At the end of 2006, the cell phone landscape was awash with devices that filled specific wants and needs. If you wanted the coolest way to make calls, you got the RAZR. If you needed to email colleagues on the go, you bought a BlackBerry. If you were constantly texting your friends during study hall, there was the Sidekick.
Some had keyboards, some flipped, some gave us access to the “baby Internet,” some had cameras. Walking into a Verizon or AT&T store was an exercise in exhaustion, with rows of phones running the gamut of designs. There were no real unifying elements, even as cellphones were clearly heading in a smarter, richer direction. No one was able to put it all together until Steve Jobs pulled the iPhone out of his pocket.
Today we have the opposite problem. Those rows of disparate devices have been replaced with a sea of rectangular screens, all offering touch navigation and a similar range of features. The iPhone has homogenized the lineup to the point where the denominators are so common, you practically have to study the tech specs to find a difference: a few more megahertz here, an extra megapixel there. The smartphone war has become a battle of inches and millimeters, and while there are plenty of choices, when you pit the Galaxy S6 against the HTC One M9, or the iPhone 6 Plus against the Galaxy Note 4, the differences between them are getting a lot less obvious.
Hitting the wall
When we first laid eyes on the iPhone back in 2007, it was instantly clear that it had broken the mold. We’ve watched as Steve’s original vision has been modified and manipulated to the point where we expect a bigger and better design every 12 months, and for the most part, the major smartphone makers all deliver. But as I pored over the two latest entries from Samsung and HTC this week, I couldn’t help but wonder: Where do we go from here?
It’s the same question I had when Apple jumped into the mega-screen fight with the iPhone 6. It’s not that I don’t expect next year’s iPhone 7 to be innovative, but the current models seem to have already pushed the rectangle as far as it can go. In just eight years, the handsets in our pockets have become powerhouses beyond comprehension, with HD displays and desktop-caliber processors that belie their stature; at the same time, it’s unlikely that the Galaxy S7 or HTC One M10 will depart much from what was released this week. They might be bigger, they’ll certainly be more powerful, but ultimately the only thing about the experience that will truly change is our grip.
Follow the leader
The current crop of smartphones is nothing short of stunning. The iPhone 6’s curved glass set the standard for large-screen design, and Samsung responded with the sexy S6 Edge, sporting a screen that literally drips off the sides. LG’s Flex 2 takes the gimmick out of the curved screen, and Motorola’s Moto X meshes beauty and power in a bezel-free, buttonless enclosure. Even HTC, who went the conservative route with the M9’s design, still has one of the most beautiful handset designs around.
But it’s becoming clear that the traditional smartphone design has reached its zenith. The screens are about as big as they’re gonna get, and the thinness race is starting to adversely affect battery life advancement. The premium phones all look so good, design seems to be becoming less of a factor in our purchasing decision, which is why one of Samsung’s biggest selling points with the S6 is that there’s less preinstalled bloatware.
But that’s not all it lost. Samsung’s stunning S6 is being hailed for its Cupertino-inspired redesign, but the things that truly set earlier models apart from its competitors—the removable battery, external memory and waterproofness—were all dropped amid the metal-and-glass shuffle. Of course, Apple has been plenty successful without any of these things, but for as good as the S6 Edge’s infinity screen looks, at its core, it’s just keeping pace. Samsung’s an easy target for Apple fans, but really, it’s locked in an eternal game of catch-up. The only phone-maker brave enough to break the mold again is Apple, and until that happens, each year will bring another batch of refined rounded rectangles.
Wear we’re headed
That’s where smartwatches come in. We’re still in the early stages of fitting them into our lives and routines, but if Apple’s first wearable is any indication of how the landscape is moving, the smartwatch-smartphone tandem isn’t about cutting down on the number of times we need to take our phones out of our pockets or bags, it’s about leaving them there until we absolutely need them. Just like CarPlay supplements the need to reach for our iPhone while we’re driving, Apple Watch lets us access the bits of information we need and quickly communicate when our iPhones aren’t in our hands. The iPhone 6 is as powerful as a MacBook from just a few years ago, but Apple actually wants us to use it less (or at least differently) than we have in the past.
It’s not that we’ll be spending more time looking at our wrists, but the little things we reach for our phones to do will be dramatically lessened by the alerts and Glances on our watch. And when we’re not unlocking our iPhones as many times each day, we’re not playing that extra game of Trivia Crack or Threes, or getting lost in a Facebook conversation. Much like the iPad altered the way we use our MacBooks, Apple Watch will start adjusting the way the use our iPhones, which will dictate the direction Apple takes with future models. And you can bet Samsung, HTC and Motorola will be sure to follow.
The rectangles in our pockets are about as good as they’re gonna get. Now it’s about what they can do when we’re not holding them.
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Michael Simon has been covering Apple since the iPod was the iWalk. His obsession with technology goes back to his first PC—the IBM Thinkpad with the lift-up keyboard for swapping out the drive. He's still waiting for that to come back in style tbh.