Smartphones too smart for their own good?


When in 2007 Apple’s late company-founder Steve Jobs walked alone onto a stage to show off the world’s first real smartphone, it was not just the technology that had changed. The iPhone set a new standard in design. Eleven years on, the original phone may look brick-like compared with today’s super-sleek phones, but at the time its look and feel was revolutionary. And the phone brought about a revolution at Apple itself, turning it into the world’s richest company.

The smartphone’s arrival triggered software developers into producing increasingly clever programs. The corporate world, for which the standard mobile technology had until then been the Blackberry or the Nokia Communicator, with tiny keyboards, found itself adopting the smartphone, less out of choice but rather because its executives wanted to be seen using the new technology. There were then and still remain important security issues but the arrival of the new phone in business briefcases was unstoppable.

But the real kicker for smartphone ownership - there are now some 2.5 billion users - was the emergence of mobile social media apps. Among the under-30s, keeping in touch with friends and family is the dominant activity.

Smartphone features now include film and still photography, satellite navigation, media playing, video games, text messaging and even a flashlight, most of which can be activated by a voice command. And there is something else all of them offer. They are also phones.

The average smartphone is actually a miniaturized computer. Even a low level version offers vastly more computing power than was available when the Americans put the first man on the moon.

Manufacturers have been vying with each other to add more and more features to keep the market going. They have fallen into an annual upgrade cycle, led by Apple and Samsung. The latter sells the greater number of units but Apple is still seen as the touchstone, the company by which other producers, including a rising number of Chinese manufacturers, measure themselves.

But last year, for the first time, smartphone sales stalled. It may have been something to do with Apple’s new iPhone X which in the US nudged the thousand dollar mark and in some other markets, such as the UK, costs 32 percent more than that.

It would appear that consumers are pushing back not just at the cost, but at the pressure to follow the fashion and upgrade to the very latest model. Not so very long ago it was a strange sight to see someone walking along talking - often unusually loudly - into a mobile phone. Now smartphones are ubiquitous and it is more likely that users will be staring at the screen while their fingers fly over an onscreen keyboard. However, barring the odd new feature - Samsung’s brand new S9 rumbles when playing games - there seems no compelling reason to fork out for an expensive new phone every year.

Its highly competitive link with fashion appears to have undermined the smartphone market. The welcome given the reintroduction of the distinctly un-flashy Nokia 3310 handset, first produced in 2002, is perhaps indicative of a change of mood, even though this phone has not once again sold by the tens of millions. It is tempting to believe that maybe smartphones have become too smart for their own good.