By Simon Rockman of Forbes
Mobile World Congress 2018 was strange. All the innovation was in the network side, handsets have become boring. While those touting 5G were talking about network slicing, full duplex radio, millimetre waves and massive MIMO, the handset folks seemed to think a better camera, smaller bezels and painful emojis were in some way special.
Phones were not always like that. Back before Barcelona it was the 3GSM, which those of us on What Mobile Magazine called the Cannes Phone Festival. Each handset manufacturer had something new and exciting. Maybe it was the 8810, Razr or P800, all fabulous innovative phones. Sometimes it was the N-gage, V.box or Serenata. At least they tried.
But somehow there is the Orwellian myth that Apple invented the Smartphone. Indeed there was a recent BBC radio documentary charting the need to de-tox from smartphones which said ‘now the country which invented the smartphone is working on the cure’. I did a triple-take. Was the BBC saying that Apple invented the smartphone? It was, so Radio 4 was wrong, but America did invent the smartphone, it’s just that the SIMON was an IBM invention. So the BBC was right, but didn’t know it. SIMON was the first ever smartphone, with predictive text and a touch screen 13 years before Steve Jobs sprinkled marketing fairy dust over an overpriced 2G phone with severe signalling problems, broken Bluetooth and the inability to send a picture message.
Nothing in the iPhone was something which hadn’t been seen before, it’s often seen as the flagbearer for the devices we have in our pockets, and maybe it was: Apple showed that marketing was more important than technology. The mobile phone industry is suffering the consequences, not only has Apple sucked all the revenue out of the rest of the industry it imposes huge technical challenges by ignoring standards.
I work at a mobile network which doesn’t sell Apple products and yet we’ve had to spend a huge amount of time and money making sure that our customers don’t get corrupted messages when they are sent from an iPhone.
We went from a world of bars, flips, clams, sliders and rotators each with a design language where you could spot the manufacturer from styling cues to a world of two designs. Phones that looked like an iPhone and phones that looked like a Blackberry. Now all phones are just black rectangles.
Apple charges operators through the nose. It’s taken all the portal revenue and now no-one makes any money out of devices so there is no fundamental research done. It all comes down to what Qualcomm and MediaTek tell the manufacturers to make. Testing phones is hard, very, very hard and it’s about to become many times more difficult with 5G where the complexities of mmWave testing mean you can’t use cables and all testing has to be done over the air in an expensive-to-rent anechoic chamber.
So everyone plays it safe.
It’s not like the ideas are not out there. Plucky Brit start-up Planet Computers has built the Gemini , The gestating Monohm Runcible , and there are some amazing concepts like the Arcphone which is inspired by the Motorola Razr.
Just googling ‘concept phone’ will bring up a swathe of ideas.
But there is hope. Not just in the form of small companies doing interesting things. Indeed not even in that hope. Planet are very unusual in shipping a product the vast majority fall by the wayside.
The hope comes in the death of the smartphone. You see smart is escaping. It will no longer reside in the one device you stare at but become omnipresent. One trend at Mobile World Congress was increased virtual assistants. Samsung will be there with a dedicated Bixby device, T-Mobile wants you to shout “OK Magenta”, and Telefonica has announced commercialisation of its product. All this follows on the heels of Alexa and her friends. And people like the devices.
As your cooker, television and bath all become smart there is less need for the single smartphone. What is the phone today will become something else and we’ll go back to the time when phones were used for voice.
Such generational changes are normal, when I started in the analogue mobile phone industry the dominant, unassailable handset manufacturers were Motorola and NEC. It became Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola. The belief that the status quo of today with a dominant Samsung and Apple is to fail to remember the future. Peak Apple? Maybe not yet, but we are well past peak innovation and the disruption can not come soon enough.