Why Today’s Smartphones Are So Dumb

Aren’t the smartphone companies appear to be in a race of ‘two’? 2 core more in processing power, 2 inches bigger in size, 2 megapixel more in camera, 2 mm slimmer than the last one, and now, getting sold in 2 seconds. Are these the smart elements in a smartphone? Do these phones have it in them to change lives? Where is the transformational value?

Mobile phone launch events these days are getting increasingly monotonous, rather irritating and frustrating with almost nothing new to write about. No matter who the phone maker is, irrespective of origin or legacy, the launch outcomes are evidently predictive. The company would launch ‘a new smartphone and would talk about its display, camera, battery, processor, storage and who it sell through –Flipkart, SnapDeal, Amazon etc, and of course its price. Essentially these are the basic elements of a smartphone, and a product company is fair enough to talk about this. But, is this the way mobile phones are defined as smartphones and can the so called smartphones, by these parameters, transform lives as we expect them to? I have my doubts.

Smartphones in India: The Theory of Two

Why these phone makers’ product launches are getting increasingly torturous is because of what these companies try to feed the media, and in that way, to the consumers. To me, their strategy is a miscalculation of numeric two — I call it ‘theory of two’. Whether it is an age old MNC like Motorola and its counterparts like LG, Sony, Samsung or their domestic peers like Micromax, Karbonn, Lava or Intex, and also the Chinese ones like Gionee, Xiaomi etc, all the smartphones being launched in the Indian market, are playing a game of ‘two’. There is an increase of 2 inches in screen or display size, a 2 megapixel addition to the camera than the previous version, 2 more cores are being added to the processing power or the phone is being built by making it 2 mm slimmer than the old one or that from the competitors. And the latest trend is, X number of phones sold out in just 2 seconds. Besides these, there is absolutely nothing new on these devices, nothing that can differentiate one from the other. The difference lies in their brand names only, else all products are almost the same.

Where Is The Differentiation?

Almost all the phone makers source their components from the same manufacturers. They do get their chipsets from Qualcomm, MediaTek, and in rare case from Intel. They get their cameras, batteries, display panels, touch screens etc from almost the same vendors. And around 80% of today’s generation smartphones run on the same OS –Android. So the overall output is all the more similar. The only way they are differentiating is by topping up of the OS experience with their own user interface. But hey, how many of them have their own UI? Very few, may be counted with the fingers of a single hand. Then, how do you rate a phone over the other? What are the parameters? What is the USP? What influences your buying decision? Perhaps, there is nothing. People are buying a phone, ok, smartphone, because they are buying a phone, and these phones are better than those (feature) phones.

It’s a Revolutionary Product : Really?

Company executives, across domain but mostly in technology, these days are infected with abusing some of the coolest words in the lexicon like innovation, digital divide or bottom of the pyramid. Product companies these days use ‘revolutionary’ as the best way to describe their produce. Every smartphone being launched in the market is described as ‘revolutionary product’ by its executives. But is it? Is it an innovation? Smartphone was not an innovation, telephone was. Bugatti Veyron was not a revolutionary product, the wheel was. Facebook or Twitter were not revolutionary products, the Internet was. Dual core or quad core processors were not revolutionary products but dual SIM phone was.

Last calendar year, in 2014, India saw around 250 million mobile phones sold in the country with around 70 to 80 million smartphones contributing to it. Of these 80 million, around 85% comes from the entry level smartphones. What does this signify? One, it shows the price conscious market that we have, which is obvious and evident, but the second important finding is, people are buying a product which has two ‘revolutionary’ elements in it- telephone and the internet.

Earlier, people bought mobile phones to get connected and keep the basic voice communication intact with their near and dear ones. And now they want to get connected to a larger community — the world- through the World Wide Web. That changed the lives of millions across the globe. And this is possible even with the very basic smartphone. What the mid or high end smartphones did to this is, they added some layers to the customer experience, not to transform their lives. With high end smartphones, viewing area became bigger, applications run faster and smoother, and one could able to take a good photograph. So, apparently, they extended what was already existing but unable to add newness or smartness to the phones.

What Would Make Them Really Smart

Utility makes a product smart. The telephone was a smart product but not the smartphone. And in the context of mobile phones, it would be the applications and not the cameras or the slimness or sexyness of the phones that would make a phone smarter than the other.

Do we have any smartphone company come up with some life changing apps? Apps that can simplify lives of people, mostly the needy? Apps that can remove the many barriers in accessing government services? Do we have some apps that can enhance the healthcare services that India needs, probably than most of the countries? Or can add value to our education?

I have not seen any handset company moving in that direction. Everyone is in a herd — moving in the direction where everyone else is moving. If in the recent past any company has tried a bit to simplify something, being still in that herd, is Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi. The recent example of having a visual IVR in its Mi 4i smartphone is one such example in that direction. With this app, you don’t have to go through the torture of listening to the entire IVR to select your option. You can see the menu option right on your screen as a visual element, and then directly call that number to reach the desired choice. That simplifies things. And this type of app impacts lives of millions of people every day. Similar kind of apps can be developed for other services like education, agriculture, healthcare and government services, and for many things. One might argue this is not the job of handset companies but the app guys. True, but companies like Blackberry, Motorola, Google and recently Xiaomi, claim themselves as software companies who offer services through their devices. And trust me, this is the only way, when you offer life changing services along with your hardware, your phones can be seen as smartphones, a phone that has smartness to smarten the lives of others. Your USP will be based on that and not on how many cores you add to the processor, whatever megapixel you add to the camera or whatever storage capacity you offer in your smartphone.

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