The last few years have been really exciting. Heck, the whole last decade. The explosive proliferation of broadband brought about a whole new world of possibilities for mankind, and the mobile revolution, even moreso. From about 2007 to the present, we watched as Apple and Google, as well as a host of phone manufacturers, turned the world upside down by putting powerful, location-aware, internet-connected, touchscreen mini-computers in the hands of everyday consumers for a price that is relatively affordable.
It's been five years, though, since the first iPhone came out, and nearly four years since the first Android device. Android fans, and indeed the entire tech world, is getting a little bored. We've come to expect that each new product announcement is going to blow us away because, let's face it, for years it did. I was floored when my G1 already had my Google Contacts downloaded before I made it to my car with my shiny new toy.
Today, though, we get pieces like this. In this piece, Vlad Savov tells us the story of how Samsung "broke his heart." You know, in the way that one might feel if they walked in and saw their long-time lover in bed with someone else. A mixture of envy, regret, anger, frustration, and betrayal. Or, maybe, maybe, what Savov means is "Eh, this isn't the phone for me." One of the two.
Left: Thumb breaker. Right: Heart breaker.
It's hard to begrudge a person their opinion. It is, after all, their opinion. Like the rest of us, Savov is more than welcome to enjoy or not enjoy any device he chooses. The dissonance, however, comes when you take a look at The Verge's review of the device, done by Savov himself. In the heartbreak piece, Savov says the device "at best...matched the HTC One X." In the review, he gives it a slightly better score than the HTC One X review (which, in fairness, was done by a different reviewer). So, which is it? Is the Galaxy S III a disappointment, a heartbreak? Or is it a powerful, high-end, leading device?
It's actually both. The Galaxy S III and HTC's One X are, by all accounts, amazing devices. We just don't seem to appreciate how amazing they are. I've singled out Savov above, but let me be clear: this isn't about Savov. It's about all of us. The last time I got super excited about a device was the original Evo. It had a long list of first-for-Android's: a huge 4.3" screen, a front-facing camera, an unheard-of 8MP rear-shooter, 4G (even if it was WiMax), a micro-HDMI port, and a kickstand. A kickstand! Every single one of these features was brand new on the Android platform. The iPhone 4, which came out a few weeks later, didn't have any of them, either, with the exception of the front-facing camera.
The early Android hot rod.
Plenty of phones have come out since then, but there are some that still shoot for what the Evo did two years ago. Front-facing cameras have become the norm, you can't get away with releasing a non-4G phone unless you're Apple (and even then, you're treading thin ice at this point), and the kickstand on the latest Evo wasn't a revelatory joy as much as it was "Well, why'd you get rid of it on the Evo 3D in the first place? Idiots." In a lot of ways, we're still modeling our devices off the substantial step forward made by this two-year-old device. Yet we still want that same level of impact, that same "Holy crap!" factor.
In short, we've been spoiled. Our phones are, in most measurable ways, miracles. They know where they are on earth, they know where they are in reference to the ground, they can see the world around them, they can track our eyes, and most incredibly, they can talk to any other internet-connected device on the planet. The sheer volume of things our devices can do is astounding. What we don't appreciate, though, is that much of the technology that goes into our devices existed already. The mobile revolution didn't occur because a bunch of companies invented a ton of stuff all at once. It occurred because pre-existing technology came together in a nice package for the first time.
A History Of Innovation
Prior to the iPhone and the G1, things like GPS units existed, wireless networks could carry data and even pull up websites. Email and IMs and digital notepads and most other things these phones did had already been done. Even on mobile devices like Blackberries and WinMo phones. They just sucked. Very little of it was fundamentally new. It was simply a matter of the technology getting small enough, fast enough, and nice enough all at roughly the same time. And I do mean "roughly". For the last five years, more often than not, the story on our favorite major platforms has been getting those features that everybody knew they needed, but they hadn't quite received yet. It wasn't until about iOS 5 and Android 2.3 that most people had all the features that they knew to look for. Then Android took another year to get a really amazing UI. The aligning of the feature planets happened over the course of years, not a single device.
An early GPS unit that isn't really GPS at all, but this pic sure looks historic.
We got to witness so much technology getting crammed into so small a space that we failed to realize the long-term trends that led to where we are. GPS technology has been around since the 70s, and development began on civilian use of the technology during the second term of the Clinton administration. EDGE data networks, the first data network the original iPhone supported and the fallback to T-Mobile's 3G on the G1, began deployment in 2003. It was a second-generation wireless network technology. The first known photo shared wirelessly from a camera phone occurred in 1997. To say nothing of the internet and its origin in the 60s.
None of these technologies were new, and we were used to them existing separately. What blew us away was how well they came together. Even the idea of an app store, which was perhaps one of the most innovative catalysts of the mobile revolution, was mirrored earlier by Steam as early as 2002. Very few of the things that we take for granted now were invented in the last five years. They were merely iterated to a small enough scale, and packaged up by some very talented hardware and software designers (there's a reason, by the way, that the tech world has become so design obsessed).
There's a principle in evolutionary biology that I couldn't begin to understand if I tried, but I'm going to pretend to, called "punctuated equilibrium". Sounds cool, doesn't it? The theory goes, in dramatically oversimplified terms, like this: for most of a species history, it will exhibit very little evolutionary change, and that significant evolutionary change occurs during comparatively rapid timeframes. This is in contrast to the idea that evolutionary change occurs gradually and at a steady rate over time.
It sure looks science-y, doesn't it?
Now, let's pretend, for a moment, that I know anything about science, and that we can inappropriately apply this concept to the evolution of tech in our modern world. For a solid two decades, or so, personal computing was not quite stagnant, but progressed rather slowly. Desktop machines in 2004 may have been more powerful than machines in 1984, but the general form factor, interface, and hardware capabilities remained largely the same. We added Wi-Fi cards, and made laptops that were portable, but the bulk of the advancements that were made in the devices themselves were "It's faster now." All of our other devices, like GPS units, handheld gaming devices, and cell phones were accessories at best.
The last five years, however, have seen explosive growth and variety in form factors. Phones have started getting bigger instead of smaller, tablets are normal, some of them turn into laptops, and at least one is all three. The period of rapid change is upon us and, for phones at least, it's largely leveled out.
As evidence of this, what is it you want in your next phone? Serious question. Can you say what you want? Maybe you'll say you want something like NFC. Or an IR blaster (which was fantastic on the Galaxy Tab 2). Maybe you want a stylus like on the Note, but with a smaller screen. Maybe you want an iPhone with LTE and, for some reason, still read this blog. Plenty of people still haven't found their perfect phone.
I could just let this dude say all this for me. It would be funnier, I think.
But the feature you want? It's out there. It's in some other device already. You're not waiting for it to be real, you're waiting for it to be perfect. Meanwhile, when we watch product announcements with bated breath, we're hoping against hope that these companies, who we know so well by this point, will reveal something we can't anticipate. We don't even know what we want. If I can pick on Savov just a bit more (thanks for being such a good sport):
I was one of those amateur logicians who put history and marketing together and believed that Samsung had something more to show us. It didn't need to be different, it just had to be more than what we'd seen already from HTC, LG, and other Android contemporaries.
"It just had to be more." More what? More powerful? That Exynos chip is pretty powerful. More innovative? No one's included eye-tracking software in their phones yet. More beautiful? Alright, so maybe most folks think it's a hideous phone that's designed by lawyers, but it's not the same black rectangle that every phone has been for years. Maybe Samsung went overboard on the "inspired by nature" shtick, but they're trying something new.
If only we knew what we wanted from the likes of Samsung. Or HTC or Motorola or LG or any of the other manufacturers out there. We have a much better idea of what we want from tablets. We want them to be lighter, to have better software, to be cheap, and to try new things to make the UI more useful. Phones are harder, though. We've more or less gotten everything we could want from our phones.
That's not to say there's no room for improvement. These devices can always get better. What HTC has done with the One X's camera, or the hardware design? It's brilliant. Samsung's voice and gesture features are great additions. It's not that phones aren't getting better. It's simply that when our phones are so awesome right now, it takes a lot more in a new device to blow it away. The G1 was easy to humiliate. The Galaxy Nexus? Not so much.
It's Time For More Incremental Improvements
This isn't the end of an era. In fact the next couple of decades will still be pretty amazing. We're only just getting to the point where super-high-bandwidth networks like LTE are becoming commonplace in some areas. We're also seeing the growth of server-side technology like Android and iOS's voice features, as well as gaming services like OnLive that augment a phone's processing power. Communications among other electronic devices like refrigerators, thermostats, and light bulbs, is in the works and, given another couple of decades or so, will likely be as normal as smartphones. The tech world will continue to be exciting.
Your phone, however, will likely start to see more incremental improvements than grand leaps. Voice features won't magically be perfect someday. They'll just slowly get better. Battery life will get gradually longer as we make them more efficient and, in some cases, bigger. UIs will get refined and become more fluid. Manufacturers will try some really weird things, some of them will be awesome, and some won't pan out. This is the nature of things.
Maybe, just maybe, after five years of rapid innovation, competition, and escalation, and a constellation of great technology coming together all at once, it's time to take a step back and appreciate how great things really are. We should never stop expecting amazing new features, or stop pushing the envelope. It's what makes the future great. There's a monumental chasm, however, between "not revolutionary" and "sucky."