Has smartphone innovation peaked? Has our interest in these devices peaked?


As expected… I began writing about this month’s iPhone XS launch and realised that phrase summed up the last few years of Apple product launches.

The Steve Jobs years were characterised not only by his showmanship but by his iron-clad insistence on secrecy. No supplier would dare leak any details about upcoming product launches. When an iPhone was mistakenly left in a bar one year, it was considered a guerrilla marketing ploy because there was simply no way that Jobs would tolerate such an indiscretion.

Now, by the time the 2018 models were revealed, almost all the specifications, colours, screen sizes and other pertinent information was common cause for Apple rumour mongers.

What does it mean? Has Apple peaked? Has smartphone innovation peaked? Has our interest in these digital heroin dispensers peaked?

Are we just over it?

Perhaps, for some those years of the “hype cycle” as analysts Gartner call the trajectory of new technology and its uptake by society, have made people weary.

The rate of innovation has slowed, in no small part because the early years were so frenetic and came off such a low base.

It’s also because the laws of physics restrict just how small the technology – especially the batteries – can be miniaturised. For years smartphone makers (from Apple to Samsung to Huawei) boasted about the thinness of their devices. Or boasted about how many megapixels the cameras had. Or boasted about how much bigger the screen itself was (led by Samsung’s Galaxy range). Or, last year, boasted about the death of the bezel (that black edge around the screen) which meant the Galaxy S8 and the iPhone X could have remarkably large screens in a smaller frame.

It’s somewhat unfair to blame the manufacturers for our malaise. Last year Apple was heavily criticised for the $1,000 price tag of its top-end iPhone X. But it was demand for that device last quarter that pushed Apple’s market valuation over US$1-trillion last month.

Smartphones are the default devices that we use in this modern, mobile age of super-fast wireless broadband. But they are also symbols of fashion, status and, well, desire. They are not just our onramp to the information superhighway, they are our sports cars for the journey. Everyone wants a Lamborghini, don’t they? (It was the only brand of supercar I knew as a kid, which you can blame on The Cannonball Run, that cult classic but not box office success, which starred the late Burt Reynolds, who died this month.)

The major themes this year are slightly different though. Smartphone manufacturers, and Google which makes Android, have started crowing about how they will help us with our digital addictions – a profound irony considering it’s their devices that got us hooked in the first place.

What is noteworthy from this year’s iPhone launch is the new interface. Jobs shocked the world in 2007 by having a single button, which the iPhone X dropped last year. Having used it since November, I am pleased to report that the new way of navigating around the phone is superb, intuitive and a bold step in a new direction. Face ID, as Apple calls it, isn’t entirely problem-free but it’s moving ahead. Samsung’s face-recognition is frankly better.

What South Africans should be happy about is that we’re now in a earlier release schedule, so we get the new iPhones today, like many top tier countries.

This column first appeared in Financial Mail


About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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