Phone Makers Are Partying Like It’s 1999
There’s a good chance your next phone is on display in a booth in Barcelona right now. This week is Mobile World Congress, the annual extravaganza where virtually every single Android device maker shows off its latest and greatest. It’s been an eventful week so far.
If you’ve been paying attention to this year’s news (and who hasn’t?!), you may have found your body beginning to morph and separate, caught halfway through a wormhole between two distinct times. That’s because the biggest names in phones, from Samsung to HP to LG to HTC, are all coming up with new features the same way: by reading the history books. Or at least the old-school tech blogs.
Remember 1999? It was a big year. The euro became a thing; so did Family Guy and Spongebob Squarepants. The Dow went above 10,000 for the first time in its history. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace hit theaters, ruining the year for everyone involved. Napster came online. And a company called Handspring launched a PDA called the Visor with a unique new feature: an expansion slot called Springboard. Like cartridges in a video-game console, you could swap modules in and out that would turn your PDA into a pager, modem, MP3 player and more. The giant add-ons turned your PDA into a Transformer, both in functionality and in resemblance to the contents of a junkyard.
The Visor was a smash. PC Magazine named it “Handheld of the year” for 1999, and called it “the most versatile hand-held we’ve ever seen.” Handspring, for its part, wanted Springboard to be everywhere. It began to license the architecture to other companies and encourage developers to build modules. After its brief moment in the sun, Springboard never really took off. It was learning from N64 cartridges while the world was moving toward app stores.
Back to the Future
The life and death of Springboard should be a lesson for LG. Its new G5 smartphone is a beautiful metallic object with by all accounts very good specs. Its primary appeal, however, is a removable bottom bezel that exposes an accessories port, and a couple of accessories called Friends. Friends are the same sort of modular, do-one-thing-better accessories that Handspring hoped to bring to the world. It’s a lower-stakes take on a truly modular phone like Google’s Project Ara. Drop in the Cam Plus, and you get a grip for taking photos, plus an extra battery. Swap it out for the Hi-Fi Plus, and jam out to your upsampled audio. LG rolled out its new phone also alongside a VR headset and a 360-degree camera, just to hammer the message home: a smartphone alone isn’t enough anymore.
Move around the halls at MWC and it seems like everyone agrees. Samsung’s Galaxy S7 launch was much more about the Gear VR and the surprising appearance of Mark Zuckerberg than it was about smartphones. HP’s new device, the Windows-powered Elite X3, is a smartphone. Mostly. You can also dock it in HP’s new Mobile Extender, which is basically a screen and a keyboard that let you access the contents of your phone from something that feels more like a laptop. Sound familiar? It sounds like the Motorola Atrix, the 2011 device that everyone I knew wanted desperately but assumed wouldn’t work. (They were right.) If you keep traveling back in time, you’ll land squarely on the Palm Foleo.
Palm announced the Foleo, a 10-inch screen / keyboard / battery companion to your Treo, at the worst imaginable time. The iPhone was coming, and it was clear Palm was behind the times. “We need a better Treo,” wrote Engadget’s Ryan Block at the time, “or we need a Foleo or like device that replaces your Treo—we don’t want both.” Now, nearly a decade later, Microsoft and HP are hoping you actually do want both.
The Persistence of Memory
Part of what’s happening in the mobile industry now is that manufacturers’ tech is finally catching up to their big ideas. LG’s seamless, virtually invisible Friends implementation is everything the chunky, duct-tape-y Springboard wasn’t. Windows 10’s Continuum is a genuinely good, useful feature, and the X3 Elite may actually have the specs to run at laptop pace or something close.
On the other hand, these launches signal a sense of desperation. Phone-makers have all learned a critical lesson in the last few years: you can’t beat the iPhone at its own game. All the best, most differentiated features are just apps, available for a few bucks (more often, nothing) on almost every phone in the world. If you want to make noise in the smartphone industry, you have to have something truly useful that the iPhone doesn’t. That’s why microSD card slots and waterproofing are back in force this year at MWC. Anywhere Samsung, LG, Huawei, or anyone else can put a checkmark next to the iPhone’s empty box is a small but meaningful victory.
Lack of truly new ideas aside, though, this year’s MWC is an exciting one. It’s easy to claim that smartphones are done, finished, perfected. It’s a rectangle full of screen, and at least until we solve physics and make batteries last forever we’re not going to get a dramatically better smartphone. I don’t think that’s true, but if it is, it’s a huge opportunity. Smartphone parts are cheap and powerful, and it’s all but impossible to build a bad phone in 2016. Everything works now, so companies can experiment again. First they’ve trotted out all the ideas they had a decade ago, that Palm and others were simply too early to make work. Next, even as they work on making those giant VR headsets look as silly in retrospect as the first cellphone does now, they might be able to start trying entirely new, different, weirder things. Maybe smartphones aren’t finished after all.