Smartphone snooze-fest

Consumers continue to yawn at the latest handset releases - have we hit an innovation ceiling?

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Another week, another smartphone launch. Has the way we interact with the world forever been changed? Have our expectations forever been altered? Hardly.

The long-awaited Galaxy S4 has been revealed by Samsung, with the usual fanfare (and some smatterings of sexism, but that's a topic for another column), and all of the rumours were confirmed - the spec sheet ticks all the boxes on the most ambitious wish lists (bar featuring a flexible display - but I don't think anyone was really holding their breath for that).

It has a faster processor, a better display, an improved camera, and even eye-tracking and gesture controls. But, what was the general consensus from the proverbial peanut gallery of the tech world? Something along the lines of: "Boring", "Evolutionary, not revolutionary" and "Meh".

Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Think of the iPhone 5. There's no question that it is a good device, but it too was hailed as being "brilliant yet boring" - there was nothing wrong with it, but there was nothing wildly exciting about it either.

Granted, the Galaxy S4's specifications blow the iPhone 5 out of the water on paper (which alone is enough to excite the Android pundits), but the device itself doesn't seem to have blown the industry's hair back. That said, there is no question it will be a top-selling device like the S3 before it.

Some have said it's not the devices themselves that are boring, but the fact that before every launch we all seem to already know exactly what to expect. So when these devices meet every single one of our expectations and don't manage to take us by surprise with any new features, suddenly they're just average and we're all still waiting for something more exciting.

When the iPhone 5 was released, the disappointment filtered into speculation around the state of innovation at Apple, post-Steve Jobs. At the time, Samsung, being Apple's biggest rival, was naturally used as an example of a company that was still producing innovative products. And yet here we are, following the S4 launch, which was largely as 'boring' an upgrade as the iPhone 5 was to the 4S.

It's not Apple and Samsung alone that are struggling to excite the market in the face of ridiculously high expectations and an inkling of feature fatigue.

The new HTC One has some impressive features that are largely on par, if not above, the competition, in the same way the Nexus 4 and Lumia 920 also tick the boxes, yet there is just a general lack of excitement and intrigue.

To my mind, this raises the question: have we reached a ceiling on innovation in the smartphone space?

What next?

The specifications of high-end smartphones are reaching a point where to go beyond them would simply be unnecessary or superfluous.

The specifications of high-end smartphones are reaching a point where to go beyond them would simply be unnecessary or superfluous.

The screen resolution is as high as it can be for the naked eye to even notice. The display is as large as it can be without becoming a tablet. The processors are as fast as they need to be for any function one could want to perform. The cameras are already a highly capable substitute for point-and-shoot cameras.

So, unless we start finding more uses for our smartphones... what more could we possibly want from them?

Innovation marches on

In covering the consumer tech space, I haven't been enthused by a smartphone launch in a long time - and I don't expect to be anytime soon either.

It seems the innovation and excitement has moved along to the wearable tech space - to the likes of Google Glass and the speculation around smart watches from the big players like Apple and Samsung (which has now publicly confirmed it is working on such a product).

Notably, these products still largely rely on being paired with our smartphones - but the smartphones themselves are not at the core of this innovation. Smartphones seem to be facing a future where they are relegated to the user's pocket, while these new wearable technologies act as a new way to interact with the information that is being pulled through via the handset.

Granted, wearable technology itself is not a new concept. Products have already tried and failed in the space, and it's currently dominated (61%, according to ABI Research) by sports/activity trackers. But, it is forecast that by 2015 over 485 million wearable computing devices will be shipped annually.

The market seems to be on the precipice of a revolution - with a new category of smartphone-compatible watches emerging. Again, some have already tried and failed to get consumers excited about wearing a smart watch. But something feels different about this time around - this time the big players are bringing out the big guns.

Much like the iPod was the culmination of existing technology being used in a different way, the breakthrough wearable devices will do the same.

Will Google Glass and the iWatch really catch on? It's hard to say. I just know that I, for one, am excited at the prospect of giving them a try, which is more than I can say for the most recent smartphone offerings.

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13 Aug
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