Opinion: Mobile World Congress is coming to a finish over in Barcelona. Phone makers are closing up their stands, pulling down company banners and sliding fingerprint-smudged handsets back into their packing crates. By all accounts, everything went off without a hitch. If you were following the events, though, there’s a solid chance you were left unimpressed.
MWC was, in volume terms, pretty busy. The Samsung Galaxy S5 was announced, as was a new mid-range HTC, three fascinating Nokia Xs, and a swathe of other tech. Heaps of new phones and devices were launched, and we can’t think of a single product that fell completely flat. So why aren’t we all feeling excited?
Here’s the first big reason: we knew essentially what would happen a fair while before it actually did. The Galaxy S5’s 16-megapixel camera, for example: that’s been an open secret for quite some time. The Nokia Normandy — everything but its slightly odd forked Android variant, at least — has been known about for an entire month. And that’s an eternity in the technology world, doubly so when you’re talking about the ridiculously fast-paced smartphone market.
It’s really, really hard to develop a product, test it, manufacture enough to meet global demand, and then announce and launch it with no-one expecting a thing. Apple is one of very few companies that can pull it off, and with the rise of Sonny Dickson and @evleaks, there’s a very good chance we’ll know a lot about the iPhone 6 a long while before you can buy one. Especially when companies like Xiaomi do their product development completely out in the open.
More pervasive than product leaks and teasers, though, is the stark reality of the extremely high-tech world we live in.
The desktop computing race — Intel versus AMD, IBM versus Apple, Compaq versus Dell, Lenovo versus HP — took 30 years to reach its current saturation point, where each incremental update looks like it’s less important than the last (cue Haswell disappointment). With smartphones, that process has taken a tenth of the time.
There hasn’t been a huge leap forward in smartphones for a long time — it’s been seven years since the iPhone, and six years since the App Store. Analysts and pundits would suggest that this is stagnation — no exciting new innovations and no real, compelling reasons to buy a new phone. What it actually means, though, is that the innovations are increasingly minute and easy to miss.
If you think about it out of the context of the last seven years, a smartphone with a fingerprint scanner is incredibly cool. A mobile processor that slows down its operations in between touchscreen taps to reduce heat is a huge innovation. A smartphone with an OLED display that switches off individual pixels when they’re not in use to save power is awesome. The only problem with all of these developments is that they’re not ‘game-changing’ — they don’t conform to the excessive expectations we’ve built up from the big, obvious advancements of previous years.
Considered on its own, every smartphone to come out of MWC is an extremely capable device. If you aren’t overly concerned with having the latest and greatest, or with pitting iOS against Android against Android against Android against Windows Phone, you’re spoiled for choice. The only problem is that every phone is too good.