Waiting For The Great Leap Forward: Why All New Phones ‘Suck’

Waiting For The Great Leap Forward: Why All New Phones ‘Suck’

“This is a bit disappointing,” the comment started. “The rumours were Exynos octa[-core] 64 bit, no bezel screen, 2K resolution, multiple SKUs with a premium metallic casing, 32 or 64GB internal storage, (not 16GB or 32GB),” it added, summarising the new Galaxy S5 by finishing, “we got none of this. It’s a very incremental update, similar to Apple”. What you’ve just read is a real comment about the Galaxy S5, and there are hundreds of less civil ones like it. I’m here to tell you it’s time to reassess what we expect from a smartphone.

The Galaxy S5 came out yesterday, and almost every comment thread you read is full of platform warlords trying to sledge the competition with the “incremental upgrade” insult.

“This looks like an Apple release”, “no real innovation”, “only a point upgrade” are things you’ll commonly read. Everyone wants every single phone to change the world the second it comes out, and they’ll want another one next year too. Anything less than world-changing is considered a failure.

In the real world, phones do look like incremental upgrades every year when you follow the game close enough. An updated camera here, some new software there, a punt at a new feature every now and then with a high failure rate.

Phones operate on a two-year cycle for most companies: the Galaxy S5 is meant for Galaxy S III users. The iPhone 5s is meant for iPhone 4 and 4S users. Two-year contracts are still the norm for most people, even if tech junkies like you and me stick to 12-month upgrade cycles.

Crazy phones are coming, but you’ll have to wait. And for good reason:

Success doesn’t happen overnight. Successful platforms don’t happen like with a snap of your fingers and a wave of a magic stylus. They take time. There’s a gradual upgrade cycle.

I can guarantee you right now that somewhere in a lab in Korea, there’s a half-built prototype of the Galaxy S6 and the Note 4. Deep in Cupertino, there’s a bullet-point list in Tim Cook’s safe that says what the next four iPads are going to do and why. Stephen Elop has a OneDrive folder full of spreadsheets and roadmap presentations about what’s next.

The people running your favourite companies know where the puck is going, and they don’t want to flick it too fast. By executing the great leap forward too quickly, they risk releasing a half-baked product that will kill faith and tank the stock price.

They have full-on ecosystems to worry about, as well as existing customers who will reject change if thrust upon them too quickly. We saw what changing the goddamn 30-pin connector to a Lightning charger did for the iPhone, despite the fact that there was actually a reason beyond “making money”. Ordinary people hate change, so it has to be done at a pace people barely notice.

Even without the impetus of the ordinary consumer, building a phone out of the materials listed by our commenter friend would mean that the cost of the phone would be astronomical, for the manufacturer and the consumer. Not to mention that the battery would last five seconds before keeling over under the immense requirements.

Quality takes time, and therefore so do your favourite phones. We need to get used to the idea that the next big thing is now just a marketing catchphrase, and not a technological reality. New phones don’t “suck”: you’re expecting too much.