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Talking Tech (with TechnicallyFunny)

This week I have teamed up with my buddy Sikander to put together an interview-type discussion piece on mobile phones, and the smartphone market as it stands in 2020. All comments preceded with (CC:) are mine, and all comments preceded with (TF:) are Sikander's. Enjoy!

(CC:) Hello and welcome! I’m joined today by Sikander of TechnicallyFunny fame, and we’re here to sit down and discuss the state of the smartphone market in 2020. How’s it going man, and for those who don’t already know, what is TechnicallyFunny?

(TF:) Thanks man, it's great to feature here! TechnicallyFunny was basically a place for me to rant about nerdy things from consumer tech to TV, film and games. I think I just like writing about things I can never afford, haha. I also do product reviews when brands send stuff to me but as we are now in the age of the “influencer” that is becoming a rare thing!

(CC:) Glad to have you here! So, ever since the release of the then-revolutionary iPhone back in 2007, smartphones have become a major part of many peoples lives. We’ve seen over a decade of revisions and incremental improvements to the smartphone, but people have highlighted a feeling of stagnation and lack of innovation in the market of late. What’s your response to this, and why do you think it has happened?

(TF:) I was actually working in a mobile phone retail store and helped to launch the first iPhone in the UK (which absolutely flopped in the UK by the way) so for me, smartphone development has always been an interesting experience. I think back in 2012, when I first started TechnicallyFunny, I even moaned at the time about how boring smartphones were becoming and 8 years later, I feel the only thing that has really changed is the price!

The fact is, in its current form, smartphones will only ever be a flat glass slab. So in terms of design, there really is nowhere to go. For me the peak smartphone design was the iPhone 4. Those industrial metal chamfers and glass on both sides made an absolutely beautiful device and I believe Apple are bringing that design back this year for the iPhone 12.

Now we have the dawn of “foldables”, which I am aggressively against. These smartphones are fragile, less likely to last you 2 years and are extortionately priced. Never mind the fact that the folding aspect doesn’t really offer an improvement on the smartphone experience for the average person. The fact that brands are trying to do something different for the sake of doing something different shows that even the industry itself knows that we have reached peak smartphone.

(CC:) Agreed - foldable screens are kind of an interesting novelty, but I can't see this catching on and becoming a mainstay for future devices. Not to mention that there’s little to gain from the extra screen size at the moment - most apps, games, videos etc. are configured for a specific aspect ratio, so I don’t really see what there is to gain!

(TF:) I think tablets are an area where foldables can work. Instead of lugging around a 10-12 inch screen everywhere, it would be so much more portable if that screen can fold. Then when you need to use it, just open it up and use the tablet as normal. It would actually make a positive change to the tablet experience and that’s something you don’t get with foldable smartphones.

Foldables aside, you also have Chinese brands who are coming in with absolute beasts of devices that are hundreds of pounds cheaper than your Apples and Samsungs and offer the same spec/design language. Mid Range phones are also fantastic performers now. There is no need to have a new phone every year and the trend in the market shows that people are using their phones for longer. Yet the new models with the same look keep coming. Samsung themselves released over 50 variants of Android phones last year alone. It’s that kind of policy of “flood the market” from a lot of manufacturers that has caused stagnation so quickly and Smartphone fatigue has been around for a few years now with no real change on the horizon.

(CC:) The mid range phones are really interesting. Ever since the “flagship” models hit a price tag of £1000+, suddenly £350 for a pretty competent device seems a lot more alluring. There will always be a small minority of people who have to get the latest iteration and stay fully up-to-date, but for most people there really isn’t any need to spend so much on so many phones so frequently.

(TF:) That’s exactly it and I think with the rise of solid mid range phones, we will see an even longer period of people keeping the same phone for longer as these mid rangers get better and better. Especially so now in a post-COVID world, spending over 1K on phones every 1-2 years is becoming less justifiable.

(CC:) Just out of interest, what is your smartphone of choice at the moment?

(TF:) I use the iPhone 11 Pro Max. For years I was against all things Apple and now find myself in a position where my whole hardware ecosystem is Apple. That’s how they get you, its not their product, its their marketing, it is the best in the world! For me, the 11 Pro covers all bases; a great display, great battery life, fantastic camera and a smooth and fast operating system. I recently filmed a wedding using just my iPhone and Gimbal and not one person has asked what it was filmed on. It’s great! There’s also the fact that most developers build their Apps on iOS which is why you will always find that Android apps are just that little bit laggy/slow/less smooth as their iOS equivalents.

(CC:) I think that's a good point, if you've bought into the ecosystem, you're really losing out if you switch one of your devices away from a particular make. I'm in a similar situation with Google - all my files live in Google Drive, and I've got a Google phone and a Google tablet. If I were to move over to iOS, there would undoubtedly be incompatibilities and drawbacks.

(TF:) This is exactly why big tech companies are under the spotlight in the US. They simply have too much power and influence over buying decisions because it’s not just hardware, it’s the software you get tied into as well and taking your data away into a new ecosystem is messy and risky so consumers feel forced to stick with what they have.

(CC:) Mm. I think there was definitely once an argument that the iPhone was the undisputed champion when it came to smartphone performance. And generally, you'll get a slightly better performance because of the uniformity of Apple's software and hardware, but then Android allows for that extra level of customisation. I think nowadays it really just comes down to user preference and what your priorities are, but many phones in similar price ranges offer pretty like-for-like specs.

(TF:) With iPhones, I will still always recommend them to users who just want a simple phone that works. iOS is just more accessible to a wider array of age ranges. Android will always be the champion at customisation and tinkering but both operating systems have matured so much now, you can find a great experience on either one.

(CC:) You mention that smartphones in their current state will always be flat glass slabs, and I think I’m inclined to agree there. It’s been a process of evolution not revolution, and it’s clear that smartphones in their current state just ‘work’ for the consumer, despite the lack of creativity. We’ve had the rise of the “mid range” phones and the foldables. So - what’s next? What kind of innovations do you think we will be seeing over the next 10-20 years?

(TF:) I’ve had this debate so many times and I still don’t think my view has changed. During the first iPhone launch, we had so many customers come in and play with the demo devices and say “This is a glass screen, there’s no buttons, this will never take off” and over a decade later here we are. I honestly feel in the next 10-20 years, the need for smartphones will be so low that we probably won’t have them anymore. We have Wi-Fi fridges, toothbrushes, mirrors, washing machines and more. We can access our socials and media on pretty much anything now.

For actual communication, I feel wearables will take over. You’ll be able to send messages, make calls and video calls via things like smart glasses. Early forms of these already exist now but with companies like Microsoft and Apple pushing augmented reality, these devices will advance pretty quickly in the next few years. I would go as far as to say chips that can be embedded in your body could even replace them which sounds far fetched but big players like Elon Musk are working on neurological interfaces where your brain controls things like computers and smartphones. It all sounds very science-fiction, but so did our smartphones and tablets once upon a time! I just feel that we have become so absorbed by our technology that the next evolution is literally to merge with it. The ethical implications, however, are a whole different conversation!

(CC:) The idea that the smartphone itself will become redundant is interesting - I hadn’t thought of that. If every device you have is “smart”, they can all be connected and controlled on a watch, or whatever wearable tech catches on in the next few years. I think neurological interfaces may be a little further away, at least in a commercially viable everyday capacity, but again this is a big one that would eliminate the need for a smartphone. But yes, ethical implications are a big hurdle for many, haha!

One thing that I think we'll see more of that you didn’t touch upon is holographic displays. Before the smartphone disappears entirely, I think there’ll be a move away from screens, and a shift in focus toward holographic visual interfaces. Displays could be projected onto surfaces, and you’ve suddenly removed the need for a screen, and suddenly a phone no longer needs to be a rectangular glass slab.

(TF:) It would be amazing to have a holographic image pop out of your phone when watching a video or a video call but I think out of all the Sci-fi sounding tech that is possible and could happen, holographic displays are probably even further away. This is because of 2 reasons;

1. The big players have tried and failed to develop the tech into something as portable as a phone so have now opted to push Augmented Reality as the next “input” experience for smartphones and portable screens.

2. The glass touch display on smartphones is basically the best way of physically manipulating data on a phone and the best input method. Holographic displays would be much the same, just would look prettier and be more three dimensional but weighing this up against the cost of manufacturing probably means we will never see this come to fruition on smartphones.

One thing I would recommend is checking out a portable projector called the Hachi. This is essentially an android tablet built into a projector that projects the display on any surface. The cool twist with this is that when you project onto a clear surface, it becomes touchscreen! So you can swipe and pinch and zoom on a wall or a table. It works pretty well and although it is pretty pricey and is still niche, tech like this may be the best way for holographic technology to develop.

(CC:) Woah...Way to crush my dreams man! It sounds like we’re still a little further off from Minority Report than I thought we were… That Hachi projector is a really nice proof of concept, although it’s maybe a bit of a novelty; especially at an asking price of $999!

So, If you were a smartphone designer, what’s one feature that you think is missing right now? What feature or addition would you include in your dream device?

(TF:) As someone who loves taking photos and recording videos, the camera is always a big focus for me when it comes to smartphones. I find this current trend of multiple camera lenses on the back of phones dreadful from an aesthetic perspective and feel it can completely ruin the design of a phone. My dream feature would be just one, dynamic lens that can offer the options that multiple lens currently do. So you can have the telephoto, the wide and ultra wide lens all combined into 1 so on the back of the phone, instead of multiple cameras, you just have 1 main camera, making the rear of the phone look less busy and more minimal. Google were developing a modular phone a few years back where you could just swap out camera modules and other parts of the phone but this ultimately was shelved after Google couldn’t find a way of making it marketable to the masses but a modular camera for smartphones would be an absolute dream for me!

(CC:) Agreed, those lenses on the back of higher-end smartphones at the moment end up looking more like gatling guns than cameras. They’re big intrusions on what are otherwise very sleek designs. I’ve seen a couple of modular phone designs, and while they’re an interesting concept, I think you really end up sacrificing a lot of the power and the ‘sleek’ design of the device. Apple devices might be renowned for being tough to get into to swap out hardware components, but it’s because they manage to cram so much into such a small space. They’re not built to be tinkered with, and as a result they double down on jamming everything together and focusing on the physical aesthetic more than accessibility and replacing individual pieces.

I suppose a realistic compromise on the camera front would be to simply release a niche higher-end version of a phone, marketed as the “Pro Camera” version and aimed at photography enthusiasts in particular, with a significantly more serious camera included.

(TF:) I’m also big on music on phones, I always ask people when I talk about tech because it still doesn’t sit right with me, but how do you feel about the death of the headphone jack at the time you first heard about it and have your feelings on it changed now?

(CC:) I won’t lie - I miss it dearly. Most USB-C-only phones do come with a USB-C to 3.5mm headphone jack adapter, but I’ve gone through three of those adapters. They just don’t seem very durable. I understand that you can’t support all kinds of connectivity forever, but I would argue that the 3.5mm jack is far from dead. It’s still the standard for all non-Bluetooth headphones... Which is why I am a big fan of the headphone jack being retained on devices like the Pixel 4a and other ‘mid-range’ phones. To me the whole decision to remove it just feels like a hardline approach, trying to get people to buy AirPods. And in fairness, it seems to have worked!

(TF:) Definitely agree. Apple laughably called the decision to remove the headphone jack “courage.” When in fact, they created a problem and then sold you the solution. The rest saw how successful it was for Apple and followed suit and here we are. Don’t get me wrong, I love my wireless earbuds and they take a lot of the pain of wires away especially when exercising but having the option for a headphone jack with better audio quality and millions of headphones / earphones to choose from is something that should never have been taken away, especially now prices for flagships are easily over a grand!

(CC:) Yeah, I think Apple have led the way in a lot of ways in the smartphone market, although not all of their decisions have necessarily been for the best from the end user's point of view.

Anyway, that just about wraps it up for this entry of 'Talking Tech'! That’s right, I’ve officially named this segment now. Which means there may be more in future… Maybe. Thanks a lot for joining me, and for your insightful musings on this topic. It looks like, at least for the moment, we’ve got a few more years of enduring rectangular glass slabs ahead of us, but I’m excited to see where the future of mobile devices leads us. And long live the headphone jack!

(TF:) 'Talking Tech' sounds great, thanks for having me!

(CC:) You can check out reviews, news, videos and more from Sikander over at TechnicallyFunny.net. Go check him out! Do it!

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