable phone. Phones were only meant to call and message other phones. Some higher-end phones could take pictures and play music, but the storage space was limited and the quality was low.

In 2004, the Motorola Razr swept the world as the newest, hottest mobile device with its thin and sleek profile. Thousands of imitators followed. It seemed the thin flip-phone model was the way to build phones.

Between then and 2007, the smartphone industry saw some expansion as well. Blackberry grew quickly and captured a significant amount of the market. To gain a competitive edge in this side of the market, other companies followed Blackberry’s approach by releasing more phones with physical keyboards. These devices had small screens, simply due to the fact that the keyboards covered half the space. At this time, smartphones with large screens were few and far between, mostly reserved for niche purposes.

During the keynote address at Macworld 2007, Steve Jobs announced the first iPhone. With its large touchscreen, the iPhone was revolutionary. It wasn’t the first device to boast a touchscreen, but it was the first of its kind to work so well with finger inputs. Ideas like pinching to zoom and kinetic scrolling, which we see on almost all smartphones today, were first introduced with this iPhone. It was the device that changed an industry.

As other platforms like Android and Windows Phone emerged, encouraging touchscreen devices with Internet connectivity, devices with small screens and keyboards slowly but surely gave way to ones with large multi-touch displays. Apple’s iPhone had been the first in the new generation of smartphones, and as often happens, a market was built around an Apple product. Just like the iPod gave way to personal MP3 players, just like the Mac gave way to computers that used a graphical-user-interface (GUI), the iPhone gave birth to the smartphone industry as we know it today.

But just as it had in the past with these other markets, Apple slowly gave away its head start. Maybe it was due to Steve Jobs’ passing, maybe it wasn’t. Whatever the reason was, Apple lost its innovative touch. Three years after the first iPhone launched, Apple introduced a beautiful new display with the iPhone 4, but nothing else. There were re-brandings and redesigns, but the revolutionary spark was gone.

Google’s Android became more innovative in every sense, introducing new developments Apple couldn’t. Android phone producers like Samsung, HTC and Motorola created new technologies that made devices interesting like Apple had done before. Better interactions with notifications, prettier lock screens, home screens widgets and reliable voice control were all innovative new technologies that Apple couldn’t offer then.

Today, however, it seems that we have reached the limit of innovation in the smartphone market.

Last week, Samsung and HTC announced their flagship devices for the next year: the Samsung Galaxy S6 and the HTC One M9. The HTC One M9 is almost exactly the same as its predecessor. It has nearly the same aluminum body and the same screen. The Galaxy S6 slightly differs from the S5 with a new metal body that’s better than the old plastic version. Besides small physical changes, the only differences the companies tout are speed and performance improvements achieved through better internal components.

This new generation starting with these devices seems to lack the wow factor. It seems as if no smartphone developer can come up with new ideas about what to change with smartphones — all the differences we see are limited to speed improvements. In the speed improvements, we’re approaching the limits of diminishing returns, the point where the improvements we see don’t affect the user experience.

The question seems to be, “Have we reached the end of smartphone development?” I’m sure we haven’t. I’m worried that as time passes, the industry will become monotonous, but I’m sure there are still things to change and ways to reinvent how we look at mobile phones, just like Apple did in 2007.

Yoni Pinto is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at ybpinto@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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