Smartphones: Why it's easy to switch

Switchers discover that smartphones are pretty much alike, no matter what OS is behind the screen.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor
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.

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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.

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