Smartphones: Why it's easy to switch

Smartphones: Why it's easy to switch

Summary: Switchers discover that smartphones are pretty much alike, no matter what OS is behind the screen.

(Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

Remember back when the Palm Treo first hit buyers’ hands? The thin (for its time) handset with the tiny screen hinted at the great smartphones to come. Owners discovered, often for the first time, the delight of having a smartphone that could do many things. This paved the way for the arrival of Apple’s iPhone.

The iPhone revolutionized the mobile space with its slab form and simple interface. The OS was rapidly accepted by consumers as it gave point-and-click operation to the tasks that quickly became standard. Surfing the web, working with email, using Facebook, and all the functions we’ve come to love having on our phones, were all front and center on the iPhone.

Fast forward to today and it seems that smartphones are losing their identities. Sure, there are lots of them out there, iPhones, Samsung phones, Windows phones, etc., but none of them has anything to set them apart from the lot.

The slab

Smartphone makers are going crazy trying to come up with a hardware angle that will ignite the passion needed to create the next big phone. They are totally failing in this regard, in large part to the fact that the smartphone is still just a slab.

Even Apple’s Touch ID, the fingerprint sensor used to unlock the phone, failed to create the buzz that the company wanted.

The original iPhone was a big deal due to its simple slab form, and that's what every OEM has adopted. Pick up the latest Android phone, Samsung's or anybody else's, and it's a slab. So is the latest iPhone, and every Windows Phone at the store. They are all slabs, pure and simple.

Since all smartphones have the same form, the only way OEMs can stand out from the rest is to make subtle changes. This is attempted either by changing the edges of the slab, adding simple hardware controls, putting in a better camera, or offering different colors for the casing.

Those aren’t significant changes, and the inability of any smartphone to break out of the mold is proof of that. Put round edges on a smartphone to be different and nobody really cares. Make a bright yellow phone and the majority of prospective buyers say “ho-hum”. The changes are too superficial to make any phone stand out from the rest.

Even Apple’s Touch ID, the fingerprint sensor used to unlock the phone, failed to create the buzz that the company wanted. Pundits and analysts oohed and ahhed but the buying public shrugged its collective shoulders. It's a nice feature but nothing special.

Samsung put health sensors in its latest Galaxy S5 smartphone to try and breach the boring divide, but that failed miserably. The design chief resigned over the lack of interest in the S5 handset. That's about as big a failure to set your phone apart from the rest as you can get.

The fact is the smartphone has become so ubiquitous, so commonplace, which it is no longer held in a special place with consumers. They’re all basically the same, and factors other than features and design now determine which one we buy.

The apps

With hardware pretty much the same across smartphone product lines, which leaves software to set them apart. The major smartphone platforms do things differently than the others to differentiate from the rest. The problem is, they still all do the same things, however different the approach.

Most of the buying public doesn’t look at the mobile OS to determine which one they like best. Smartphone usage has become so ingrained in owners’ lives that they now just think about what they do with the phone, not how they do it. It’s no longer a case of which phone does some things better, it’s now a question of “can this phone do this and that?”

The problem for OEMs is that the answer to that question is "yes it can," no matter what brand of phone or what platform it runs. They all do the same things, and do them fairly well. Checking email, Facebook, and Twitter is just as good on all phones currently available. There is no unique function on one that sets the phone apart.

Some smartphone owners will tell you they love their widgets or live tiles as they set them apart from the competition. They’re correct in that view, but that is overshadowed by the similarity across all platforms in the things owners actually do with phones.

One thing we’re seeing more often — long-time enthusiasts of one smartphone/platform try switching to the competition and discover they like it just as much as their former favorite. This is because when exposed to another solution, they realize they can do the same things on it they’ve always done. They may do them better on the new platform which really surprises them, or it may be mostly the same experience. The realization hits them that smartphones are basically the same when it comes to functionality.

General malaise

The lack of distinction among smartphones and the software that runs them has resulted in buyer’s fatigue. Outside of small pockets of enthusiasts there are no big groups anxiously awaiting the next smartphone, not even Apple’s. The buying public has become a passive audience concerning what’s coming next, and that is a big problem for OEMs.

With both hardware and software basically the same in the smartphone space, it’s not clear how OEMs can build one that rises above the rest and gets buyers excited. For consumers, it’s become a simple case of what we can do on our phone that determines how we like it. And we all do pretty much the same things.

See also:

Topics: Mobility, Android, iPhone, Smartphones, Windows Phone

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  • I don't see it as a negative thing

    Actually is a good sign of evolution of software.
    There is no good reason, why being locked to a platform or brand is good for consumers.
    Smartphones have brought something that others have tried in many ways without succeeding.
    Take Java per example, the "write once, deploy anywhere" was far from being achieved. Cloud and mobile development new paradigms are giving more freedom to consumers, a freedom that is very welcome in my opinion.

    It's great that I can access my gmail seamless from anywhere/any device, it's great that I can enjoy Nokia navigation from WP or android, it's great that youtube app is similar across different devices, is good that the appointments in my agenda will pop up when I'm using my tablet or smartphone, ....
    • Google has the innovation crown

      I think their modular phone (ara) and 3D sensing phone (tango) show that there is still innovation to be done in the space. Computational power is still growing with every new release at that size, so what a phone can do ought to be enlarging.
  • Almos all true, but..

    I tried to change from Mac + iPhone, to a Windows PC + Android phone and found out that there was no easy way to sync my Calendar (except for Outlook Calendar - the paid Outlook..) in both Windows, using Windows Live Mail Calendar and my android Samsung phone..

    Asked for several other solutions and none is so neat as the simplicity of the integration (and easy to access and read and print) of my iMac and my iPhone.

    Couldn't even get someone to suggest me a good clean EASY to use, in everyday life, solution.
    So, I still do prefer Apple world because it facilitates my life, although I would like to change to Windows world, as it's easier with Trading platforms.
    • Windows + Android

      integrates just as well as Mac + Android...

      You have gone from a single supplier with integrated products to two completely different platforms, which have nothing in common, and you complain that it isn't as well integrated...

      Window + WindowsPhone integrates pretty well.

      As for Windows + Android, use either or as your central hub and set up the accounts on your Android and Windows devices. Heck, if you want to, you could use your iCloud account to sync mail and calendar across the devices.

      And you don't need Outlook (paid for). You can use Windows 8's built in mail and calendaring programs - if you set up Windows 8 with an account, it will integrate the mail, calendar and contacts automatically for you. With Windows 7, you can download Windows Live Mail or you can use a third party application, like Mozilla Thunderbird with the Lightning plug-in for calendar.
      • Or Chrome

        Or use Chrome browser, with or Gmail and Checker Plus for Google Calendar and sync the Google Calendar. This is what I use on Mac and Ubuntu. May get Chrome OS someday as well. Using Nexus 4 smartphone with Google Calendar.
      • Cannot use Gmail on Windows

        Google has turned off activesync for Gmail, so you cannot sync Gmail calendar and contacts to the native Windows apps. Yes, you can still use the browser versions, but not Windows Calendar or People.
  • Nice quote

    "Pundits and analysts oohed and ahhed but the buying public shrugged its collective shoulders"

    Sort of sums up the disconnect between the tech press and the buying public.
  • Pretty much agree about functionality

    though I prefer the available of comprehensive "launchers" in Android that permit a lot of interface tweaking prevented by design in iOS and by lack of developers in others. Further I'd say there's less and less to justify the massive price markups for "premium" as compared with budget phones. The OEM marketers so far have succeeded in creating and maintaining a lot of princesses who continue to lose sleep over tinier and tinier peas under the pile of mattresses.
  • It isn't as easy as all that

    pretty much all the phone vendors have their own movie and music ecosystem. And they're not all terribly portable.

    The content you've purchased is definitely a factor in these kinds of decisions.
    • Not entirely true...

      Unless you were a sucker and got sucked into a closed ecosystem with proprietary formats, that just isn't true. There might be some time involved, but the fact say mp3s are usable on all platforms makes your comment moot. If you ate talking about paid apps, there are tons of free alternatives for most paid apps. An app that you paid for and either can't find or don't want to rebuy, keep the old device and turn use it as a wifi device. There are plenty of third-party music, storage, etc options that the average user shouldn't feel restricted. Of course, an average user won't read any tech boards to weigh in. Just ask yourself, does the person in the car next to you on your way to work even know how to use most of the features on their phone? More than likely not.
  • Forget the Treo, what about the Palm Pilot?

    "Remember back when the Palm Treo first hit buyers’ hands?"

    Forget the Treo, what about the Palm Pilot? Today's modern smart phone is merely a super advanced version of the PDA, but with far better connectivity and internal sensors.

    I still think it's too bad only Apple sells the equivalent of a PDA anymore (the iPod Touch). I still don't understand why everybody had to shoehorn a phone into it.

    . . . and I'm not sure how easy it would be for me to switch to something else. I have, after all, bought into the platform I own and would have to re-buy all of my paid apps. One thing that smart phones didn't bring is cross-platform support.
    • They do sell the equivalent of a PDA

      in that the tablet kind of plays that role (portable computing device without a cell phone radio), its just that they're too big to slip in your pocket. I agree that the iPod Touch is a form factor we would do well to see from other vendors.... I know I've wanted to dip my toes in multiple ecosystems, but don't need an actual phone for each one of them (only so many phone calls I can make, and data plans I'd want to pay for!)
      • There's plenty of cheaper phones you could buy

        and just not use the phone part. Something like the Lumia 52x comes to mind. They're pretty cheap, even if you add an SD card. I think Motorola has some decent cheap Android devices too.
        • Just about to say that

          If someone interested in trying really wanted to try other platforms, I'm sure they would have already.
    • Palm Pilot Tungsten T5

      I still use mine every day. And there are still apps and games that I use on it that I can't find for my iPhone. I especially like the stylus input that gives better resolution that my fat fingers will ever achieve. That resolution allows character input much faster and accurate than my thumbs can do. The only reason I moved from my clamshell phone (Bluetooth linked to Tungsten) to an iPhone is that I occasionally need the mobile Hot Spot.
  • The first internet key charger! - The first internet key charger!
  • You hit the nail right in the head

    This is true not only for the phone world, it is true for the tablet and pc world. If you're an engineer, you care about your autocad working, not where the icon you clicked was, or if it was a live tile, you forget about that a second after you clicked it.

    Ease of use could be a separating factor, but they are all as easy, and you can even switch from one appliance to the next and don't care. I have an IPad, a Windows Surface, a few android tablets and a galaxy note 3 phone, I don't care which one I use to work or play, they all work the same. The Surface takes me much further than all the rest, but I still use my Ipad to play games and surf the web, and when I'm on the street I use my phone to google stuff... the window shape or size does not matter any more, it is what you can see through it that counts.
  • No one wants niches

    The original iPhone made waves, in large part, because its standout feature was "the core stuff, simple...and it syncs with iTunes." This wasn't a niche, it was a mainstream hole in the market, and it sold millions. I don't think there are too many major holes of that nature in the market that would warrant such similar fanfare.

    Apple and Samsung also have fairly mature markets; they're not going to attempt to redefine their own markets.

    Where there could be plenty of 'sleeper sales' would be in niche products, of which the original Treo phones were a part. Hardware keyboards may see a renaissance; my HTC Touch Pro2 had the best hardware keyboard ever and I dearly miss it. An Android phone with a ZeroLemon sized battery would be huge, but for some, "three days of battery life" would be a worthwhile selling point worth the extra eight ounces and non-anorexic form factor. What about a "smartphone for the elderly" - large print, easy buttons, very simple interface? T-Mobile had a niche in the deaf community with their Sidekick phones and service, could someone cater a device for them? What about phones with dedicated laser barcode scanners? Yes, I know, cameras are being used for the task now, but they're terrible at it for any kind of real volume. How about a phone that allows the user to flash either Windows Phone or Android without having to head over to XDA-Developers for a modded ROM? Assuming it would help, what about a phone that had an extendible antenna or a port for an offboard one, for those times you that cell service will be difficult to attain?

    There are plenty of ways for phones to fill a niche, but the companies are a victim of their own success -they want to sell phones that sell millions, which means that sticking to what's worked in the past is a philosophy that VERY few companies are willing to question.

    • +1 TP2

      I'm constantly amazed at HTC for dropping this design from their newer handsets. I've been looking for some time now for a replacement for my Touch Pro 2, which I am still using, but don't see ANY good keyboard sliders.

      Does anybody know of a good Touch Pro 2 alternative? I would hate to resort to an iPhone 5s and that Boxwave keyboard case...
    • Glad I am not the only one that waxes poetic for a great keyboard

      The phone I miss was the Dell Venue Pro. It had the best keyboard I have ever used. I don't think we will ever see that again.