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The Smartphone Market Has Turned into the Cereal Aisle

That's why everything coming out of the world's annual smartphone bonanza in Barcelona feels like it was developed by engineers whose only orders were "More!"
February 26, 2013, 3:40pm
Samsung's 8-inch phablet. The smartphone game is just getting weird now. Via PC Pro

If this year's Mobile Web Congress is any indication, we're nearing the end of this chapter of the smartphone era. The market has been flooded with wonderful phones for some time now, and it's apparently getting a lot harder for manufacturers to stand out. Perhaps that's why everything coming out of the world's annual smartphone bonanza in Barcelona feels like it was developed by engineers whose only orders were "More!"

Chinese manufacturer Huawei, which recently became the third largest smartphone maker behind Samsung and Apple, wants to wow us with the "fastest" phone in the world. It's so fast, the advertised download speeds aren't supported by current wireless networks. Consumer electronics stalwart Asus is entering the fray with a new 5-inch superphone that -- wait for it -- turns into a tablet when connected to its dock accessory. Then there's Samsung's 8-inch Note. It's either the largest phone ever or the first tablet with built-in phone capabilities. Take your pick.


If it feels like they're grasping for straws it's because they are. Every bit of the spectrum has been successfully covered. Quad-core! LTE! We've got phones in every size and the ability to produce a decent one is no longer special. Everyone, I mean everyone is doing it. Samsung proved it first with its Galaxy S line.

Android is everywhere. Nokia is making quality gear that runs Windows. The new BlackBerry Z10 looks like a real contender. HTC is attempting to mount a comeback on its slick flagship One. The decision of what phone to buy has never mattered so little. Sure, you can't download Tinder unless you're on iOS, but they’ve all got HD screens, killer cameras, and powerful processors. There are even Firefox phones. And for the true nerd, there's always an Ubuntu tablet.

Because the market is so saturated with highly-capable phones from top to bottom and in every niche, smartphones are beginning to feel like commodified goods. Commodities are treated by markets as essentially being the same, regardless of who manufactured it. Traditional commodities include petroleum and wheat, but smartphones are nearing that point. They're all so capable now that it's beginning to feel like shopping in the cereal aisle.

This is great news for consumers and terrible news for Apple. People love to talk about the genius of Steve Jobs and the innovation emanating from Cupertino, but it’s important to remember that almost all of Apple’s current success since Jobs returned has been predicated on one major product line that began with the iPod: the personal media device in your pocket. First it played music. Then videos. Eventually you could make calls and surf the web. At one point they made it bigger. Along the way they built a digital store around this hardware ecosystem.

A first mover in the space, Apple rode the wave to the top and at its peak was the largest company in the world. But the first mover advantage rarely lasts. Apple, too, realized that their coveted smartphone had become more and more difficult to differentiate. Why else would they be so protective of things like “slide-to-unlock,” “pinch-to-zoom” and rounded icons.

Thus far, we’ve seen three major chapters in the history of the portable phone. First it was just the cellphone. Then came the email device that made calls. Finally, it morphed into a full-fledged media device. Each major chapter has had one clear ruler: Nokia, BlackBerry, and now Apple. Despite ruling the roost, neither Nokia nor BlackBerry successfully transitioned between paradigm shifts in any meaningful way. Apple looks to be hitting a similar wall and while the company is still making money hand over fist, so were its predecessors until they, well, weren’t.

We’re already starting to get glimmers of the next chapter. Transcending lighter and thinner and faster and bigger, products like the Kickstarter-funded Pebble Watch and Google’s awesome-but-scary Project Glass can extract the magic of our powerful commoditized pocket PCs in a more human way. Blind optimization gives way to true innovation. For Apple, history repeats itself. Instead of desktops running Windows, this time it's phones powered by Android. For the rest of us it's about time we could get excited about portable technology again.