Why smartphone manufacturers need to stop innovating

Why smartphone manufacturers need to stop innovating

Your phone may be waterproof, capable of communicating with space aliens and made of cheese - but it still runs out of puff after a few hours and seems incapable of making phone calls properly. Can we sort the basics out before we put the kitchen sink into our smartphones, please?

AndroidPIT Galaxy S5 LTE A 2
Next year's model will be able to communicate with dogs. / © Takor/Samsung

The disapointing sales and management facing the chopping block, and competition is more fierce than ever before. To make its flagship stand out from the crowd Samsung is adding stacks of new features. It’ll be able to communicate with the dead. It’ll work underwater, and in space. It will convert into a nuclear fall-out shelter, a canoe and a little black dress for last-minute social engagements. And it will run out of battery power fifteen minutes after you leave the house.

I get it, I do. We humans love novelty. “New thing is slightly better version of old thing” isn’t news. “New thing is totally stupid but totally different from anything on Earth” is. That’s particularly true in the world of technology, where jaded tech bloggers are so bored that the faintest sign of something a bit different gets them more excited than small children on Christmas Eve. How else can you explain the rapturous reception over obvious dead-ends such as Google Glass?

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Google Glass: clever, yes, but also rubbish. / © NextPit

Let’s compare two recent devices, the Sony Xperia Z3 and the Samsung Galaxy Gear. The former does everything brilliantly and lasts for two days between charges. The latter can probably control helicopters and translate your dog’s woofs into editable text, but it looks like crap and runs out of battery after about six seconds. Which one hogged the headlines?

New is not the same as good. Just imagine you’re at a U2 concert and you’ve got the cheapest seats at eleventy billion dollars a pop. The band comes on and Bono says “hey! No more old stuff! We’re going to play the new album instead!” U2 fans would be hurling themselves off balconies and trying to bludgeon themselves to death with whatever they could grab from the merchandise stall. 

That wouldn’t really happen, of course, because the band wouldn’t dare: they know that if they don’t do Sunday Bloody Sunday and Beautiful Day, the crowd would turn on them and set them on Unforgettable Fire.

xperia z3 homescreen
The most important bit of this phone is probably the battery. / © ANDROIDPIT

Smartphone firms should follow their lead. By all means add all kinds of magical features, but don’t do it until you’ve got the basics sorted out. It’s 2014 and my smartphone doesn’t last a full day and is incapable of maintaining a connection long enough for a three-minute phone call. 

The problem is that genuinely useful improvements don’t really jump out of spec sheets. If the Samsung Galaxy S6 was no different from the S5 but had a battery that was good for three days, that single change would make an enormously useful difference to the overwhelming majority of users. But Samsung won’t do that, because it knows that if it adds a fish detector, a sensor that can predict when you’re going to sneeze and a projector that can display holographic images of The Scorpions it’ll get much more publicity and many more sales.

The thing is, all these gimmicks actually make phones less able to do the basics. That ultra-HD screen sucks battery life, rendering improvements in battery tech redundant. All that extra hardware increases the likelihood of conflicts, bugs and unexpected consequences. All those proprietary features and apps means it takes much longer for Android updates to arrive on that particular handset. 

For a a great example of firms getting it wrong, just look at Amazon’s Fire Phone. On paper it sounds like a guaranteed win: a decently specified smartphone with Amazon’s marketing muscle, a decent fork of Android and a whizzy 3D interface. In reality it was about as useful as a chocolate toaster and even Amazon’s now admitting that it’s a disaster. Amazon was so hung up on its fancy features - that fake-3D screen and the ability to point at anything and buy it on Amazon - that it forgot to make a device that people would actually want to use. It’s been so unsuccessful that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is currently going door to door trying to give people free Fire phones. At least, that’s what we imagine he’s doing.

amazon firephone teaser
Amazon's Fire phone: good on paper, rubbish in reality. / © Amazon

You’ve probably heard of Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the psychological theory that lays out every human’s priorities in order of importance: food, shelter, sex, Wi-Fi, Taylor Swift albums and so on. If you were to do the same with smartphones you’d start with reception, battery life and cost. Facial recognition, voice control, mobile payments and a little bell that goes “ding” when an angel gets its wings would come a long way after the basics. 

Innovation has its place. Of course it does. But I reckon that place is after you’ve delivered decent battery life, performance and reception at a decent price. Why sacrifice the essentials for a bunch of gimmicks you probably won’t even use?

What do you think? Are manufacturers barking up the wrong tree, or are gimmicks and gee-whiz new features important when you’re comparing devices?

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  • Sorin Aug 31, 2018 Link to comment

    Beautifully mentioned hierarchy of needs, depending on the importance: food, shelter, sex, free Wi-Fi, then others. That reminds me of a nice banquet: In the old days, men were looking for beautiful women on the beach, now looking for free Wi-Fi.
    It is very interesting how long the phones have evolved, especially the additional functions behind the "classic" telephony, basically these devices are called "phones" or "smartphones". They are actually portable devices with extremely powerful features, with a power and computing capability that goes beyond even many of the desktop computers. Their evolution is interesting, but at the same time many of these functions are more and more useless, because few people use them. And as long as their price is direct with the number of functions, obviously it has reached some aberrantly high values.
    With the help of these wonderful devices with a very high technological level, we are now able to keep in touch with anyone in real time, almost anywhere on the globe, in the air or on the ground, or under the ground, or in the water, moving , in the car, in the train, or even by bicycle, making body jumping, or who knows what stunts. It's nice now that you can take photos very conveniently and shoot as easy scenes as you visit them and share your joys with your friends. Let's not forget to enjoy such moments, to leave aside the numbers that characterize the phones, and just let the joy of the moments drop slowly, slowly ...

  • jeff Dec 7, 2014 Link to comment

    sigh if only nokia went with android they would still be the leaders in phone quality and sales

  • What are you talking about? All the flagship phones make calls just fine. Do the ultra HD displays and blistering multi-core processors suck batteries down quickly? Of course! Our phones are more powerful than top shelf laptops were 4 years ago. Our batteries are a tiny fraction of the size of a laptop battery, and offer about as long per charge. I am used to charging my phone more than once per day, but there are also chargers by my bed, on my office desk, and in my car. Rarely do I run out of juice, and the conveniences my phone offers far outweigh the tiny inconvenience of charging it.

    Current high end phones can even charge wirelessly, and if you really just can't set it down to recharge here and there, $20 portable chargers that fit in your pocket are all over Amazon. I'm sorry the features found on current devices aren't more useful to you, and that battery life alone is leaving you disappointed with the computer/gps/camera/media player/gaming device/translator/reference tool, and yes, PHONE that fits in your pocket. I wouldn't personally want to trade any of those things for a couple more hours of battery life, but if you want to, what's stopping you? Not only does Android make it easy to turn off features you don't use to save juice (with third party apps or custom ROMs you can even automate all of that so you don't have to remember to turn them back on when you might need them), but there are TONS of Android devices out there that have slower processors and less impressive displays that will easily get you through the day on a single charge, and since they're not the shiny, hyped up, tricked out flagship devices you're whining about, they're actually cheaper. Nobody made you buy a cutting-edge $600 smartphone, and if the stuff those can do seems no more useful to you than a dog barking transcription tool, perhaps you're simply not in the market for a top shelf device.

    The beautiful thing about Android is that it runs on so many devices and offers you so much control over its functionality that you're not stuck with a single, overpriced model you can't customize, like you would be on the most popular competing platform. Android caters to everyone, with offerings ranging from cheap, pre-paid "GO phone" type models to pricey but gorgeous pocket computers that IT geeks and software developers salivate over, and we really do push these things to their max. It's true that the latter still consumes electricity and not magic, but rather than asking technology to stop advancing in this incredibly evolving field, why not admit you care more about avoiding a charger than you do about the resolution or processing power of your device, and look into one of the hundreds of more modest options available from any carrier for practically free?

  • I call all wat u are saying nonsense. If u really want a phone which will even last for a week without charging, then go for a nokia 3310. Smart phones are made for fancy.

    • Well I guess we will have to agree to disagree my friend, but you are right in one respect it is a fancy phone with all the bells and whistles , however I suspect if you did not wish to use all the bells and whistles you could set the settings to be a phone only on power saving mode and it would probably last a weekeven without the bigger battery.
      if you doubt my word about the bigger batteries , look up extended batteries on ebay.
      have a good day.

  • Fair comments up to a point, but generally samsung phones you can swap in a spare charged battery in a matter of seconds , and if your that way inclined it's very easy to purchase an aftermarket battery twice or 3 times the size.
    so perhaps the battery argument might be better aimed at others not able to do this ?
    As for not having all the cool tech and grouse screens that may use the battery faster when viewing videos,
    I'd rather have the cool stuff and beautiful screen as long as I can swap in another battery when needed..

  • WMc Dec 5, 2014 Link to comment

    I can charge while driving, at the office and power banks exist to extend battery life indefinitely. Not a real issue unless we live in Timbuktu or deep in the amazon.

  • I haven't had issues with battery life in YEARS. Or dropped calls in a decade. Both of these sound like provider issues (weak connections can drain a battery). My old s3 never ran out of juice during a full day, my note 4 doesn't even come close to getting low, and my son's HTC m8 has never dropped below 60% in a full day.

  • Untill battery tech moves on all we really need right now is very rapid charging similar to what Oppo uses.
    Bring on ultra high def screens, 64 bit processors, 4 GB of ram, 500 GB + SD cards and all the bells and whistles.

  • hit on the spot. phones have everything except battery to utilise that to do everything features. truly speaking this is a marketing strategy of all today's business that in order to stay in market and survive they make phones with less battery capacity so that newer phones with little bit more mAh will tempt people to buy new phones. if phones have ample of battery then probably no one would buy new phones or at least not in the numbers as today people buy. so if only manufacturer think about their consumer satisfaction and not about their bank balances they will provide better battery loaded phones.

  • Thank you for this article!!! Android phones quickly became about gimmicks. A load of options and features that sparkle in adds and entice you into getting it, only to later realize it wasn't all that. And then the glitches and the slow down over time and you realize you've been duped by "high tech" that's no better than the products snake oil salesmen pedal!

    This is why some of us prefer Apple. They tend to perfect things, ploddingly, granted, but for the most part they don't sell hype. They sell a sound device that's easy, simple, reliable and lasting.

    Now, I'm glad for the samsungs, etc. of the world, competition drives many positive outcomes and not all innovations are useless. And the Samsung name is all over my house. But as TVs or washing machines, fridge, etc.

    So, thoroughly enjoy your android phones and systems! But until they work out the bugs and stop selling 50-85% hype/15-50% quality, I'll stick with the company that's playing the long game, not the fad game.

    • Did you just say Apple doesn't sell hype? Please name for me a single company who's been as successful at getting people to stand in ridiculous lines to buy newer versions of high priced devices they just bought a year prior. Please show me another company whose product introduction events are watched by even half as many people. Name another company that gets a fraction as many people to upgrade a perfectly functional device or operating system on day one, before the bugs are fixed and it's even been tested with all the software people are using.

      I am a certified Mac tech who does admin work in a now cross-platform environment of 12,000 users, choosing to integrate Macs because I like using them, so I'm not speaking as an Apple hater. There's an iPad sitting next to my Android phone. Platform wars are silly and people should use whatever gets the job done for them. But Apple is, bar none, the single most successful company in the world at selling hype. I've never seen one of their products be perfect on day one, and I've also never seen a company with a more devout fan base, ready to buy whatever comes out, the first day it's available. I'd argue that of all the things Apple does well, selling hype tops the list.

      • Well said. Apple has always been the best at selling hype to the masses. If they decided to stamp their trademark on dog turds on a stick their followers would but it in droves.

    • Well mate, I have not had the hype android experience you speak of, in fact I'm very happy with my 2nd galaxy note device, and let me just say , I don't spend $ 900+ on a smart phone lightly, which is only marginally more than the first one a couple of years ago.

  • I loved my Nokia 3310, it was one of the best of its day. My late mother's phone was the nokia 1110 and it still works till this day.

  • Maybe we could go back to the Nokia 3210. I think it was the iPhone of the times

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