Sunday, 2 December 2012

Form Factor Monotony

I had to add an extra label for this post; rant. The title above, form factor monotony, should say it all really, but here's some detail.

From the detailed list of Android phones available here in the UK you will see that the last device to not be a touch-only boring rectangle slab was the Motorola Pro Plus in December 2011. Simply put, every single Android phone released in the UK in the last 12 months has been pretty much the same. Maybe that's not fair, there are slight differences in curves around the edges, bezels sizes, materials and colours for example. The basic design of each is the same though; big slab, big pane of glass, increasingly less buttons for things like "home" or the camera shutter and maybe a flap for micro USB or SIM cards.

It's so incredibly boring!

Take a look down the history of Symbian phones. There's some serious variety in there, from phones that twist, flip, slide, have full keyboards, T9 keyboards, the list goes on. There was some serious creativity in there, mostly from Nokia of course being Symbian phones, but this is the best example of a seemingly forgotten art of making something tangibly different, whose physical attributes set it apart 

iPhone hardware is of course very similar through generations too, highly unsurprising given Apple's strategy to keep things simple, and allowing users to upgrade from one iPhone generation to the next without large scale changes and without the need to learn anything new around the hardware. Also different here is Apple controlling the entire device ecosystem, from hardware through operating system to the core software and apps, resulting in a much more uniform experience, which for the most part is a good thing for the average non-geek user.

Windows Phone seems to be following the same path as Android in terms of hardware variety, albeit a year or two behind, much like the operating system itself! The first generation of devices, introduced late 2010, included some small difference in form factors, and we had phones with keyboards, although they all seemed to be sliders and the candy bar qwerty arrangement wasn't taken on by any of the Windows Phone manufacturers. Come late 2012 and Windows Phone 8 hardware has converged on the same touch-only rectangle slab arrangement, from all the manufacturers. Samsung have at least kept a small amount of variety by sticking with a physical Windows button!

RIM's plans for BlackBerry 10 include touch-only and keyboarded devices at least, but with a large cloud surrounding the company's long term future and ability to execute the plan next year, they don't seem too relevant for this current snapshot.

This isn't the only trend in the smartphone hardware world of course. Sealed batteries are close to becoming standard and micro SD card slots are going the way of the Dodo, a trend which could arguably be traced back to Apple's introduction of the iPhone range. There are exceptions, and right up to its latest flagship the Galaxy S III, Samsung was bucking this trend and included both a changeable battery and a micro SD card slot. The days of these features seem numbered though, much like the reducing trend for camera shutter buttons, and the complete lack of a xenon flash equipped camera for a year or two across any of the ecosystems. Personally I can live with sealed batteries, but the SD card slot and shutter button are still big deals for me, but I must be in a diminishing minority.

We've seen that most smartphones are converging to touch-only hardware, with a button or two for power and a home function if you're lucky, and a volume rocker. One can only presume that this is due to the powers of supply and demand. Android and Window Phone phones had some variety in their early days, but with this fizzling out it, one logical train of thought is that the non-slab phones simply did not sell enough for manufacturers to bother making them again; why would you if they lost you money last time around because nobody bought them!? Maybe the extra complexity of non-slab phones and potentially large premium in build cost means they have to sell them at higher prices, which again would decrease demand. Or they're sold at lower margins, meaning the manufacturers, retailers and carriers alike would all see less profit on these devices, and their days would be numbered.

I don't blame the manufacturers, retailers or carriers for not continuing with devices which don't sell or don't make them enough money to bother, that's just life selling in a free (ish) marketplace. It does however make life for the smartphone enthusiast very dull. In recent episodes of both The Verge Mobile Show and The Phones Show Chat the presenters have bemoaned the lack of interesting devices, and alluded to a perceived plateau or technology and specifications within the smartphone space (although in fairness Chris Ziegler was rather shot down for his explanation of this, though he stuck to his guns!)

I've found myself agreeing with these guys; an industry which was once really interesting is starting to decline in variety. We still have 3 or 4 platforms to keep us interested on the software front, but hardware is becoming more of a commodity (it's not there yet) which is a real shame, and it seems that whilst I once changed phones every few weeks that is starting to drop to every few months, or more.