Have mobile phones stopped evolving?

There is, if we’re honest, a bit of a problem with phones now. They’re all a little bit too good. Personally, sitting here, apart from making me a cup of tea or driving me to work, I can’t think of much else that I want my phone to do. It browses the web, it takes pictures, it guides me around, it keeps me hooked onto my social media accounts and even lets me record and watch my favourite TV shows. It’s my radio, my email inbox, my book, my diary, my alarm.

What else do we want phones to do?

In recent years I’ve sensed it. Perhaps it’s just me, but the changes in mobile handsets are now incremental. There’s no massive “leap” any more, not that I’ve seen. Every phone we see usually contains a big screen, a couple of cameras and a speaker. More manufacturers are now getting involved and the quality of handsets is getting better and better. Some manufacturers are trying to be innovative, bringing out waterproof handsets or really tough life-proof devices. Manufacturers are trying to stand out. They’re trying to be different. Eveyone has a slab-style phone now, so making one to be different to another is important.

Personally I loved the NEC Medias W because it was so different.

Yesterday we saw Oppo release a phone with a rotating camera. Now, it’s not actually a new thing. If there’s any of you out there who, like me, are old enough to remember the launch of 3G, you may remember those old chunky 3G video phones. Those phones had pretty terrible battery life but, at the time, those early 3G networks (Three) assumed that video calling was the future. Every phone had a video camera and it was important to face forward. Various ideas came forward, but long-time readers might remember one of these.

The first is the NEC E338, had a 176×220 pixel screen and a really low-quality rotating camera by todays’ standards…

Have mobile phones stopped evolving?

.. as did this, the Sony Ericsson V800. This had a similar spec screen but a whopping 1.3 megapixel camera which spun round too..

Have mobile phones stopped evolving?

Both of these phones are from 2004. Now, a mere 9 years later, we’ve got a 13 megapixel rotating camera on the new Oppo N1

Have mobile phones stopped evolving?

Personally, I think we have reached a bit of a plateau. Yes, screens will continue to get better, CPU’s and networks will get faster and cameras will get even clearer and cleverer (if that’s a word). The biggest change that I’d like to see would be in battery technology. It’s simply not good enough. Not on any handset I’ve ever used. Sure, if you turn Bluetooth, WiFi and GPS off then you can perhaps slowly sip a couple of days from a mobile battery, but use the phone as it was intended and you’ll be hunting for an electrical socket quickly.

When I first started this site I’d moved from a Nokia handset to an Orange SPV, and I couldn’t get over the fact that my screen had to turn off when I wasn’t using it. Now, over 11 years later, it’s software trickery and reinventions such as IR ports (anyone remember using those to transfer data back in the day) or these rotating cameras.

But I’d love to hear from you. What innovations would you like to see? What changes and new inventions would you like to see on your next mobile? Do you like the form factor? Are you happy with the touch-screen slabs we’re all carrying in our pockets?

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  • Paul

    I commented on the Apple event with basically everything you’ve put in this article


    “the_prof” replied with good explanation how battery tech has evolved and why it’s not available

    Rumours circulate well in advance of a Technology Event these days, with concept designs that are far superior to what’s actually revealed leaving the consumers a little disappointed and underwhelmed (I certainly have been).

    The Galaxy Gear smartwatch was a prime example of this, a rumoured concept design showed this:




    ..but these are far from the product Samsung unveiled. I was disappointed to say the least

    Battery is the not only thing letting phones down. I think decent 3G/4G network coverage too. I can’t use Google Maps or Apps that heavily depend on data because the 3G network on our region is poor and has been since the 3G phones came out. I’m currently trying “3” as I tried all the others, and it’s 1 bar of 3G has been the strongest I’ve experience yet.

    My phone, not matter how advanced, is only at it’s full potential at home, or where there’s “wifi”. For me that defeats the whole purpose of having an advanced smart, “mobile” phone when I’m limited use depending on my location. Sadly, I’m a sucker when it comes to tech and fall for it every time.

    • Paul

      4G phones are available now before the UK even has full 4G coverage, and I already have a handset that’s compatible, but I won’t get the benefit unless I travel to a location that already has 4G, or until UK has full network coverage. Sadly for the latter, the handset I currently own will be outdated by then or superceded by the next generation handset.

      I could whinge about that now too. Most new phones are only available on 24 month contracts these days, so unless I can afford to buy them outright, my “new” generation phone becomes the last generation in only 12 months time, leaving me with another year left on my contract.

      I’d like to see more 12 month contracts that let you spread the cost over 12 months, and bring me in sync with handset release cycles.

    • the_prof

      Ah, thanks for picking up on that! The battery situation is absolutely ridiculous, given our apparent environmental crisis. These new batteries, if developed, could change the world. They would mean that almost all cars could be powered by electricity without having to rely on a Hydrogen infrastructure (which is a way off). They’d mean that small, convenient personal transport would be possible, and they’d also mean that a smartphone not needing a charge for a few days would become reality.

      There’s Apple with hundreds of billions just sitting around. Same for Microsoft. They could be helping develop this technology, but it actually pays them to sit around doing nothing because of the IPO issue. I wish more and more people were aware of this. These two companies alone could save our planet, but all they are interested in is maintaining their share price. I wouldn’t be too surprised if Google jumped in at some point and actually did something, but who knows!

      Back to the subject at hand though… I don’t think (Gears) is looking at this objectively enough. Look at the absolutely stunning rate of progress we see every few months in this industry. I think it’s all-too-easy to say that nothing’s happening, but innovation and technical evolution is happening faster than we have ever seen it, and almost exponentially.

      Consider just twelve years ago. In 2001, I believe I owned my first mobile phone with a colour screen. The Ericsson T68 – remember that? It wasn’t a particularly good phone IMHO, but it packed a lot inside it (good bluetooth, a bit of memory, a few mobile apps ~of sorts~, mobile web access over GPRS). Other manufacturers were quite a way off a colour screen device back then, and it actually took well over 6 months for one to be released.

      If you then consider quite how long it took mobile manufacturers to ‘catch up’ with innovation then, it makes us look positively spoiled today. Remember Nokia’s first T9 phone, and how long it took others to incorporate that technology. It was quite a leap at the time. I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure after I owned my first T9 phone (I think it was the 3210), the next manufacturer to come up with a handset with T9 was Sony Ericsson, and from memory a while later. Considering this was a licensed technology, this is very slow compared to today.

      We’ve seen mobile technology explode in the last few years, and I think it’s very easy to become complacent with the current rate of innovation. Apple, HTC and Samsung have been absolutely instrumental in this, and spurred things on a great deal. But if you think about it, it’s been a number of fairly incremental technological advancements. The real perceived advancements have actually been in their implementation. Let’s look at this for a second;

      Colour screens – They’ve been around on mobiles since around 2001-2. They started becoming really good at around the time of the HTC Universal – 640×480 IIRC, LED backlit, TN. That was in what? 2005?

      Touch screens – They’ve been around since time immemorial, however the first really usable capacitive touchscreens were on the Apple iPhone in 2007. It’s the implementation of the software which really made them a useful thing though!

      Mobile processors – Been pretty fast for a while. In 2002, my 133MHz ARM based Orange SPV ‘Classic’ was amazing for a mobile processor at the time, and they’ve been increasing in speed and capability almost exponentially since.

      Cameras – I remember having to plug in my 320×240 resolution camera into my SPV back in 2002-3. Now you have absolutely incredible mobile cameras, capable of better images than dedicated cameras just even 3 or 4 years ago. The technology in the optics alone has come on incredibly.

      There are a load of other areas I could go into, but I’m not going to. I just wanted to highlight that actually, the innovation has been steady, it’s actually consumer behaviour which has given the perception of huge jumps in capability.

      It wasn’t that long ago that all us smartphone users were the tech geeks who adopted this stuff early, because we could see the point in it all. I remember when I first had a phone capable of Internet access – must’ve been my Nokia ‘matrix’ phone way back in 1999 – the 7110 IIRC. It didn’t have GPRS, so you had to dial a number to connect to the Internet, and it was charged per-minute! People used to ask me why I’d ever need Internet access on my mobile – they just couldn’t see why it would be useful! Now pretty much everyone has it, and they’re not looking back.

      Software had a lot to do with the perceived jump though – I think Apple’s concepts of interacting with a touchscreen had a lot to do with it, and this really jumpstarted things (because tech companies suddenly realised quite how much money you could make from smartphones!)

      I agree with Paul though – I think the networks have struggled to keep up with it all. I would still love to have a good Internet connection wherever I go. Hopefully 4G will improve this, but who knows by how much. I think that the economics of rolling out data to area, as opposed to population is the real issue. I don’t think we’ll see some of the less populated rural areas of the country get proper data access until there’s yet another long-range penetrating data transmission method.

  • Doug

    I have to say that phones are too big these days and as I rarely now get calls because of Emails, Texts and Social Media, I am really looking forward to receiving the Omate TrueSmart watch. The Iphone will be putaway in the drawer.

    If I need size (no pun intended), I can use the iPad or Macbook, other than that, a watch will suffice and at least I wont drop it on the floor, down the loo, or in the bath as a watch is waterproof. I wont have to pay for data as I have a Ovio Sim.

    Its funny when the SPV came out, we all went into gadget over drive. I think Gears is right, we have reached a Plateau in the Smartphone world. We need innovation, we need something different.

  • Kev

    I remember the SPV, with its detachable camera. I would like to see more innovative design in handsets, clam shell phones were always a favourite of mine, but can only be found as budget phones these days, that only call and text.

    Battery life is a massive issue for me, short of buying an expensive phone battery case thing, I need to find a socket on a regular basis just so I can use my phone at home. Personally I wouldn’t mind a slightly chunkier handset if it meant I got a decent (i.e. Longer than a day) battery life