Smartphones. They’re all just a bunch of undifferentiated rectangles, right? You’d be forgiven for feeling a little jaded about the rate of innovation in smartphones over the past couple of years. A 4-inch iPhone still dominates the consumer landscape, HTC is still designing beautiful but flawed masterpieces, and Samsung is still the world’s foremost purveyor of cheap plastic.
It’s as if we’ve been stuck in a long winter hibernation, waiting for the next wave of real excitement to awaken us to the awesome power and potential of smartphones. Look out to the horizon, however, and you may see that wave coming.
This fall is going to be a little bit bonkers
Never in the history of their rancorous competition for users’ hearts and minds have the roadmaps of iOS and Android aligned as perfectly as they have now. iOS 8 might be the biggest revision to the way the iPhone operates since the introduction of third-party apps, while Android L puts Google’s mobile software through a comprehensive visual overhaul that belies a ton of changes under the hood as well. In short, whatever you think the terms ‘Android’ and ‘iPhone’ represent today is going to be materially different from what they stand for a mere few weeks from now. And let’s not forget about the dark horse of the mobile OS race, Windows Phone, which now has Microsoft at the helm of both hardware and software.
Apple’s annual iPhone refresh is on schedule for a typical early September unveiling, though this time we’re likely to see not just one but two new larger sizes. A convincing video of a sapphire screen for the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 tantalizes with the promise of a more durable device. Leaked pictures have also suggested the introduction of a side-mounted power button and a new reversible USB plug on the phone’s Lightning cable. Taken as a group, all these small enhancements are likely to make for a neat upgrade and indeed a refreshingly new device (or pair of devices).
The competition isn’t standing still and next week at IFA is set to deliver a furious onslaught of new Android phones. Huawei’s on the record with the promise of a Sapphire Edition of its Ascend P7, stretching the size of what’s possible for sapphire displays up to 5 inches after the Vertu Signature Touch already proved the viability of such screens for the luxury crowd. Motorola has set the date for its unveiling of what’s sure to be the next Moto X, Sony is building up hype for a new trifecta of Xperia devices, and Samsung will inevitably dominate the Berlin trade show with its massive Unpacked event and latest addition to the Note family. Have I mentioned Sharp’s otherworldly Aquos Crystal yet?
Yes, the cycle of renewal is familiar, but the incremental changes that have been underwhelming us recently are starting to pile up and are going to be turbocharged with the eventual addition of Android L’s expanded capabilities. Google’s new operating system will include an Extension Pack to allow game makers to reach higher peaks of visual fidelity and compete with the likes of Infinity Blade and the freshly released BioShock on iOS. So having a super-fast processor will finally start to matter again on Android smartphones.
Good things: the iPhone's getting bigger while Android phones are discovering restraint
The dissatisfactions of owning an iPhone — primarily its size and some flexibility shortcomings arising from its locked-down software — are being resolved with the new iPhone 6 and iOS 8. Overdue additions like widgets and alternative keyboards are finally arriving, along with greater access for developers to make better integrated apps. From the other side, Android phone makers are reining themselves in and eroding the design gap between their devices and Apple’s. Sony led the way with its smaller, but uncompromised, Xperia Z1 Compact earlier this year and looks set to update it at IFA. Samsung also deserves praise for heeding criticism and introducing the Galaxy Alpha: a smaller, better designed phone than its flagship Galaxy S5 with a chamfered metal frame and slimmer profile.
Just as we approach the singularity where all smartphones start to agree on universals of best size, shape, and design, their appeal is about to be refreshed by an explosion of new connected accessories. Whether it’s smart covers, wireless speakers, pedometer wristbands, round smartwatches, or zany necklace earphones, the hardware ecosystem surrounding smartphones is entering a new phase of diversity and versatility. Google's Fit platform and Apple's HealthKit aim to aggregate all the biometrics these devices produce, while Apple's HomeKit wants to turn your entire home into a connected device. When Microsoft asks if we are "ready for more" ahead of its phone launch next week, it could well be teasing the unveiling of more gadgets to connect up to your smartphone.
It will be a long time, if ever, before we see the wearables that everyone’s so excited about today earn their independence from smartphones. Everything cool and new that we’ll be able to do with personal technology in the near future will continue to ultimately link back to the trusty old smartphone. And that’s how it should be, because these things are awesome.