by Michael Crider on
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You know those days at work when you’ve finished your tasks and you’re waiting for the next important thing to come in? You know how bored you get with nothing to do, but you’re not allowed to do nothing? That’s where Apple, Google, and the entire smartphone industry are right now and it sucks for all of us.
Within the last couple months, the two companies collectively responsible for the smartphone revolution announced their newest hardware shipping to consumers before the holidays. In years past, this would be the event of the season. The new phones would offer untold possibilities and magical new features that would prompt even the most skeptical tech nerds to stampede over each other to be the first to empty their wallets.
This year, we got smaller bezels.
Before we get too deep into the weeds on the mind-numbing boredom that must be plaguing the engineers behind the latest smartphones, I would like to clarify one detail. The people behind smartphone operating systems are in a good place. Voice assistants are getting smarter and more natural, battery saving features are getting popular, and each new update brings plenty of quality of life improvements that make your life easier.
The hardware, on the hand, is pretty much the same as it’s been for years. The screen looks nicer than your eye is capable of seeing. The battery doesn’t really last as long as you’d like. The fingerprint sensor is handy. The camera is good enough that you don’t need a point-and-shoot anymore. Oh, and no matter how much you have, you still wish there was more storage space.
If that last paragraph describes you, congratulations, you have virtually any high-end phone made in the last three years. They haven’t changed much and this is a good thing. When you spend $600+ on a smartphone, it should last longer than the AC air filter you keep forgetting to change. The years when you had to drop a mortgage payment to get a new, necessary feature were profitable for the companies making phones, but stressful for the rest of us.
Now, things have mellowed. Phones have improved in the areas that mattered most to us—display, camera, processing power—to the point that they’re mostly good enough. The areas where we still want improvement—battery life, please!—have pretty much peaked until the next magical breakthrough finally makes it to market.
So, here we sit in limbo. Phones are good enough, or at least as good as we can expect given the current technology. Software updates bring most of the cool new features and there’s really not much reason to buy a new phone every couple years unless it doesn’t work anymore. Heck, there’s not even much reason to buy the most expensive version of a new phone. What’s a manufacturer to do?
The reason our phones got so good in the first place is because of arms races. Every since the first iPhone came out, there’s been a new arms race every couple of years centered around an aspect of the device. For a while, it was pixel density, which led to extra crisp displays. The camera arms race led to your smartphone outperforming most non-SLR cameras. And of course the race to make the thinnest phone led to Bendgate, one of the sillier tech controversies. Most of those arms races started with a necessary improvement, then fizzled out once people stopped caring about the imperceptible improvements each new phone offered. Currently, we have a new arms race: eliminating bezels.
So far, the current winner of this arms race is the iPhone X with almost no bezels in sight. Well, except for that immediately recognizable notch. Google’s new Pixel 2 XL has minimal bezels on the top and bottom, and even the Essential Phone, created by former Googler and creator of Android Andy Rubin, has an almost bezel-free display. Almost, save for an even uglier notch cut out of the screen for the camera.
If this change existed in a vacuum, it would be fine, but it doesn’t. In the race to get rid of bezels, we’ve had to give up a few things. The headphone jack, for starters, doesn’t fit in a bezel-less world. The iPhone X’s home button is also gone, so I hope you prefer to use your face to unlock your phone instead of your fingerprint. Sure, with a little bezel on the bottom you could have both options, but then there would be a tiny portion of the phone that’s not a screen and who can live like that?
Bafflingly, a bezel-less world even means losing some screen real estate. In Apple’s official guidelines for the iPhone X, the company warns against placing controls on the very bottom of the screen. Current iPhone users might note that this is where most apps place their controls. The reason, the guide states, is because the “far corners of the screen can be difficult areas for people to reach comfortably.” Indeed.
None of this is to say that a phone with minimal bezels is inherently bad. If there were a way to create a phone with no bezels without sacrificing other functionality, then great. However, manufacturers are continually going down this route with little explanation as to why. What, precisely, is the merit in having a smartphone with no bezels? What does it offer over a similar phone that does have bezels?
Neither Apple nor Google have a good answer to this question. Both companies launched two new phones this year but only one device per company actually delivers on minimal bezels. For those who don’t want to spend $1,000 to eliminate the bezel, the iPhone 8 still exists for Apple users. Google’s regular Pixel 2 has a normal, bezel-y screen, while the Pixel XL—which is $200 more expensive for a comparable model—is the only version that pushes the display closer to the edge. In both cases, you have to pay a premium—and accept an even larger phone—in order to play in the “futuristic” world, free of bezels. In short, neither company believes in this direction enough to commit to it fully. Just enough to start yanking out important features.
Of course, the brutally fast march of progress will continue and inevitably features we like will get lost. The floppy disk, the CD drive, and the headphone jack are all headed towards the same junk bin, whether we like the timing of their demise or not. However, the current hardware lull is accelerating the extinction of features we need or like in favor of changes that don’t do anything aside from make marketers happy.
That’s not to say that nothing interesting is happening in the world of smartphone hardware at all. Most phones come with some level of water resistance (though this was possible long before the death of the headphone jack), wireless charging is becoming common (though still not common enough for Google, apparently), and by the way did you know your phone is probably a 4K video camera? Crazy, right?
Yet, it’s not enough. As much as tech industry pundits and watchers are loathe to admit it, most of these things just don’t matter to most people who buy smartphones. As long as the exciting stuff is happening on the software side, it’s going to be harder and harder to sell new hardware. Smartphones will soon reach the point that laptops already have: a wide variety of mostly comparable devices that are virtually interchangeable from each other, with only mild differences that cater to certain preferences. This is a boring place for smartphone manufacturers to be, especially when they’re used to being the center of attention.
The longer they stay in this place, the more you can expect them to fight over increasingly inane areas of refinement. At least until someone figures out how to make a battery that lasts a week. In the meantime, it’s probably safe to stop paying attention to the new big phones every year. If your phone isn’t working well anymore, upgrade. If it works fine, keep it as long as you can. A new software update will probably give you more cool new features than a new handset will.
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