We have access to the most powerful smartphones that have ever been made. We carry around more processing power in our pockets than our laptops held even just a few years ago, our phones' cameras are as good as - if not better than - most point-and-shoot cameras on the market and LTE is faster than the home internet that most of the country has access to.
So why are smartphones more boring and more underwhelming than ever before?
Samsung's Galaxy S-Snore
Last week, Samsung (GM:SSNLF) announced the Galaxy S IV, which many thought would be the greatest thing since sliced bread. It's a very nice phone with a ton of power, but most of its innovations are either first-party twists on features common to Android or gimmicks. Touch here! Look there! There's no innovation, just smoke and mirrors. Most of the phone's "highlights" are simply enhancements of current features or just plain gimmicks.
The Galaxy S IV will ship with Android's Jelly Bean, but be outdated after about four weeks when Key Lime Pie is likely to hit the Android world. As CNET explains, this issue "underscores the broader problem that Android handset manufacturers face with Google (GOOG): slow access to the latest version of the mobile operating system." With no control over when its flagship phone will get the latest version of Android, Samsung's Galaxy S IV will be outdated almost immediately. Ho hum.
No wonder it's looking to break away from Android.
The iPhone 5S (Or Whatever It's Called)
The only true threat to Samsung's market dominance is a pesky little company called Apple (AAPL). While Apple holds a slight edge in the market share right now, there's a lot of debate as to whether the Galaxy S IV will de-throne the iPhone as King Smartphone, or whether the next iPhone will make everyone fall in love with Apple once again.
But who cares?
Apple's last few smartphones have seen nice - but minor - upgrades. When Apple announced the iPhone 4S, it packed a little more punch than the iPhone 4, had a better camera and a better screen. It added in Siri (a true innovation), but we all remember that she wasn't without a few (or, really, many) hiccups when she first arrived. And Siri and I still do not get along well at all.
The iPhone 5 added a bigger, nicer screen and more power (sound familiar to another iPhone upgrade?) and added in LTE. And the world rejoiced, even though it wasn't too far off from the 4S.
With the 5S (or whatever) looming in the next few months, the internet is once again abuzz with rumors and speculation. A recent report said that the "iPhone 5S [will] use [a] faster chip and higher-end camera," which, of course it should. That's how the world interprets Moore's Law (although they shouldn't use it thusly). But that also sounds like the last two upgrades to the iPhone. Where's the innovation???
Any Interest in BlackBerry 10?
BlackBerry (BBRY) (formerly Research in Motion) unveiled its latest OS at the end of January in the form of BlackBerry 10. The company had heard the criticisms people hurled at it and knew it needed to conform (to some extent) to the app-fueled iOS- and Android-dominated market, which is pretty much exactly what the company tried to do. With a lot of hype and promise, it looked like BlackBerry 10 would be a strong competitor in the mobile market.
Except it turns out that BlackBerry offers only 34% of the top apps that Android and iOS have.
While there are signs of growth - most notably that the OS has gained over 30,000 new apps in the past seven weeks to surge past 100,000 - it doesn't mean a whole lot if public support isn't there. And BlackBerry is struggling in that regard.
Yahoo (YHOO) CEO Marissa Mayer said last fall that she no longer considers BlackBerry a smartphone, and while that proclamation came before the release of BlackBerry 10, it doesn't change the fact that all Yahoo employees are required to have either an iPhone or Android. BlackBerry is left out in the cold.
BlackBerry ran into more problems recently when the U.K.'s Communications-Electronics Security Group decided that BlackBerry 10 was not safe for essential government work, a qualification that earlier versions of the BlackBerry OS had met. A report by The Guardian suggests that this rejection could cost BlackBerry millions of dollars in lost revenue, as the U.K. government was one of BlackBerry's biggest customers in the country.
BlackBerry 10 could have been a worthwhile platform, but it seems to constantly shoot itself in the foot. Speaking of which…
And Then There Was Windows Phone
Who knows what's going on with Windows Phone? There are so many different handsets made by so many companies with so many tiers that it's hard to keep them all straight.
With the launch of Windows Phone 8, Microsoft (MSFT) finally had a worthwhile mobile OS. Windows Phone 7 never caught on, and people who bought one of those phones found themselves unable to upgrade to the Windows 8 OS. Microsoft has promised that won't be an issue this time around (especially given its more frequent, yearly updates in the form of Windows Blue), but is anyone actually using its phones?
Microsoft's focus seems to be more so on Surface than Windows Phone, or on the entire Windows ecosystem rather than just its handsets. Windows Phone 8 devices were plagued with hardware problems from the start, and software hasn't been much better.
The Windows Store on Windows Phone 8 has always been a problem. Back in December, Google said that it had "no plans to build out Windows apps," and prominent third-party apps, like Spotify or Pandora (P), are so infrequently added to the platform that each release is treated as a windfall for the OS.
That content issue could be blamed on Microsoft, though, as there seemed to be an unwritten rule in place that the Windows client team wouldn't pay developers to write apps for Windows 8. Recently, however, Microsoft changed course and is now offering developers $100 per app written to try to increase the number of interesting and diverse apps in the store. Too little, too late.
A Two-Horse Race
Despite having four (somewhat) major choices for OS, and dozens of major handsets, there seem to be only two real candidates when it comes to buying a top-tier smartphone: the iPhone 5 and Galaxy S IV. Even the HTC One, which by all accounts is a great phone in terms of specs and even has a somewhat revolutionary camera, has been delayed because parts manufacturers don't see HTC as a "tier-one company" in the smartphone realm anymore.
If one of the best handsets on the market, running the world's most popular OS, can't get made, what hope do any of us have for true innovation in the smartphone world?