Smartphones have got boring? Don't believe it

You think smartphones have gone dull? Maybe you're just not looking in the right places.
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director
For many companies the smartphone market is a cold, unfriendly place to be right now.

Fingers burnt by the poor sales of its Fire 3D smartphone, Amazon has reportedly laid off a number of engineers which had worked on the project. Meanwhile, last month Microsoft revealed it was taking a $7.6bn writedown on its acquisition of the Nokia devices and services unit and axing nearly 8,000 jobs, mostly in its phone business. Not long after, images were leaked of its comeback phones, with the devices already dismissed as "fairly typical". Unremarkable black slabs rule.

Across the market, appetite for those slabs is slowing. Analyst IDC predicts that worldwide smartphone growth is expected to slow this year to a mere 10.4 percent, down from 27.5 percent last year. The once-booming Chinese market is expected to grow by only 1.2 percent, down from growth of 19.7 percent last year. Android and iOS have settled into an 80-20 share of the market, and that isn't likely to change any time soon, the analysts predict.

There are, of course, new iPhones due to be unveiled next week - invitations have already gone out for the 9 September event - accompanied be a presentation which will no doubt see another raid on the world's supply of superlatives. Assuming the leaks are true, the iPhones will have some interesting updates to the camera and may see the introduction of Force Touch. These are attractive, iterative, developments but not huge surprises, or as significant as last year's shift to big screens with the phablet iPhone 6.

The iPhone is a mature, stable product so it's probably unwise to expect giant leaps forward anymore. Much of the interest is in the broader ecosystem: mobile payments, its interaction with the Apple Watch, and the broader Internet of Things via Apple HomeKit.

The smartphone market is increasingly saturated, and the big players are well entrenched and hard to dislodge. You might be thinking the smartphone is becoming a commodity, and all the exciting stuff is happening around smartwatches now. Smartphones are boring, right?

But for all the naysayers, there's still plenty of innovation happening in smartphones: this is no monolithic market. Indeed, it's remarkable just how much there is going on; you just have to know where to look. As the price of components comes down, it's getting easier for smaller players to develop interesting devices that don't necessarily have to be mass market.

One area generating lots of interest, for example, is security around smartphones: just this week UK startup Wileyfox released two smartphones running on Cyanogen OS, with an emphasis on security, featuring for example PIN scramble, a feature that jumbles up the order of keys to prevent attackers figuring out passcodes from smudge marks on the screen. There's also the security focused Turing Phone which goes on sale later this month, while Silent Circle's Blackphone 2 is also due in September.

Looking slightly further out, there's experimental hardware in the shape of Google's Project Ara, modular Lego-like smartphones that can be assembled according to a users' needs. And I'll wager that flexible and curved screens are going to change the way we interact with these devices too - the curves of the Galaxy S6 Edge are just the start.

Best Android smartphones for work and play (Aug 2015 edition)

And certainly there is are still big chunks of the world where smartphone ownership is low - India is likely to be one of the next big markets which could create a new wave of local innovation. US companies are waking up to its potential too: former chief of Apple John Sculley recently launched two smartphones targeting emerging markets, under the Obi Worldphone brand.

There's still plenty of excitement left in the smartphone market - it just takes a little more work to seek it out.

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:

  • Intel's next frontier: Powering robots
  • An extended winter looming for OEMs
  • When robots eliminate jobs, humans will find better things to do
  • Microsoft and mobile: Searching for a way forward
  • Who will have the courage to build the future again?
  • Apple Watch: Now the hard work really begins
  • BlackBerry has nothing to lose, so why not try out Android?
  • Can Windows 10 save the PC?
  • Editorial standards