Innovation in smartphones is dead

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It’s true. That’s not a bad thing, though. The accessories just replaced the innovation.

MWC 2016 saw both Samsung and LG announce two fantastic flagship phones for 2016, but neither of those phones broke the mold or pushing the mobile industry into a new direction like we’ve seen both companies do before. In fact, if you want to really dig into it, 2016 will probably be one of the most boring years for smartphones ever. 

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Let’s look at the Galaxy S7 (and the Galaxy S7 Edge) first. Samsung tested out the curved display in two phones last year, and originally implemented the feature on the ho-hum Galaxy Note Edge way back in 2014. The company went with the refined, ultra-premium design last year originally with the Galaxy S6, and even though they brought expandable storage and waterproofing back… Those were first introduced in the Galaxy S5 two years ago, and the Galaxy S Active line has always had that rugged, life proof quality.

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LG? They took a step backwards in originality with the G5. The most unique feature of the phone, the rear-mounted volume and power buttons, were eschewed in favor of the traditional volume rocker on the side of the device. The power button houses the fingerprint scanner and stayed on the back of the device, but considering LG did that with the V10 late last year and we also saw it on the LG-made Nexus 5X, no shocker there.

Even looking at other companies like HTC, Huawei, or literally any Android manufacturer that plans on putting a phone out this year, there is next to innovation happening in the smartphone playing field. Sure, LG and Samsung are using fancy new camera technology, and both the Galaxy S7 and G5 will likely feature absolutely phenomenal cameras, but do we really consider better low light photos innovation? I don’t. Screen resolution has hit a cap, barring Sony testing out a 4K display here and there, and screen size seems to have settled into that ~5-inch range for everyone. Cameras are great, displays are crisp, we get more storage built-in, there are some software tweaks that will hopefully keep us from having to charge our phones twice a day, and so on.

That’s not to say that these big companies are just throwing in the towel and hoping customers will buy a cheap rehash of last year’s phone. As HTC’s One M9 showed, that won’t work. Samsung and LG both added always on displays to their flagship phones, and software is still seeing some iterative tweaks towards perfection. But even during the conferences from Samsung and LG, no one talked about specs. LG made a point about skipping over all the minute details about their hardware, because no one really cares anymore. Samsung made some vague claims about processors being “30% faster” and the like, it was a brief bullet point, not an entire section of the conference like we’ve seen before. Samsung didn’t even specify exactly which processor was actually inside the Galaxy S7 after the announcement, and if that doesn’t tell you how meaningless flagship specs are in 2016, nothing will.

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But what is exciting? All the accessories that were announced with the phones. And that’s because these smartphones are no longer the flashy, in-your-face products anymore. Instead of the face of a company, the smartphone is the backbone of the company, and that’s a good thing.

Smartphones have, for better or worse, hit a wall. None of these new phones will do anything that your Galaxy S6 or G4 or One A9 won’t do, and that even extends to some cheaper models like the Moto G and other budget-friendly options. Phones get a little better and a little cheaper each year, so manufacturers are having to find other ways to bring in some cash and innovation, and they’re doing it by making the smartphone the connected brain of an enormous ecosystem of accessories.

We’ve already seen just about every OEM try this with services at some point or another, with varying degrees of success. Anybody remember Samsung’s own movie and music stores that were pushed in the Galaxy S III days? Customers didn’t buy into those specific ecosystems, and instead went with Google, or Apple, if they didn’t want an Android device. And so, OEMs abandoned their own digital storefronts, one by one.

The next logical place to attack? Connected devices, virtual reality headsets, camera extensions, robots that terrorize your pets, you name it. The OEMs couldn’t lock anyone in with software like Google or Apple, but they’ll definitely be able to with hardware.

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An enormous part of Samsung’s conference at MWC 2016 was focused on the Gear 360 for virtual reality setups. LG did the same thing, with a virtual reality camera and a module system for the G5 that is literally built to sell you extra accessories for your device. HTC is betting big on virtual reality, too, and tons of other manufacturers are pushing for intelligent home devices, including vacuums, washing machines, refrigerators, vehicles, robots, you name it. Margins are shrinking on smartphones, and the market is getting more competitive year after year, but accessories always bring in tons of cash for any retailer or manufacturer. Plus, they bring up the average amount that you’re making per customer, which is something that almost all Android OEMs struggle with. And that’s really not a bad business strategy, considering it’s helped make Apple one of the most valuable companies on the planet.

This is good for consumer pricing, too, since Samsung, LG, HTC, Motorola, and others won’t plan on making the bulk of their revenue from device sales, but instead on higher margin accessory sales. Samsung might not mind lowering the price of their flagship device by a few dollars if it means you’re going to be spending money on accessories and VR headsets and cases over the next two years for that phone. There’s no guarantee that you’ll immediately see prices drop, obviously, but we’ve already seen HTC launch a near-flagship device at sub-flagship pricing, and even LG’s V10 launched a little cheaper than you’d have expected a flagship device with a unique secondary display to cost.

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Obviously if you want the full experience that these companies have envisioned for their products, you’re going to have to shell out for the camera lens cases and expandable camera modules and whatever else they’re pitching, which might be more expensive long-term. But it certainly gives OEMs more breathing room with their products and gives them the potential to try some riskier concepts. And if all you care about is a great phone with a great screen and great hardware? Grab one of these new fantastic devices and you’re set.

Like any technology, smartphones have experienced their infancy phase where everything was exciting, their explosion phase where they got better and better every six months, and now we’re at the boring phase where the phones from two years ago are still pretty okay phones to use, if you don’t mind dated software. When is the last time we’ve seen any remarkable new advancements in televisions or cameras? Sure, the hardware is better now, but for most people, even things like 4K resolutions aren’t enough to make them want to throw out their old devices and run out to immediately upgrade.

But like any market that matures and saturates, you can expect the companies to try and diversify to try and breathe some life back into their cash cows, and in this market, that’s going to be mobile accessories. Wearables and fitness trackers were the writing on the wall, and you can bet it’s only going to keep going in that direction. Unless, of course, someone releases something in 2017 that’s so dramatically different that it can shake the industry up all over again, a la Apple’s original iPhone.

We can hope, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.


About the Author: Jared Peters

Born in southern Alabama, Jared spends his working time selling phones and his spare time writing about them. The Android enthusiasm started with the original Motorola Droid and an unhealthy obsession with fixing things that aren't broken. This accidentally led to being the go-to guy for anything more complicated than a toaster, which he considers more of a curse than a blessing. Jared is enrolled in online classes at the University of Phoenix, and spends his spare time on video games and listening to music.


  • William Worlde

    I thought this would be an interesting, informative article, but when I saw the following right in your opening statements, I knew I wouldn’t be reading any more:
    “…neither of those phones broke the mold or pushing the mobile industry into a new direction…”.

    LG, with its first-ever all-metal bodied smartphone in their G5, introduced a modular design, THE FIRST EVER IN THE INDUSTRY, for an all-metal phone! Perhaps that innovation hasn’t quite registered with you.

    Now, based on MY opening statement above, I’ll NEVER know if the rest of your article has any merits. Oh well…

    • KeyserSoze

      A lot of tech writers these days are far less smart and insightful than we give them credit for. Seems like they’re just some low-knowledge joe blow talking out their ass half the time. They tend to spout biased opinions far more often than giving facts or expert analysis. I have pretty low regards for these guys.

      • Justin_Herrick

        Aww, you’re so sweet!

        • KeyserSoze

          I’m always here to enlighten.

        • Gary Funk

          He makes good points. Mostly journalism is dead. Anyone with an Internet website can proclaim themselves to be important. 99% are failures.

  • Gary Funk

    The next innovation will have to be in phones that work on all carriers. There is no point in having assembly lines for 5 different sets of bands. Everyone is moving to LTE and it’s time. Google proved this with the 6P which works on T-Mobile and Sprint and works well in Asia.

    Another innovation will be quick updates to Android. The manufacturers need to tell the carriers that they can sell the phones but they get no control of software. Carriers can install their software when the SIM card is set up.

    Samsung’s innovation will be finding a way to overlay their software on top of Android while letting Google update Android as Google does the Nexus line.

    Innovation will be giving us dual SIM slots, a SD card slot, IR transmitter and receiver, NFC, audio jack, power button on top right and volume on the top left.

    There is room for more innovation if people just think.