Will your next smartphone offer frills over fundamentals?

Six years after the first iPhone, the pace of big innovations in smartphones is leveling off

With the Moto X smartphone launching tomorrow in New York and the LG G2 arriving in another week, the pace of smartphone releases has reached a fever pitch.

Countless models of smartphones have emerged since the first iPhone appeared six years ago, but it now seems there's a new "hero" or "flagship" smartphone announced almost weekly.

Apple is expected to unveil an updated iPhone in September, along with a low-cost $99 version called the iPhone C, with the "C" likely referencing different colors for its plastic case. A few images of the rumored colors have started to appear on the Web, showing the C in yellow, white and lime.

With the fast pace of smartphone releases, the real question becomes: Is this new phone really that much better than the last one? And given all the features and functions that a manufacturer can possibly cram into a new smartphone, how could the next one be that much better?

There will always be technophiles who love the latest hardware. But the pace of smartphone innovations over the past year or so has been undoubtedly slower than it was five years ago, analysts said.

New devices are being marketed more on frills, not fundamentals. Colors for smartphone cases and software that watches your eye movements have become a bigger part of the marketing hook, ahead of screen size or battery life or price. Many recent innovations pale in importance when compared to, say, a much older technology to make a 911 emergency call, and to have a rescuer find your location through GPS.

"What we tend to see in any industry that matures [including smartphones] is a regression towards the mean, where the technology laggards catch up to the leaders, " said David VanAmberg, director of the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI). "We now have smartphones that can do amazing things for us compared to five years ago, which makes it more challenging for Apple and Samsung and others in that group to capture the 'wow' factor again and again. We already have such high standards that we are going to see more incremental changes over time without the huge splash when compared to the first iPhone."

(The ACSI released data today showing that of the top-selling smartphones in the U.S. in the past year, customers rated two Samsung smartphones higher than the last three Apple iPhone models.)

In the coming months, "it will become harder and harder to push that innovation envelope because our smartphones are already like small PCs in our pockets with a phone attached," VanAmberg added. "We'll see innovating around the fringes, with bells and whistles."

VanAmberg said the color of a case is in the group of "features around the fringes" -- especially since buyers can already get add-on cases to add color.

"But a new case with a color, that's not the radical 'wow, here's something totally new' that's going to blow away the iPhone 4S," he added. "It's tweaking around the edges and is easy to do, but it's also very challenging, given customer expectations of how to reinvent a product and to capture everyone's imagination."

VanAmberg suspects that an iPhone C costing $99 and differentiated by lime and yellow cases is intended to appeal to young buyers who will be important to Apple for years to come.

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