I was going through my review pictures of the LG G Flex 2 last week when I noticed this particular shot, showing a quintet of apps in the Android task switcher. My five most recently used apps were Gmail, Twitter, Chrome, Maps, and the camera. It seemed like a random selection at the time, but looking back at it now, I don’t think it was an accident. Email, maps, imaging, the web browser, and social networking (including more sophisticated forms of messaging than SMS) are actually the defining characteristics that set smartphones apart from their forebears. They are the five most consequential pieces of mobile software and the key determinants of the quality of any phone.
Smartphones keep evolving, but the things that make them great are pretty consistent
What constitutes a smartphone is a famously slippery concept. The term’s meaning is in constant flux — as smartphones keep growing in size and functionality — though its essential elements have remained relatively fixed for a while now. Nokia’s Communicators and BlackBerry’s standard-setting Bold series introduced the first core aspect of the smartphone experience: email. Email had been done before, but these devices did it to a standard that rivaled the speed and capability of emailing from the desktop. Then the rise of Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android OS showed that mobile web browsers didn’t have to be inadequate imitations of their desktop counterparts. Combine that with the maturation of mobile cameras, the rise of social networks like Twitter and Facebook, and the improvements in mobile mapping, and you’ve got the pillars upon which every modern smartphone is built.
For the majority of smartphone users, the core apps tend to become invisible over time. As far as you are concerned, you’re using Instagram or Snapchat, not a hybrid social-imaging client. When you tap a link in a tweet, it doesn’t matter whether Safari or Chrome or Internet Explorer is performing the task of rendering that page. Except that it does. Browser performance is just one of the subtleties that build toward distinguishing between a satisfying and frustrating user experience.
Consider BlackBerry: the Canadian company still makes excellent devices for triaging email, but it’s lost the social lead it once commanded with BBM, and its cameras and maps are far behind the competition. So sure, BlackBerry still makes smartphones, but it’s not selling as many as it used to because the quality of its core software is so lacking.
No phone is the product of just one company
The best user experience on a BlackBerry right now is probably achieved by using as many Android apps as possible. And that’s what gives Google its present smartphone market lead. Gmail is the world’s most popular email service, and Chrome is its most popular browser, and Android provides the best mobile experience of both. Google Maps is also an indisputable leader, while Google’s failures with camera software and social networking are made up for by advanced hardware and third-party apps, respectively.
Apple also benefits from the presence of WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Instagram on iOS, making up for its own lack of a social network, and it has iMessage to bolster its social credentials. For the most part, though, Apple's strengths align with Google’s weaknesses and vice versa. The iPhone’s camera provides the best combination of ease of use and quality of results, but Apple Maps, on the other hand, is a poor rival to Google Maps. It's only because Google is offering its software on iOS that the iPhone doesn't feel that deficiency more severely. The reason we have a relative balance of power between iOS and Android today is because neither holds a decisive lead in all categories.
The headline grabbers when it comes to smartphone news are the small apps exploding in popularity or the big specs promising spectacular hardware improvements. Because every smartphone now offers email, maps, the web, social and messaging apps, and a camera, the focus of attention tends to reside elsewhere. But it is the quality of these ubiquitous apps that ultimately determines the quality of any given mobile platform.
Every act of spontaneous sharing from a smartphone these days harnesses at least some, sometimes all, of the apps that I seemed to open randomly during my G Flex 2 review. We’ve got new labels and uses for them, but they are, and will continue to be, the backbone upon which every new smartphone is built.