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Innovative smartphone design isn’t dead, it’s just taking a really long nap

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If it wasn’t for Samsung, this would be the most boring year for smartphone design ever. Let that sink in for a moment. The company that perfected the art of reissuing the same insipid plastic design is now the one that’s making the biggest strides forward. That is to Samsung’s credit, for enacting overdue changes in its phones, but also to the discredit of everyone else. Where have all the exciting new phones gone? Did they all perish when Nokia made the historic decision to sell off its mobile business? It certainly feels that way.

The new and improved HTC One M9 looks the same as the old and imperfect One M8. The Xperia Z4 is indistinguishable from the Xperia Z3. And if you haven’t yet seen the LG G4, just go look at a G3 with a leather case on. None of these new introductions have bothered me as much, however, as Huawei’s P8. This flat and featureless slab defines the comatose state of smartphone design today. I held it in my hands the day before its big London launch and couldn’t come up with a single reason for its existence. The world already has plenty of high-spec, super thin phones.

Will we ever see anything as fresh and new as the Nokia N9 again?

Innovation, to my mind, is when the thing you introduce today sets a precedent and an example for things to come thereafter. Consider the legacy of Nokia’s short-lived N9, whose brilliant design continues to resonate through the entire portfolio of Lumia devices years later. Nokia, the mobile maker, has been outlasted by its good designs. I was also thrilled by Motorola’s denunciation of common trends with 2013’s Moto X, which was smaller and less overpowered than the typical flagship Android device. It was, as a result, much cheaper than most flagships, and the later Moto G and Moto E extended that push into affordability by bringing a high-quality Android experience to unprecedentedly low prices. It’s because of that 2013 Motorola family and the underrated Nexus 5 from Google that premium phone makers are finding themselves lost at sea today. The things they used to sell as their distinguishing features have now been made commonplace.

But alas, innovation is not a one-way street. Microsoft’s takeover of Nokia has yet to produce another standout device like the N9, and Motorola regressed in 2014 with a much more conventional lineup that traded away its soul of affordable compactness for a generic “bigger is better” approach. And now we have 2015’s cohort of new smartphones, which looks deathly afraid to do anything meaningfully different or new.

The importance of good design is only amplified by the diminishing differences

Perhaps it’s a sign of the maturation of smartphones. They are all too damn good nowadays for a new one to arrive and wow us with its excellence. But surely that makes design even more important, not less. If everyone can tout the same specs and capabilities, it will be the devices that just feel better that will win people over. When Sony, HTC, and LG reissue their old designs, they’re not giving themselves the chance to seduce new users. Nor are they offering any tempting reason for existing ones to upgrade.

The rapid evolution of smartphones has generated high expectations for constant improvement with each new device. I don’t think that expectation is unreasonable, but I do fear that the present malaise is a sign of things to come rather than a temporary blip. It may be somewhat understandable for globally established brands like Sony to stick close to a recognized design, but when even Huawei — whose role is to be a disruptive, risk-taking upstart — goes with a staid and uninspiring look, it’s becoming quickly apparent that design isn’t a true priority for phone makers these days. LG talks about it a lot, then still builds its phones with the flimsiest plastic it can find.

Attention is turning to smartwatches, whose best design is still a matter of debate

So what are all the designers at these electronics companies working on? Smartwatches, most likely. The rate at which smartwatch designs are improving right now is quite spectacular. Last year’s Google I/O featured the two first Android Wear watches, the LG G Watch and Samsung Gear Live, which were the very definition of mass-produced blandness. Since that time, we’ve seen the Asus ZenWatch, the LG Watch Urbane, and the Huawei Watch, with each of them making significant steps forward in refining the appearance and feel of smartwatches.

Even Apple, the company that relies on the iPhone for the majority of its profit, dedicated more time and attention to its new Watch than its new smartphone during its big event last September. And yet, as the company’s marketing chief Phil Schiller famously remarked when unveiling the updated Mac Pro in 2013, there’s always room for more innovation (or, in his candid words: “can’t innovate anymore, my ass”).

Technology never stands still and since most design breakthroughs are just the logical result of technical advancements, we needn’t be too despondent about the future of smartphone design. Improvements won’t be as fast and furious as they have been until now, but maybe that will help us appreciate them more. After all, a capless USB port on a fully waterproof phone is a cool feature to have. Cool enough to justify calling that new phone the Z4? Not even Sony can decide.