The HTC Incredible was the best Android superphone – for about a month, until the HTC EVO took over…only to be dethroned by the Motorola Droid X. But that’s history now, we’re in the middle of the Samsung Galaxy S invasion now: Vibrant, Captivate, Fascinate … just about all major carriers offer their own flavor. Samsung rules – but for how long? A new HTC Vision is on the horizon, and it will certainly be the best Android phone… for a few weeks, until the next best thing comes along. The speed of change is dizzying, what’s a poor consumer to do?
Some consider this a problem with the Android market: consumers loath to buy a handset knowing it will be “obsolete” in a month. Life is so much easier when you let God Steve Jobs make decisions for you.
I think the sizzling hot Android handset market will follow the pattern we’ve seen before: after the novelty (big screen, Amoled display, 1G processor, dual-core, wow!) wears off, we’ll stop paying attention. We’ll get to the point where it does not matter where the innovation cycle is, we can just “buy in” whenever we want to, wait out the typical two-year contract term, then buy again.
But have we not seen this movie before?
15 years ago the rule was whatever personal computer you bought set you back by about $3K. Then it dropped to $1,5K. Then $7-800. Now you can get a decent laptop for $4-500. But that’s serious trouble for manufacturers: margins are very thin on these low-cost computers.
So they got us move to a new market with higher margins: the typical superphone retails for $500 (before carrier subsidies) yet it costs $180-$200 to make, per iSuppli. We love to gobble these “superphones” up, but in reality they are no longer phones: they really are computers that happen to make voice calls (some not too well). Want proof? You probably don’t have to go far, just look at your own use pattern – like Jeff Nolan did:
I made 20 minutes of voice calls over the last week on my cell, transferred 7gb of data and 200 sms messages.
(Update: Why We Never Talk Anymore – GigaOM)
Or if you’re the visual type:
Illustration from Clive Thomson’s article in Wired on the Death of the Phone Call – worth reading.
But let’s talk about what this paradigm shift – the replacement of phones with computers – means for the equipment itself. I often spoke up against the pointless arms race in personal computers, and here’s the smartphone version of the story by GigaOM. The current top-of-the-line Android phones all have 1 GHz processors, and while most models are still waiting for the Android 2.2 (Froyo) upgrade, we already know some of the Android 3.0 (Gingerbread) specs: guess what, 1GHz is the minimum requirement to run this version, due to be released late this year! Both HTC and Motorola are promising dual-core handsets before the year is over – now, do we really need that in a phone? Not really – but we’ve just established these are computers, not phones.
Another theme I often talk about is situational devices – hey, I even “own” the Google search for situational device (but hat tip to Imran Ali who coined situational hardware). It’s all about convenience: different situations require different form factors. Perhaps a desktop (yes, it did not go the way of dinosaurs) with a large screen for the office or home, a notebook for easy travel or even work at the backyard, a netbook or iPad for short trips, conferences, an iPhone / Android if you want to carry even less. (I started to talk about situational devices in the pre-iPad age, but the iPad had the most profound impact on this shift: finally, the computer comes to us, vs. the other way around.).
Situational devices are all about access and convenience – but how many can we afford? And do they all need to be super-duper monster performers? We typically end up using them one at a time (although carriers intentionally fail to recognize this) – what a waste of idling capacity. Wouldn’t it be better to have one powerful device, which:
- brings connectivity, the browser and personalization, with
- data and apps in the cloud, while
- the actual devices we interact with are inexpensive displays and keyboards (and other peripherals) that come in various shapes and sizes, truly focusing on usability, ergonomics and convenience.
I wrote about this concept years ago in The Cell-Phone Aware PC May Be a PC-less PC which, in turn was a post largely based on Zoho CEO Sridhar Vembu’s personal computing nirvana vision. Sridhar’s post is from 2005 – it took a while for the vision to get closer to reality, but I think it is now definitely on the horizon. Actually, even then it wasn’t a brand new idea: using powerful computers with cheap peripherals is nothing new: think mainframes, then today’s networks and thin clients, web terminals – it just took a while for this concept to come down to the individual / consumer level. What makes is it more realistic now than ever before, that we now don’t have to pick the “wrong device” that’s not with us all the time – for the first time we now have (well, will soon have …) a “computer” that’s so small it can always be with us. In our pockets or purses. Heck, it could even be wearable. Like the Star Trek Communicator.
Update: If you have any doubt that your smartphone superphone is really a computer, just read this:
What if you could perform supercomputing calculations in real-time, on your smartphone, in any location?
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), collaborating with staff at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC), have created an application that does just that.
From: Supercomputing: There’s an App for That by the University of Texas Advanced Computer Center.
Update: Kevin C. Tofel @ GigaOM agrees: The Smartphone Is the Computer — Or It Will Be