Smartphones and loyalty: Hardware is still the heart of the matter

Smartwatches, tap-and-pay, and health monitoring are all very well, but the smartphone essentials still matter most.

It's tempting to believe that we have reached the final frontier with smartphone evolution, that there just aren't any more great new hardware or software features to be added.

After all, so the argument goes, every decent smartphone can now do pretty much everything it needs to do, so the next wave of innovation will not be on the phone, but around it. Services and ecosystems are the next big thing.

There's a certain amount of truth to this : smartphone design has certainly stalled, with the anonymous black slab the winner, at least for now.

Handsets in particular price bands have similar specs, in terms of screen size, pixel density and battery life (fanbois feel free to scream). A cheap smartphone will deliver a good-enough experience, for example, while even at the high end innovation has slowed — the addition of an NFC chip and a larger screen in the latest iPhone is really just Apple catching up with the rest of the industry. There are still hardware challenges to resolve, though: since when was charging your phone every day acceptable, for instance?

This growing commoditisation is exactly why Apple and everyone else is now looking at tap-and-pay, smartwatches and health monitoring: building these ecosystems is a useful way of locking customers in, too.

That doesn't mean the hardware is irrelevant anymore. In fact, with the leading handsets so evenly matched (again, fanbois feel free to jump up and down), getting the hardware right matters more than ever.

Look on my works

I was reminded of this when I attended the launch of BlackBerry's new device, the oddly-shaped Passport , last week. BlackBerry is in many respects the Ozymandias of the smartphone world: the fallen giant who once had it all (whether its intriguing-but-boxy new device will herald a new dawn remains to be seen, but it's good news that at least someone is trying to do something different). The history of BlackBerry over the last few years shows how fast the market leader can be overtaken. Nothing is guaranteed here.   

Apple went from the high of selling 10 million new iPhones to the indignity of bendygate and then borkgate in the space of just a few days. Cue plenty of schadenfreude and mocking from rival brands and much irritation from those who had bagged their iPhone 6 early, or who piled into the iOS 8 update too early (not to mention the outcry from those who woke up with a U2 album on their device).

Sure, these are modest speedbumps for the Apple juggernaut, but they are a useful reminder: for all the ecosystem talk from smartphone vendors, loyalty still comes back to the hardware in your hand.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on Monday Morning Opener