Google released a new smartphone - the Pixel. It’s a premium device, meant to represent everything great about the ‘Google experience’. Technically, it is very impressive. However, many have noticed that it looks very similar to the iPhone – which is not surprising as it is essentially just a different take on the exact same thing.
Whilst there are some moderately interesting devices, such as the YotaPhone, it’s hard to deny that today, buying a smartphone almost certainly means that you will receive a device in the slate form factor. It will have a touchscreen with a widescreen aspect ratio, and front and rear cameras. It will run either Android or iOS (possibly Windows Phone if you are particularly unfortunate) and connect to the internet with 4G and WiFi.
The reality is that most people would be equally well served by any manufacturer’s device – because they are all essentially the same thing. No new feature is added to one OS without it being copied in the next update of the other.
Why is this the case today? 5 years ago, you had far more options – a Blackberry device with a physical keyboard and the frankly bizarre Microsoft Kin ONE with its square screen, sliding keyboard and ‘cool’ social media features were available alongside flip phones and more standard slate-style smartphones.
When you remember that Blackberry has just announced they will no longer make hardware and that the Kin ONE was discontinued after just over 6 months on the market, it’s not such a surprise that all of the today’s phones are the same: you have to be pretty clued-up about what people will actually want and use in order to bring out something truly new and truly useful.
Currently, almost all smartphones are modelled after the iPhone – because the iPhone was the last phone that was the last actually new and radically different from what came before it. Obviously, it is no longer so special as all the other manufacturers have caught up. Before the iPhone, the device that all subsequent devices were inspired by was the Blackberry, and before that it was the Motorola StarTAC (the first flip phone).
Equally, one would want to use a phone that is considered stylish and similar to that which others use. Apple’s skilful marketing has impressed upon us that iPhones are the cool, trendy phone – leading their competitors to emulate this in an attempt to capture Apple’s relatively high market share in the premium sector. Microsoft was unable to convince anyone that their blobby-looking Kin ONE was cool, and as such, it failed.
I suspect that the current rut in mobile phone development is because we are on the cusp of the next revolutionary innovation in mobile phone technology. What I don’t know is the form that this will take. Perhaps it will be a watch (unlikely) or smart glasses (even more unlikely), or perhaps it will be projection-based, which would be interesting but utterly impractical.
No matter what we may see in the future, it’s the balance of fashion and practicality that determines whether a phone is successful – and the simple fact is that, at the moment, that's best embodied in the iPhone-style slate form factor.