Are smartphones just not that exciting anymore?

I’ve had an iPhone4 for a little over two years. It’s a great phone and, until the home button started working erratically recently, I’ve been very happy with it. But it’s been two years and so now I’m out of contract and could be tempted to get whatever the best smartphone of the moment is. I’m spoilt for choice right now. We have:

  • iPhone5
  • Samsung Galaxy S3
  • Samsung Galaxy Note 2
  • Motorola RAZRi
  • HTC One X+
  • Nokia Lumia 920

The thing is, I’m really not inspired by any of these (and yes, poor me, what a first world problem, etc). All we have is different flavours of the same idea. Varying sizes of black rectangles, great. At least there’s a little more variation in the OS, but even then the only thing that’s really different is Windows Phone 8. Android and iOS are nip and tuck really. I trade a little freedom for slightly more polish with iOS, or I get ultimate flexibility at the price of extra complexity with Android. I have a Windows Phone as a work phone and whilst it’s competent (particularly the Outlook integration), I’d need some serious convincing to even consider using it as my main phone. The on-screen keyboard is particularly annoying for some reason and the limited selection of apps is a concern. And then I have to consider what I would I be getting on a new phone that I can’t currently get with my iPhone4?

Current flagship features

The only things I can see are:

Siri (or Google Voice Search)

(iPhone 5, Android): I can’t see this being anything more than a gimmick. The only real use is in car and I’m a pedestrian. We’ve still not overcome the social stigma of instructing our phones to do our bidding in public (and then correcting them several times when they get it wrong). Perhaps this behaviour will shift, but I’m not certain it’ll be a quick process if it does.


(Android, Windows Phone): as it stand there are maybe some very occasional uses for file transfers perhaps, but there’s no infrastructure for it to be used for anything compelling, yet. If it’s to facilitate the mobile wallet, then it has to be ubiquitous and as easier than card transactions.

Wireless charging

(some Nokias): so it’s mildly cool, but no reason to buy a phone and to be honest I don’t really see the point at the moment. Also, how much energy does inductive charging waste? It surely must be less efficient than a direct connection.

Eye tracking

(Galaxy S3): I really like this as a feature, but again it’s firmly in the nice to have category.

A better camera

(anything new): I’m sure I’d appreciate a better camera, but the iPhone4 takes surprisingly decent pictures. As good as I need really. The panoramic modes and the ability to take stills from video would be nice to have I suppose.

The latest version of my mobile OS

I have this anyway. I probably won’t be able to get iOS7, but who knows if my 4 will survive long enough for that to be an issue. I am concerned that if I got an Android then I might be at the mercy of the manufacturer for getting timely updates. Same goes for Windows Phone after they helpfully obsoleted that after less than a year.

A bigger screen

(Galaxy Note) This could be nice to have, but there’s a limit to how big the screen can get before reach becomes an issue. The Note represents the limit of how big screens can really go and I’m not sure I’d be able to use it properly without resorting to using two hands.

So, what would represent a step change?

It came as a shock to me when I started looking that there was literally no convincing case for me to upgrade. This got me thinking, what next for the modern smartphone? Where can it step up to deliver the next level of compelling user experience?

I’ve covered the types of technology that could drive future interactions and there are some things in there that could make their way into smartphones, but I’m thinking more about how could the smartphone evolve from its current black rectangle into the next generation of device?

There are a number of questions:

Does it need to still have a screen?

This is an issue device manufacturers are going to face pretty soon. We’ve seen screen size increase and used as a differentiator, but there is a limit to how big screens can go, so what next? Lightness of device? And then what?

It then follows that we have to ask, how the display manifests itself. Is it wearable, embedded in clothing, head mounted, fold-able, projected, multi-display or something else?

Does it need to be a touch interface?

It needs to be some sort of direct manipulation interface and that’s going to be a touchscreen for the foreseeable future. But then if the form of display changes, is touch going to be sufficient? Maybe there’s hope for speech yet, as a complementary input type.

Will there be apps?

Yes. Although this is where innovation is checked slightly. If I want a new device, I don’t want to lose the apps I’ve already invested in. However if we’re looking at new displays and new form factors, then how to translate these apps in a useful way is a difficult question. Say we end up with a Heads Up Display like Google’s Project Glass. I’m not going to be able to play Angry Birds on it, at least not in its current form. But perhaps I can play something much more interesting. Risky though, as Sony found with their split screen tablet when nobody developed apps for it.

When can I get it, whatever it is?

And there’s the thing. It’s going to be a while before anyone decides to take the leap and deliver something radically different. There’s just too much risk.

So I’m not going to get my radical new smartphone anytime soon. But perhaps that isn’t a problem. At the moment we view the smartphone as the one thing we interact with, but what if it’s just one of many devices we carry. If we view the smartphone as the powerhouse that does all the heavy lifting, perhaps we can have other devices that draw upon this power and act to enhance the current smartphone interaction. Smartwatches are the most basic expression of this, providing glanceable notifications and some targeted interactions. It doesn’t have to end there though. Perhaps I could have a fold-able display for more detailed interaction. Perhaps I could have a micro-projector in my wedding ring that beams a small display onto a surface. Maybe I have a HUD that overlays information onto the world. Perhaps I have a touchpad built into the sleeve of my jacket. Maybe I can project a large display onto any available surface, but only I can see it due to some clever glasses polarisation.

The more I think about it, the more smart peripherals seem like a way to build upon the smartphone and begin to evolve it into something even more useful.

I’ll let you know if I still feel the same way once I get my Smartwatch.