The ho-hum era of smartphones has begun

Sure, the next iPhone will be a design and commercial success. But like last week's Nokia and Google phones, it's not going to bring revolutionary improvement.

Nokia's Lumia 920, a Windows 8 phone
Nokia's Lumia 920, a Windows 8 phone Sarah Tew/CNET

commentary Smartphones are great. But it's time to lower your expectations, because the smartphone industry has moved from an era of revolutionary improvement to a much more bland era of incremental refinement.

Progress will continue, to be sure: screens will get better, networks will get faster, prices will come down. But these days, it's just a lot harder to come up with a smartphone that makes last year's model look like an outdated relic.

This week, we'll see what Apple has in store for the next-gen iPhone . I have no doubt it will be technically impressive and will sell like hotcakes. But unless Apple has a big trick up its sleeve, the phone paradigm is going to remain unshifted.

Possible new features like a bigger screen, a thinner design, faster LTE networking, NFC for electronic-wallet purposes are all useful, but they're nowhere near as big a deal as the arrival of touch screens, innumerable apps, online maps with directions, and a user interface that feels alive compared to a bygone era of earlier smartphones. Newer features such as Siri or high-resolution Retina displays hardly doom predecessors to the scrap heap.

Of course, for those still using their 2003 Nokia candy-bar phones, a big change is in the offing. The same applies for people who can't afford a modern smartphone. What I'm suggesting, though, is that the wow factor a person might have experienced while upgrading to a modern smartphone last year probably will be similar to the wow factor next year.

Underwhelming
And last week's smartphone news from some of the giants in the industry was underwhelming.

Nokia and Microsoft unveiled two Windows 8 phones, the Lumia 820 and flagship 920, with notable features such as wireless charging , more sensitive touch screens that work with gloves, and an augmented-reality app called City Lens. The Lumia 920 adds optical stabilization to counteract camera shake and comes with a bigger screen.

On the Google side of things, three new models emerged from the company's new Motorola Mobility division: the Droid Razr M, Droid Razr HD, and Droid Razr Maxx HD . Bigger, new batteries are great, but there's not much here that'll knock your socks off. Heck, they don't even come with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, though it's promised by year's end and its absence is probably just an artifact of the slow process of integrating Motorola within Google.

With Samsung, Sony, LG Electronics, Panasonic, Huawei, HTC, and others also competing in the Android phone market, it's especially hard to stand out these days. When all a company can boast about is bumping a processor from 1.5GHz to 1.6GHz or doubling RAM to 2GB, you know the average customer's eyes will glaze over.

Windows Phone and to a lesser degree Android have been playing catch-up to Apple's iOS, so they have seen bigger differences of late, but they're both now mostly solid mobile operating systems.

Google's Motorola Razr HD
Google's Motorola Razr HD Sarah Tew/CNET

There's a precedent here: personal computers. For years, it's been hard to stand out in that realm, with largely interchangeable designs made of of the same innards sourced from the same suppliers. Apple stands out for its sturdy laptops, slick track pad, and in-house operating system, but it's the exception that proves the rule for the much larger remainder of the market.

Occasionally, dramatic change sweeps through the personal computer world, and I think Windows 8 and touch screens are driving one of those big changes now. It remains to be seen whether consumers will embrace the changes, of course, but there's no doubt many of next year's PCs will be very different from last year's PCs.

New players
But what's going to drive the next big change in mobile phones?

Some big companies, Amazon and Facebook, could potentially bring a fresh approach, but I'm not sure how exactly.

Facebook has wired its social graph deeply into hundreds of millions of people's lives, and it might somehow put that at the center of people's mobile lives in a way that's better than today's Facebook apps. But it can't ignore all the other things people do with their phones, so it's not clear to me a Facebook phone would be so different.

Amazon, which just introduced a higher-end new Kindle Fire last week, clearly puts content at the center of its devices. It's got a lot of books, music, and video to sell, and it's got a lot of people's credit card numbers already built into its ecosystem.

But again, how much could Amazon overhaul the smartphone experience? Consuming content on a smartphone is already commonplace. Perhaps Amazon could dramatically lower subscription costs, but short of a huge drop, I don't see any radical change. And the rest of the phone still must make calls, allow for the playing of games, and tell me which freeway exit gets me to Aunt Mary Ann's.

Big changes
Here are three revolutions I could really appreciate:

• Radically improved battery life. Maybe this will come through better chemistry. Maybe it'll come through wireless charging technology pervading our cars, offices, and homes. Maybe quantum computers won't need so much power. For now, though, it's hard not to use most smartphones for a full day without keeping an eye on that battery indicator.

• Radically improved networking. This is somewhat out of the control of mobile phone makers, unless Google Fiber somehow transforms into Google Quadruple-Play Data Plan, but it still would mean a big change to mobile phones. Having fast, ubiquitous, reliable networking without having to worry about data-transfer limits would liberate customers and programmers. Want to stream that video and music so you don't have to store it on your phone? No problem. Want to tether your car computer so it gets data while on the road? No problem. A truly powerful, reliable network could even offload many tasks that run on the phone so they run on the cloud.

• A truly radical user interface. Google's Project Glass could graft computing much more directly into your life , making an electronic add-on the norm rather than something you have to pull out of your pocket. Depending on how directly it moves into your field of view, Project Glass or something like it could be as big a transformation to ordinary life as the arrival of mobile phones.

I have no doubt that a smartphone from the year 2020 will be a big departure from today's phone. But we're going to get there in a series of small steps. It'll be like watching the typewriter industry move from manual to electric models rather than move to word processors.

 

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