Dreamliner, ca. 1917

Have We Reached Design Terminus In Phones?

Posted May 02, 2019
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When the Wright Brothers invented the airplane in 1903, no one knew what a plane was supposed to look like.

No one had ever built one before.

So the Wrights spent a lot of time looking at birds and then set out to build their first plane from wood, cotton cloth, and wire. A wooden stick was used to move the rudder.  

Needless to say, if you were boarding a plane for a flight to London and the plane was still made out of cotton and wire and wood, you might be inclined to get off.

During the first 50 years of flying, the design of planes continued to morph.  There were triplanes and biplanes and swept back wings and engines affixed to the tail and more - designs that went nowhere - flying wings and spheres.

But around the 1950s, the design, a thin aluminum tube with wings and a tail got pretty much codified and the changes thereafter were more along the lines of fine-tuning as opposed to radical new ideas.

The same observation might be made of cars or computers or TV sets. In fact, it is true for the arrival of almost any new technology. They don't come with an instruction manual.  It takes time to figure it out, but once a basic design is codified, there is not a lot of change.

Yesterday, we talked about how iPhone sales had fallen off.

Today, The BBC reports that Apple is not alone.  Pretty much every smartphone manufacturer is suffering from the same problem.  

"Despite a dazzling array of new devices on display at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona: phones that fold, phones with buttons, phones with enormous batteries, expensive phones, budget phones, 5G-ready phones… they aren't exactly flying off the shelves."

Across the industry, sales of smartphones are off by as much as 20%. 

The reason is simple. There is really very little need to upgrade the phone you probably already have. At $1000 or more (the ill-fated Samsung Fold was slated at $2000 before it started breaking in half), buying a phone is now a major investment.

And of course, since the advent of the iPhone, and its never-ending imitators, the phone, like the plane, has reached what we might call terminal design.

Of course, when the first iPhone was released, no one really had one, so there was a worldwide market of people who would become first time buyers.  But they all have their phones and they work quite well.

What can phone manufacturers do to drive more sales?  

Maybe there is nothing they can do, except to tweak with the software (and you see where that got Boeing),

The next big change will have little to do with phone design per se. It's the advent of 5G

That promises to be a major game changer.

If you want to read an amazing (and thoroughly frightening) article on what 5G will mean, here's a link to a great piece in The New Yorker.