Remember when folding phones were going to be the next big thing…and then the party for a new era of phones seemed a bit premature? It’s caused something of a lament for the lack of ambition and innovation in smartphones.
But there’s another way to look at the current era of phone releases, seemingly endless iterations on glass rectangles: it’s actually okay. It’s better than okay, in fact—it’s a good thing. While we’ve more or less settled on a form factor for the vast majority of phones, we’ve also reached a point where even the cheapest phones out there are at least good. Some of them are even great!
And now that constant access to the web and applications has become a nearly indispensable part of modern life, having great, affordable electronics available to everyone isn’t just good, it’s necessary. We’re at a Model T moment in the smartphone world: most people can afford one, benefit from one, and genuinely enjoy one, even if they’re not ready to drop four figures on the latest model.
Alright, so maybe multiplying cameras and a pop-up selfie cam are the biggest innovations we’re getting this year, and 5G is a mess that won’t be useful for some time. Maybe we’re not getting phones that look like sci-fi props before the end of the decade. All things considered, we don’t have much to complain about.
This time of year is ripe for smartphone leaks—the bread and butter of technology news. And since Samsung is still hesitant to commit to a release date for its Galaxy Fold, and Huawei is pushing back its Mate X (for a variety of reasons), reactions to new glimpses of phones like the Pixel 4 or iPhone 11 are decidedly muted.
“Oh, another barely-notable update to a tired formula,” say the pundits. Okay, so that’s a bit of a strawman, but we can’t deny that it’s hard to get excited about another notch variation or a square-shaped camera module. Samsung briefly considered getting rid of a few buttons on the Galaxy Note 10, and it could have been the most notable change in the company’s phone design since they accidentally sold small glass-covered grenades. The most significant leap forward at the moment, assuming the whole “folding phone” fad doesn’t take off, is a pop-up selfie cam module that finally lets us get back to…unbroken rectangular screens that we had before the iPhone X came around.
You can see how this chorus goes. “Phones are boring now.” And compared to ten years ago, when smartphones were exploding into new markets and segments, they are. You can’t go into a carrier store and see iPhones, Blackberries, Palms, and a dozen different flavors of Androids with slide-out keyboards and built-in gamepads and e-readers glued to the back. It’s glass rectangles all the way down, in roughly two sizes: big and very big.
It’s telling that the biggest point of differentiation, and thus innovation, is cameras. Both optical and image processing technology is leaping forward quickly—perhaps because manufacturers have found that they can’t do much more in terms of screens, batteries, or straight-up silicon power at the moment. It’s not as if screen and power tech is frozen in time, but progress is going to be slow for a few years, with new fabrication and material technology currently in various experimental stages.
Samsung has given us a vivid example of what can happen if a manufacturer overstretches itself with new tech: the Galaxy Fold’s bendy plastic screen failed almost immediately in the hands of reviewers, and it may have sunk the product entirely. So, while cash-strapped buyers look for cheaper models like the iPhone XR and the Pixel 3A, and hold onto them longer than ever while sales slump, manufacturers are oddly conservative in terms of phone design.
That’s the holding pattern we’ve seen for the last few product cycles. And barring an earth-shattering breakthrough in mobile tech, that’s what we’ll see for the next few years, too. Which probably isn’t thrilling to shareholders, who’ve gotten their cashmere knickers in a twist at the thought of $2000 status symbols in every T-Mobile store. But it’s a good thing for the rest of us.
The most expensive iPhone starts at $1100 and goes up to nearly $1500. The biggest, baddest Galaxy on the market costs $1600 for the highest storage tier. Even Google, whose Nexus line was once celebrated for its value, will now sell you a Pixel 3 XL for a grand, with 128GB of storage. I could go on, but you get the point: phones are getting insanely expensive at the top tier. Especially when you remember that, not so long ago, $500 would get you a top-of-the-line model.
While we’re experiencing collective sticker shock, we also see more competition in the mid-range. This isn’t news for anyone outside of the western tech bubble—the vast majority of phones sold in emerging markets aren’t the ones that get advertised during the Super Bowl and financed as part of a monthly plan. But all the work and research that companies like Samsung, Apple, and Google put into those designs trickle down into their cheaper handsets—the iPhone XR, Galaxy A50, and Pixel 3a, among others. These aren’t “budget” phones by any means, but at the very least more people can purchase them without a credit check.
Then you’ve got the lower tiers, the territory of Motorola, Asus, Blu, and many brands from China. These are the workhorses of the phone industry, going to frugal shoppers all over the world. And what’s true today that wasn’t ten years ago is the whole point of this article: they’re pretty great.
Take a look at the Motorola G7, for example: $300 gets you a phone with a huge screen, a respectable 12-megapixel camera, 64GB of storage, and a 3000mAh battery. It even has some of the more fancy features, like face unlock, fast charging, and a USB-C port. Sure, its processor is only mid-range, and the RAM is “only” 4GB (the same amount of memory in my Chromebook, by the by). But unless you’re running an insane amount of concurrent apps or you happen to be a professional gadget reviewer, you probably won’t miss the higher specs. And this great experience won’t cost more than your rent payment.
Phones like the G7 or the Galaxy A50, or half a dozen older iPhone models still sold new at stores around the world, don’t make headlines. But they make participating in digital life possible for an enormous amount of people. And they’re freakin’ fantastic, even if they’re not packed with a dozen cameras or running the latest OS version.
With the vast majority of people getting paid less than the generation before and benefiting less from what they do get paid, one of the small victories we get is the democratization of at least some technology. Calling new phone releases “boring” because we’re not constantly blown away like we were ten years ago when Android and iOS were still deciding what smartphones actually were, is remarkably short-sighted.
Once again, consider cars. Part of the reason that Tesla catches so many headlines is that it’s the first genuinely exciting thing to happen for mass-market cars in decades. But that doesn’t mean that, for the last 30 years, cars have been boring…unless you’re the kind of person who obsessively reads every line of the new Motor Trend. “Boring” for car nerds is “anything that doesn’t knock my socks off with surprise and delight.” Keep it in mind if you’re thinking about complaining that the next $1000 iPhone hasn’t changed enough since the last one.
It’s probably going to be a long time before we get a breakthrough that shakes up the mobile industry in the same way the first iPhones and Androids did a decade ago. And that’s okay. In the meantime, we can settle for little gadgets that have changed how we interact with the world and each other, and be happy that even the Model Ts of this paradigm shift are pretty great.
And sometimes, you don’t even have to buy them in black.