Memo to phone makers: 'Innovative' doesn't automatically equal 'useful'

The most memorable phones from this year's Mobile World Congress pack plenty of "wow" -- but there's a difference between something being clever and something being practical.

MWC 2016 Innovation

Okay, team: We've made it. The first smartphone carnival of 2016 has come and gone, leaving only a trail of surplus superlatives and presale promises in its path.

With the Mobile World Congress behind us and the first flagship phones of the year in front, it's time to talk about the state of smartphone hardware and the notion of innovation.

Let's face it: Smartphone hardware itself just isn't all that exciting anymore. I'm not saying anything especially controversial here -- or anything I (and others) haven't said before. The plain truth is simply that smartphones themselves are becoming a bit of a commodity, and the differences from one generation to the next just aren't nearly as electrifying as they were once upon a time, not long ago.

Now, the software and the ways we use these phones in our lives -- those areas are still constantly evolving. That broader picture is something that's intriguing to observe and engaging to discuss. But the hardware itself? It's all starting to feel kinda "meh" -- a little too "been there, done that." As the wise prophet MC Hammer once said, the thrill is gone.

(He said it -- I swear. Listen for yourself if you must (with apologies in advance to B.B. and Aretha).)

But here's the thing: They may not have anything that earth-shattering to add into the equation each year, but smartphone manufacturers have to keep selling smartphones if they want to stay afloat. They need to convince you that their latest ware is worth your hard-earned pesos -- even if your current phone is actually still fine, and even if you could buy other basically-just-as-good phones for a fraction of the price.

Conundrum of conundrums -- right? The screens already pack more pixels than your peepers could possibly appreciate, the processing power is already far above and beyond anything you'll ever need, and there are only so many ways you can try to one-up the game of good design. That means someone's gotta come up with something that makes these devices seem fresh, cool, and worth buying each and every round. And that's where the notion of innovation comes into play.

Make no mistake about it: Innovation can be amazing. When it comes to a consumer product, though, you have to ask yourself: Is what this device offers actually going to benefit me in any meaningful way? Or is this innovation for the sake of innovation -- flash for the primary purpose of making me look?

Two of the highest-profile phones from MWC, impressive as they may be in some regards, seem to fall into the latter camp. I'm talking about -- yup, you guessed it -- Samsung's Galaxy S7 Edge and LG's G5.

S7 Edge and LG G5: Two curves and a hump

Let's start with the Edge -- because the whole concept behind that phone is a perfect example of innovation for the sake of innovation. Samsung, like other smartphone manufacturers over the years, came up with a way to produce a spiffy-looking curved glass display. And so with the answer already in its hand, it sought to create the question -- to find some way to justify the existence of that unusual display in a mobile device.

Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge

"Uh, guys -- we've got this curved screen..."

As I noted while reviewing last year's Galaxy S6 Edge and its S6 Edge+ sibling, the very nature of this curved screen is a clash of form and function. Practically speaking, the curve doesn't add any value -- and at the same time, it actually makes the phone less ergonomic and more awkward to use. Perhaps most telling, the Edge-specific software features (even with the expanded lineup of them on this year's device) have little to do with the form itself; you could accomplish similar things using third-party software on any ol' phone, with or without a curve in place.

Then there's the G5. LG's latest is getting plenty of attention for -- yes, indeedly -- its innovation. And rightfully so: The phone features a clever break-apart design in which you can pull off the bottom part of the device and pop in a module that gives you either a bulky-looking "camera grip" (complete with a physical shutter button) or an amplifier that enables high-resolution audio playback (assuming you have expensive enough headphones to actually notice the difference in sound).

LG G5 Camera Module

Fido clearly appreciates the G5's hump

Like the Edge's curve, that's all pretty cool on paper. In practice, though, do you really think many people are gonna spend extra money to get those sorts of attachments -- attachments that are so narrowly focused in function and that more than likely won't integrate with future phones beyond this one? The value proposition is pretty low, especially with the accompanying drawbacks of bulk and inconvenience. Unless these things end up selling for such a low cost that they become "what the hell, why not"-style purchases (which I wouldn't count on), they sure seem like a tough sell.

Look: Innovation is fantastic. The very willingness to experiment with new ideas and approaches deserves applause. But at the end of the day, this isn't a science fair we're talking about; it's a consumer electronic device. And innovation doesn't automatically equal usefulness in the real world. A consumer product needs innovation that solves a genuine problem or creates meaningful value -- not innovation cooked up for the purpose of attention (with a scramble to come up with a raison d'être after the fact).

Gimmicks are great for grabbing short-term attention, but vision is what allows a company and its products to stand the test of time. At first glance, at least, it's hard not to think these two devices are more about the former.

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