Mobile Hardware – There is Still Innovation To Be Done

Recently, it has saddened me to see how smartphone OEMs have really lost sight of trying to make meaningful hardware form factor innovation. Even in the past couple weeks, we have seen Nokia and Motorola match the trend already set by HTC and Sony of nothing but full-screen phones of slightly varying sizes and specs. As an all around gadget fanboy, it is disheartening to see this homogenization in a space, that I believe, really has the potential for continued hardware innovation.

It is especially distressing when you think about all the time hardware OEMs like HTC, Samsung, and Sony are putting into unwanted software tweeks and skins to put on top of an Android OS that originally gave us the promise of an "open" platform that could pave the way for hardware manufacturers to actually spend their time trying to innovate on hardware design. Instead, we have seen all these companies centralizing around creating a "line" of phones that amount to nothing more than slight variations in screen size and specs. So now, we have a bevy of different smartphone manufacturers, and less and less choice of form factor.

Personally, I would like to see a line of phones closer to something like this –

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I’ll walk through each phone, and discuss how I think the phone type has a real place in the market to serve a specific type of customer. I'll also outline the hardware innovations that need to happen in order to make these form factors actually viable.

Form Factors

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Intro / Texting phone

Killer User – Tweens
Basic Specs - Candybar design, with physical keys. 3.2-3.5" screen. Free on contract, cheap off contract
Hardware to innovate – Physical keyboard

This phone would be geared at the "tween / teen" market, where parents don’t want to give expensive hardware to their kids, nor do they want to shell out big money each month on a data plan. Kids who mostly just want to have text communication with friends (via actual texting, IM, facebook, etc. ) The physical keyboard could be an attractive feature for these users, and the candybar design could let it stand out as different and perhaps more appropriate for that demographic.

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Intro / Casual phone

Killer user – Casual users on a budget
Basic specs - 3.5" screen. $79 on contract
Hardware to innovate – Balance of quality and cost

This would be for the space that Apple is catering to by offering the previous years iPhones at free or $99. People who want a smartphone, but use it pretty casually, and so don’t want to have to pay the high premium for fast processors, or the newest features that they probably wont use. Additionally, this phone would cater more towards people who would use their phone for entertainment than for communication. This would be the main separation between this and the Intro/Texting phone.

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Premium Keyboard

Killer User – Business traveler
Basic Specs - 3.5"-4.2" screen. Portrait slider keyboard. $199 on contract
Hardware to innovate – keyboard, thin sliding screen, hot-swappable battery

I NEVER understood how portrait slider keyboards were so nonexistent. Even when smartphones with keyboards were more prevalent, they were almost always landscape, which just sucks. This phone would be aimed at people who like physical keyboards, but also see the obvious need for a big touchscreen. With the business traveler as the killer user, I think innovating on a hot-swappable battery would be a really appealing feature as well.

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Premium Fullscreen

Killer user – Generic, high-end user
Basic Specs - 4.0-4.5" screen. $199 on contract
Hardware to innovate – Screen quality, Camera, Battery life

This is the category we see most smartphones in these days, so I don’t really need to spend too much time on it. I will say camera and battery life are two areas I wish I would see more innovation happening.



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Premium Gaming

Killer User - Gamers
Basic Specs - 4.2"-4.7" screen. Landscape slider game controls. $199 on contract
Hardware to Innovate – Game controls, Battery life

This is another form factor that I am pretty shocked more OEMs aren’t trying to do. Now, let’s be clear - it is hard. I would guess making a great phone with game controls is probably the most difficult hardware challenge in the mobile industry; however, there would undoubtedly be a huge market for it. This would be the phone I would have if all these were available. I like gaming, but play very few mobile games, because I just don’t like the controls on a touch screen. Additionally, having button parity with console controllers, would not only open up developers to make new types of games, but also really empower new tech like Sony’s acquisition of Gaikai. To actually be successful, this phone would have to be really good. It would need to be something that you could use as a phone and not feel like you are making significant sacrifices of size. Also, the game controls would just need to be really good, and I think have button parity with console controllers.

Hardware Innovations

I have heard OEMs in the past say that "whatever form factor was tried but the public showed that they didn’t want it." I think this is B.S. a lot of the time, and the problem is really that the public never saw a GOOD example of that form factor. To make all these form factors not only possible, but actually viable as real competitors to simple fullscreen phones, there will need to be real progress in hardware. I have identified the hardware innovations that I think are necessary to do this.

Keyboards

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In 2008, Samsung released a feature phone called the Alias. The main selling point of the phone was that it could flip both portrait and landscape, and the keyboard would change depending on which orientation you were in. As a feature phone from years ago, this tech was pretty limited, but I think this is really needed to make keyboards viable.

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While the advantage of having tactile keys is significant, the advantage of having a dynamic software keyboard is much more significant. Trying to use special characters, grammar, or emoji is just too difficult with static keys. I'm not sure if LCD, e-ink, OLED, or something else would provide the technical answer, but the feature that we need, is a physical keyboard that can change the characters on the keys the same way that software keyboards do.



Sliders

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I have played with a number of sliding phones, and none of them have quite achieved the level of fit and finish that I think is needed to be a real high-end competitor. There is still room for innovating on having a sliding mechanism that feels great. Something that is buttery smooth, but also really robust and stable. Additionally, there is still a lot of work that can be done in making the screen as thin as possible, so that the sliding screen doesn’t feel like it’s adding tons of thickness to the phone.


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Hot-Swappable Battery

A phone with a secondary watch-battery that would give you 30 seconds to pop a dying battery out, and a new battery in, without having to totally power down your phone would be very appealing for the business traveler types.



Game Controls

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Like I said above, I think this would likely be the most difficult hardware challenge, but I could see Nokia really nailing it (XBOX phone anyone?). I think to make this work, you would need physical analog pads, rather than the touch controls of the Xperia Play. I would also like to see button parity with console controllers (depressible analog pads, 2 triggers, or 1 set of triggers and 6 face buttons).


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Camera

The Pureview 808 was a completely amazing concept, and I hope it gets into Nokia WP8 phones soon. Every high-end phone should be trying to get better low-light photography though.




Battery life

I think there should be more emphasis on battery life. Motorola seems to be the only one really making this a feature. Personally, I wish the iPhone 5 would have stayed the same thickness as the 4/S in order to really push the battery life forward, rather than saying the same battery life in a thinner package is the more important feature.

Conclusion

To wrap up this very long post, I'd simply reiterate - there is still innovation to be had. Hardware OEMs need to start getting focused, and developing form factors that make sense, and that they believe in. We have seen manufacturers stop the "throw the spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks" method that led to things like the Motorola Backflip, or the Kyocera Echo, which is a good thing. But rather than saying all form factor innovation now stops, manufacturers should start developing things because the concept makes sense, and keep developing it until it is good.

Do you have ideas of where you would like to see hardware innovation?