As we grow older, we will often yearn for life as it was when we were younger. This much is evidenced whenever a throwback food item makes a comeback and the internet freaks out to try a bit of nostalgia. A bit of nostalgia on a higher level I have always reminisced over is the boutique niche shop. The idea of a place that is only selling a group of products for a specific customer as opposed to the one-size-fits-all approach of the superstore culture in modern society. This norm of uniformity has permeated into many aspects of modern life, and one of those aspects is the way that smartphones are designed and utilized. The recent launch and subsequent reaction of the Sony Xperia Pro, Sony’s smartphone designed for professional content and broadcast creators.
What is the Xperia Pro?
It is essential to understand what the Xperia Pro is as a product, but also why Sony decided to make it. The Sony Xperia phone is an Android smartphone and a high-end one at that. But what makes it an interesting piece of tech is that everything is made with professional broadcasters in mind. The exterior of the phone has a grippy polycarbonate for enhanced durability, designed to be carried with other high-end camera equipment. The phone also features a dedicated HDMI port to allow professional photographers and videographers to use the device as a monitor to line up the perfect shot. The phone’s 4K display in addition to rear cameras that have been designed with Sony’s renowned Alpha camera team. This is a very targeted product, and it is priced that way at $2,500. And this is where we as a variety pack society have missed the point of this device.
This phone has been panned widely by the typical smartphone review websites. Stating that Sony has taken last year’s processor, added an HDMI port, and charged an exorbitant amount for the trouble. When the reality is that every bit of this phone is designed for a very specific person that is looking to use their high-end smartphone as a true companion for their premium camera setup. Everything about the decisions that Sony made on this phone screams this, but because the average phone reviewer doesn’t fit into this target it is misunderstood.
At its core, the Xperia Pro is a device designed to complement a professional photography and videography setup. The exterior of the phone has swapped out the traditional glass back of other flagships and instead replaced it with a grippy hard plastic that adds durability and easy mounting to accessories. This casing makes the phone thicker allowing the camera housing to sit flush with the rest of the phone. This plastic allows for more antennas to be stuffed into this phone for better 5G reception. The aforementioned HDMI port on the Xperia Pro allows for a direct connection with a camera while still leaving the USB-C port open for other accessories. Lastly, Sony has outfitted this phone with the Camera Pro and Video Pro apps that mimic Sony’s Alpha experience. These apps on the Xperia Pro leverage similar experiences to allow the phone to properly function as a viewfinder for the camera in monitor mode. In short, Sony was very deliberate in how it designed and built this phone.
In his excellent video, Marques Brownlee talks about the Xperia Pro and how it is a true phone for professionals. He goes on to explain why the phone may not be as overpriced as people think and why it is not for everyone. The beauty of this phone is that it is such a focused target that isn’t trying to be a do-it-all device. It is not trying to be a phone for all ages and use cases. This is instead a very deliberate effort to solve a problem for professional videographers, and professional videographers only. This isn’t a phone aimed at a social media influencer or at a businessperson that lives in Slack and email. This focused approach by Sony is something that we should demand to see more of, This is because the trends in mobile functionality have lent themselves to uniformity, and more niche devices like this help us to get away from those trends.
The Curse of Uniformity
Like most trends in smartphones over the last decade, a lot of the uniformity in the category can be attributed to the iPhone. When Steve Jobs introduced his company’s first phone, it was a departure from what was available in the market at the time. This was an era of the full physical Qwerty keyboard, where Windows Mobile and BlackBerry devices ruled the land. The iPhone changed all of this, ushering in an era of the rectangular glass slab that we have today. The issue has become that the iPhone is designed around simplicity and being the phone for everyone. When the iPhone then went on to become the most popular phone in the world, the competition had to react. And that reaction was to make the general smartphone, devoid of unique characteristics because that’s what the iPhone was.
This is not to say that companies in recent years haven’t tried to make specific targeted phones. Recently there has been a surge in gaming phones from Asus, Xiaomi, and Razer to cater to the budding mobile gaming market in Asia for example. But because these phones that have broad targets aren’t purely vague as a one-size-fits-all solution like the iPhone they are labeled as gimmicks and dismissed simply because they are not the iPhone.
Samsung is the unquestioned leader of the Android manufacturers at this moment, and the reason for this is that they have emulated the Apple model the best. By making the Galaxy line of phones more and more diluted to compete with the iPhone, Samsung has found success in appealing to the universal model. Over the years Microsoft and BlackBerry have come up with phones designed for businesspeople, LG made phones for audiophiles and content creators, Huawei and Nokia made phones aimed at optimizing social media photography. These focused phones all fell by the wayside because more mainstream phones covered more bases, forcing manufacturers of more niche phones to adhere to this model to have a chance at competing.
Why Niche Phones Make Sense
In a world where every company seems to be copying the iPhone, there are needs of smaller subsets of users that are being neglected. People that love high-fidelity audio have lost the headphone jack with LG being the last remaining company offering a high-end headphone jack on its phones (although their future in making phones has now come into jeopardy). This forced people to adapt to Bluetooth or adapter solutions whether they wanted to or not. The chase for Apple and now Samsung has made companies like LG have to make difficult design decisions. And the general result of these decisions has been to adapt and conform to what is popular.
Consider the car and laptop markets. There is segmentation between different use cases, everyone is not expected to spring for the sports car or the powerful gaming machine. This nuance is something that has been missing from smartphones for years and the outright rejection of anything that may not be for our uses is the reason why. The idea that the iPhone “just works” discredits the fact that that mantra doesn’t work for everyone.
This is why a phone like the Xperia Pro is refreshing. It is refreshing because it is not for normal phone users like me. I have no use for a heavy-duty pickup but I am not one to deny the reason for it to exist. In the end, we should strive for a selection of devices that caters to all sorts of end-users. For the last couple of years, the narrative around smartphones has been that the category has peaked. There is some truth to this idea, but it has peaked due to every company trying to make the same version of the same phone. I applaud Sony for making something with a specific user in mind, and the smartphone industry would be better off if more companies took this approach.
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