#MWC18 – Have we reached a plateau ?

A number of years ago, I questioned whether mobile phones had stopped evolving. This year, at Mobile World Congress, I think it’s happened. I think we’ve reached a plateau. A point where phones really aren’t going to make any huge leaps any more.

Way back when I started writing about mobile phones, colour screens were in their infancy. I got the Orange SPV – the first “smartphone” I’d ever owned, and that’s how this whole site began. From that point we experienced a number of huge jumps forward. The internet, as we experience it on our phones now, arrived very slowly. It was clunky initially, with mobile-specific pages showing nothing more than just links to cut-down versions of websites. Then came the speed – from GPRS to 4G and beyond. However, it was also the hardware that changed dramatically. Just a few years ago it would be unthinkable that a phone would have an octa-core processor, let alone 4 or 6GB or RAM. Heck, full-sized PC’s would only just be running specs like that, and that was if you were lucky.

Camera technology advanced, and the once-laughable idea of using your phone to take pictures alone suddenly became a reality. The days of “remembering to bring a proper camera” have now gone, and those low-resolution 640×480 VGA photos have been consigned to the dustbin. Now your phone camera can take really high resolution images, and you can film HD video too. No more video cameras or clunky boxes to carry – it’s all digital and it’s all in one device.

However, one thing I’m sorry to see vanish is the variation in smartphone designs. From QWERTY-packing handsets to smartphones with numeric keypads, it’s now all distilled into a rectangular slab with as much screen as possible. Oh, and the thing is, every single handset looks broadly the same. It’s a big screen with a whole load of icons.

So at this Mobile World Congress I was on the hunt for something a little different. A bit new. A bit fresh. Although there was the odd device here and there, you had the feeling that they would only really be niche devices and the mainstream market was innovating a lot less.

What did we see this year? Well, more of the same designs. A big screen, a narrow body. Inside there were a few changes but they were incremental upgrades, not ground-breaking new features. Even at the Samsung event, which had perhaps the biggest new idea, the clever auto-widening-lens was met with absolutely no applause, no whoops of hysteria – not even a round of applause. Worse still, they’d actually worked a pause into the demo for the applause, but it didn’t happen.

Sony also launched a new camera, but it was an iterative improvement. All across the venue, the changes were small. A slightly better camera, a slightly faster processor, a new software tweak to add fun emojis, a slightly better battery life. More of the same really, but a bit better.

This is why, last year, a lot of the attention was focused on Nokia relaunching an old phone. We all went back, saw how cute and funny it looked, then bought a proper smartphone instead.

Now it’s all about the brand, and Samsung continue to dominate the Android world thanks to their massive advertising budget. Other manufacturers have to new customer offers in order to attract attention, along with grass-roots social-media campaigns to build their brand. With a reduction in different phone styles and designs, this then reduces the handsets still further, as people end up getting handsets from the same company.

Will it change? Doubtful. People are already slowing down with their phone upgrade cycles. They don’t see a big justification for moving now. I fear that me may be entering the “TV age”, where all LCD flat-screen panels are pretty identical, and manufacturers end up trying curved units, or dabbling with 3D or 4K in order to pull us in and buy more.