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5 things smartphones must do to become interesting again

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OPINION: The smartphone isn’t perfect, yet hardware and software makers keep serving up the same old handsets with only minor improvements. Chris Smith muses on the huge opportunity for someone to step up to the plate.

While we’ve known about the struggles of HTC, Samsung and LG for a while, the penny really dropped last month when Apple announced slowing iPhone growth and a negative forecast moving forward in 2016.

With the almighty iPhone on the slide for the first time in its existence the halcyon days of the smartphone may be over.

One school of thought suggests it’s because improvements are naturally levelling out year on year. Software and hardware makers have pushed the envelope so far in such a short space of time that this was inevitable.

As such, there’s been too little incentive to upgrade to an iPhone 6S, Galaxy S6 or an HTC One M9, if you have a handset one or even two generations previous, right?

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iPhone 6S

Well it’s starting to cost smartphone makers money because consumers, who’s phones can all do the same thing with varying degrees of success, are tiring of the same old thing.

People want The Next Big Thing. They want a device so superior to the chasing pack they’ll again to be proud to show it off in the pub.

We’ve been led to believe the smartphone has been more or less perfected. With displays more detailed than the eye can discern and processors faster than fingers can move, there’s weight to that argument. However, there’s still a long way to go.

This type of downturn represents a huge opportunity for one or more manufacturers to make the next leap that’ll have everyone dipping into their wallets again.

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SwiftKey

1. Solve the typing problem

Microsoft just spent $147 million on the keyboard application, SwiftKey. For all its great benefits, is it really all that much more convenient or accurate than typing letter for letter?

The typing experience on smartphones is so bad, perfectly literate people are now forming entire conversations with emojis. I’m not quite at that stage, but the prospect of writing anything longer than a text message fills me with dread. Usually I just wait until I get back to my laptop if I have to send an email.

Voice recognition tools are improving, but people are still reluctant to use them in public. If we’re never going to get those oft-promised projected keyboards then there needs to be a better solution.

2. Toughen ‘em up

Whether it’s a shattered screen on the first drop, or a quick drop in the drink, most smartphones are still too perishable. Some companies are making progress in this area. Moto has introduced the first shatterproof display with the Moto X Force, and waterproofing has been a hallmark of the Sony Xperia phones for ages now. But why isn’t this the norm?

I’ll tell you why. Smartphone makers are obsessed with shaving fractions of millimetres off handsets in pursuit of meaningless marketing guff and as a result making them more vulnerable.

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Moto X Force

What’s the point of a gorgeous 6mm device if you have to add a 4mm case just to protect it? Not very often you see a naked iPhone or Galaxy in all its glory is it?

3. The cameras still make us yearn for a decade ago

Nothing represents the compromise of convergence like the smartphone camera. Remember the Supermoon back in September 2015? If so, you’ll probably remember hundreds of pixelated photos with a weird orange-y dot in the centre posted to social media. Many of those photos had accompanying captions along the lines of “I wish I had a better camera with me than my iPhone.” 10 years ago, you probably would have, mate.

It’s just on example of the derivative experiences we accept from smartphones since they replaced our other gadgets, whether it’s gaming, reading or settling for watching films on a 5-inch display. Does it have to be this way?

4. Smartphones are killing the work life balance

Isn’t it great that we can answer all of our work emails on the way to the office and deal with lingering issues on the way home? Well actually, it isn’t. Because we’re not being paid to do that. Whether you BYOD or your company gives you a smartphone to use, the message is clear: “This means you’re on the clock at any time.”

There are solutions, but Android for Work is rare and BB10 will be extinct before BlackBerry Balance is relevant. For almost everyone that dual-persona phone remains out of reach without endless tinkering with notification settings and guilt trips from work.

5. We can’t trust them to keep us safe

Relying on your iPhone or Android platforms to protect your data is like hiding under the covers when Freddy Kreuger comes knocking. It won’t save you.

Even in the post-Snowden era, governments around the world are pressurising tech giants to drop encrypted messaging services “in the fight against global terrorism.” Pretty soon the situation will be untenable.

It’s the same with the growing threat of malware. Google has pledged monthly security updates to tackle a series of bugs that left almost a billion users at threat. But we all know how awesome mobile manufacturers and carriers are when it comes to pushing these updates out in a timely fashion.

blackphone

There are alternatives. The Blackphone from Silent Circle is built from the ground up to keep users off the grid. It offers completely encrypted end-to-end communications. It needs to be the rule rather than the exception.

Do you agree with Chris’s vision for the next step of smartphones? Which features would get you buying again. Share your thoughts in the comments below

Reg Edmunds

February 12, 2016, 1:59 pm

I would like a flip phone smartphone, one side the screen, the other a REAL keyboard!

Bugblatter

February 12, 2016, 2:30 pm

Very dull. What about new form factors made possible by flexible screens and substrates?

toboev

February 12, 2016, 2:31 pm

A lot of good points there. Many things we just accept, like the typing experience, because we can't imagine a feasible improvement. Manufacturers are all running scared of trying anything radically different as the stakes are too high - no one dare go out on a limb. The only recent innovation has been the phablet and BB's Passport and Priv

toboev

February 12, 2016, 2:36 pm

I think that woul be great. Now that phones are about half the thickness of old, we could easily have what you suggest and still have a device no fatter than they used to be.

Carlos

February 12, 2016, 3:23 pm

Sorry but neither of these will turn phones interesting again.. It's time for a major overhaul leaded by software, think UX again from the OS to the apps... unless they release a bendable device.. :)

Chris Smith

February 12, 2016, 3:37 pm

Sorry you found it dull. The idea was to keep it within the realms of immediate possibility rather than list concepts designs that - like many features we have been promised - could be years away (flexible screens) or never arrive at all (projected keyboards). Point taken though.

AndyB

February 12, 2016, 4:48 pm

It seems to me that most manufacturers have just become me-too cloners of the rest of the industry, and seem to be converging on becoming iPhone clones - even removing those bits that could have been pointed to as genuine advantages (removable batteries and memory cards spring to mind).

Now all we have are a bunch of lookey-likey phones that are very pretty, very expensive (so you have to put them in a case so the prettyness is lost) with barely a hint of innovation in the industry.

Even Apple started copying everyone else when they launched phablets.

There have been attempts by the mainstream manufacturers, I suppose. The heart-rate monitor on the back of the Galaxy S5. The Edge screens of Samsung (a solution looking for a problem IMO), erm... Waterproofing on Sony's... LG's leather back. Ho hum.

Honourable mentions should go to Blackberry for the Priv, and the Blackphone for it's focus on privacy, but I can't think of any others.

I used to be excited about new phones, but now I know that they will be more or less the sames as my last phone, let alone my current one (albeit with some iterative improvements). As a result I stopped buying the flagship models (Desire, S2, S3, S5) and spent half the money on a OnePlus.

That said, I don't think it's all the manufacturer's fault. I can't think of any new functionality that I really want my phone to have that it doesn't already. If I can't think of anything I can't criticise the manufacturers for not being able to either.

Bugblatter

February 12, 2016, 5:08 pm

I guess I was being overly negative, but from the title I was expecting a little more "ooh". I think it's going to take a lot of "ooh" to make smartphones exciting again.

Flexible screens might be this year btw. Maybe not roll-up initially, but fold-up was I think on LG's road map for 2016. Might have been Samsung; they're both pretty advanced in that area.

Chris Smith

February 12, 2016, 5:17 pm

I agree the title may not have been that apt. Perhaps if this is the best I can up with, it suggests a bleak future for the smartphone. Would be exceptionally surprised to see a fully flexible display smartphone come to market in 2016... or 2017 for that matter.

toboev

February 12, 2016, 10:24 pm

That's the thing, it is such a risk trying anything different. So everybody just pushes out incremental changes on the old formula. Scan down a listing of current phone images and you'd struggle to tell them apart.

toboev

February 12, 2016, 10:29 pm

I thought foldable was much harder to achieve than rollable? Problems with the crease, etc

Bugblatter

February 12, 2016, 10:40 pm

I've googled to refresh my memory and there are rumours of both LG and Samsung releasing foldable phones this year. May well be rubbish but we can hope.

Btw projected keyboards came out many years ago. They worked too, although the experience wasn't great overall. There was at least one phone that had one built in. The keyboard was drawn by a laser, although I've seen concepts since where the projected keyboard was an actual image which may be what you're thinking of.

Given how much typing we do standing up or sitting on a train etc. I just don't think they're useful enough to bother with; having to have a surface on which to project scuppers them.

Or to put it another way, the typing experience is already good enough on phones that projected keyboards aren't wanted.

Bugblatter

February 13, 2016, 3:22 am

I think the design was such that there wouldn't be a crease, but rather a bend. Quite a sharp bend but not sharp enough to be a crease.

Prem Desai

February 14, 2016, 11:24 pm

7 day battery life .....

Jedibeeftrix

February 15, 2016, 7:35 am

turing phone with sailfish

Reg Edmunds

February 15, 2016, 4:42 pm

I like the idea that ALL apps should be deletable plus of course a 7 day battery.

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