back to article Breaking up big tech can make smartphones interesting again

I’ve wanted to want a shiny new iPhone since the last lot were launched, but I haven’t been able to actually make myself desire the new model. Try as I might, it hasn’t worked. My three-year-old iPhone X works perfectly, still has ‘the snappy’, and doesn’t have a scratch. So why would I get a new smartphone? A decade ago, I …

  1. AMBxx Silver badge

    Done their work well?

    Do you mean they've stopped innovating? There's very little new in phone technology right now. The whole segment is ready for a new disruptor to 'do something new'.

    I needed a 2nd phone last week as a separate device for 2FA. Fired up my old Blackberry Priv. It's running Android 6 which is barely distinguishable from my more recent phone running Android 9. I'd expect the same if I compared an old iPhone with something more recent. This constant focus on thinner but bigger disguises the near total stagnation of the market.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Done their work well?

      It's less a question of what new things are in our phones but rather what new things could a phone do? Identify a problem that could be solved by a pocket-sized lump of sensors and processing power.

      The maturity of phones (i.e, lack of change year in year, reliability) allows us to re-examine (or at least fine tune) our relationship to phones. After all, the user forms a part of the system.

      1. DS999 Silver badge

        Re: Done their work well?

        Identify a problem that could be solved by a pocket-sized lump of sensors and processing power

        That's it exactly. There was a period when phones were adding new features like cameras, full browsers, GPS, MEMS, touch/face ID. They've replaced cameras, camcorders, GPS / in car nav units, music players, dictaphone/voice recorders, pager, photo album, alarm clock, calculator, calender/planner, notepad, barcode scanner, measuring tape, even stuff like flashlight, level, car keys, and wallet in some cases. We've pretty much run out of stuff for smartphones to replace!

        Phone cameras are incredible now, a decade ago I could blame the quality of my pictures on the phone's crappy camera. Now the problem is 100% my fault, as evidenced by all the amazing stuff you see on Apple's #ShotOniPhone ads. I'm sure they will be further improved, but it makes less and less difference except to a tiny segment of the population who are good enough photographers that they can fully exploit the new features.

        There are little niche things added to some phones that a few people care about, but not enough for them to be widespread, like IR remote, FLIR camera, and so forth. Those will never become standard because the cost/benefit isn't there (well if they could add a FLIR for a buck or two it would probably be worth it even though people don't often need one, but getting the price that low is sort of a chicken and egg situation)

        1. Dave 15 Silver badge

          Re: Done their work well?

          But, but and again but. What about simple things like a real keyboard so I can do that email without having to have my eyes on the screen and forever correcting the wrong tap? Or a flip so that the screen doesn't end up buggered in a week. Or (as a user of a crappy Nokia Android one) a phone whose screen doesn't keep freezing and requiring power cycles (often more than one as it even fucks up and freezes taking the passcode.... That means testing the fucking shit before inflicting half arsed half baked downgrades on the world ... Yes the phone did work before the forced on you whether you want it or not downgrade, please the Microsoft business model is moving people from windoze, don't use the same idea)

  2. Dave 126 Silver badge

    What will make phones fun again?

    3D scanning, environment aware, context sensitive. Your workshop resembling Tony Starks fictional base of operations. Wave your phone around your kitchen, and receive a list of which size fittings ton buy and use the data to have work surfaces CNC cut.

    Our machines aren't very aware of our surrounding. If something goes wrong with a 3D print, my 3D printer will continue use printing garbage, oblivious to the original error. No 'common sense' like any computer.

    We're dancing apes. Let's use the sensors in our phones to require us to look at the screens less.

    Lockdown has made it clear to many people that phones aren't in themselves fun. Pubs are fun. Festivals are fun. Meeting old friends, getting outside, is fun. Making stuff and tinkering is fun. Some of my friends use their phones to find other men to have sex with, which they report as fun. Some even suggest going for runs and exercising is fun.

    Phones are a distraction to pubs and festivals, but can aid some people in exercising (note: our bodies have a lot of 'sensors', maybe we don't actually need fit bits), and are invaluable in meeting people with similar interests.

    To clumsily return to the cloud question: environment-aware phones need to scan and process data locally to minimise latency.

    3D sensors and ML silicon is being shipped on higher end phones, but so far devs have yet to explore applications.

    1. Dave 15 Silver badge

      Re: What will make phones fun again?

      3d screens were something Nokia had for symbian... Along with a 3d camera but it got fucked by the American genius CEO they bought in... You know the Nokia that sold more phones than all the rest combined, even, yes even, smartphones but was rodgered into dust because the board and shareholders hadn't the guts to fire an idiot who would destroy the companies profit driver with an inaccurate, I'll thought through and wrong email. Burning platform my arse, it was just a problem of not having enough production capability to keep up with demand. Symbian still runs technical rings around stuff built on modified desktop operating systems

  3. Dave 126 Silver badge

    The new Macs look great, but I don't need one. However, I have a use for SolidWorks, which unlike rival AutoCAD Fusion has never had a MacOS release. I searched online to see if there was any whiff of that happening, and the feeling is that a cloud version of SolidWorks is more likely than a Mac or ARM version.

    That said, my old laptop is sufficient for my CAD needs, and being semi rural I use a car so carrying a heavier laptop with its power supply isn't that great a chore for me compared to someone who hops from bus to train.

  4. don't you hate it when you lose your account Silver badge

    Digital lives?

    Oh how easy we fall for the marketing speak.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Digital lives?

      Get sick, get well

      Hang around the ink well

  5. Dave 126 Silver badge

    - Google Project Tango, used multiple lenses and projector to capture accurate point cloud data of a room in colour. Abandoned.

    - Google ARCore. Largely a toy. Not accurate.

    - Microsoft Kinnect. Big. Requires laptop with GPU. Popular with hobbyists.

    - Qualcomm released demo of realtime point cloud of pianist's fingers playing a piano.

    -Microsoft aims Hololens AR system at industrial users.

    - Samsung puts VGA resolution laser ToF sensor in most expensive Galaxy varient. Bless.

    - Leap Motion make inexpensive device to track fingers through space in real time. Didn't catch on.

    - Apple place similar LiDAR sensor in iPad Pro, followed by the most expensive iPhone varient the next year. Makes camera autofocusing very fast, but otherwise under adopted by devs for other purposes. Apple also known to be looking at AR glasses 'when the technology is good enough'.

  6. 0laf Silver badge
    Meh

    Whatever any new innovation is you can be sure it'll have to slurp your data by design.

    If it 3D maps a room, that room will be geotagged, its dimentions and contents AI processed to send you adverts about considering replacing that 'shabby' table in the corner of your kitchen.

    For most of us phones are a utility tool now. Everyone has a small black rectanular screen in the pocket, if not two. I don't think I've installed an app for months now even then it was probably forced by whatever delivery service I needed that day.

    Folding phones might be intersting but really all they are is the sae thing with a bigger screen. Everything is just a bit incremental now. Better camera, higher res screen (pointless now since eyes cant really tell any more), battery life just as shite as ever.

    What else do most people actually want their phones to do?

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      That's the thing - a real time 3D scan provides a better user experience if done locally (on the phone), rather than on the cloud. In that respect they're like convectional photographs.

      For sure, there will always be a sales app that puts a virtual table in your living room and wants to send you emails afterwards, but nothing to stop people developing or buying non-slurpy data.

      The scary thing is if whole-house interior 3D scans are used to sell houses. The estate agents' 'cosy' euphemism might go less far if the buyer can view the house in 3D (and rearrange their existing furniture virtually)... Can this data be deleted after the sale? If it is retained, is out automatically made available to firefighters in event of emergency?

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I only use a fraction of the functionality of my current phone

    My current phone is a Galaxy S10e. It has a dedicated button for a voice assistant - which I don't use as it requires you to agree to a creepy-stalker EULA where Samsung can do what they like with the data. It has a whole Samsung Health app (run tracker etc.) which can't be uninstalled. I don't use this as it sends the data away for them to do what they like with. Google Assistant is installed (Android Phone). Don't use it as they get all the data. GPS. I keep it switched off as Android can't be trusted. Bluetooth - off for the same reason.

    I'd like to trust and use the hardware I already have, never mind new hardware. I paid a lot of money for it, and don't like being monetised to make Samsung or Google even more money.

    1. Sgt_Oddball Silver badge

      Re: I only use a fraction of the functionality of my current phone

      Turns out to quote the 5+ year old mantra "there's an app for that". Android assistant button can be reassigned to something more useful. Like opening your favourite app, taking a picture or setting off some sort of alarm.

      Why this isn't included out of the box I have no idea*.

      Also with regards environmental sensing... Sony tried this with NFC tags yeeeaaaars ago. But since this was Sony, it was an expensive add-on, none were included with the phone and rare as rocking horse teeth to find if you actually wanted to buy them (you could have different apps, settings, network connections triggered off the little tags, seemed like a neat idea... Just poorly implemented as Sony is want to do from time to time).

      * lies, I have every idea why they don't let you decide what that single button does.

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: I only use a fraction of the functionality of my current phone

        BxActions, a couple of quid well spent to remap button.

        1. alexmcm

          Re: I only use a fraction of the functionality of my current phone

          You don't need to pay anything to remap the bixby button. In the settings just change the 'launch bixby' action to be 2 presses of the bixby button, then re-assign the one-press to launch the app of your choice.

          If I haven't explained that clearly there a literally hundreds of explanations and youtubes showing how to do it. No app required.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: I only use a fraction of the functionality of my current phone

            Just checked. All settings greyed out except the "Sign Up to Bixby" button. So unless I agree to another set of shitty T's & C's I can't follow your instructions.

            Samsung are arseholes.

          2. Dave 126 Silver badge

            Re: I only use a fraction of the functionality of my current phone

            > You don't need to pay anything to remap the bixby button.

            The Samsung method still insist that you assign either single or double click to Bixby, leaving just the other option to remap to a limited range of functions.

            You don't need to pay for BxActions, but you get better functionality from it if you do.

    2. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: I only use a fraction of the functionality of my current phone

      You paid for the hardware... If enough people paid for a user-respecting OS to be built and tested...

      1. Mike 16 Silver badge

        Re: I only use a fraction of the functionality of my current phone

        ---

        If enough people paid for a user-respecting OS

        ---

        Thing is, it would be software, and software, unlike physical goods, can usually be "improved" (in the eyes of its owner, which is not you) at any time.

        Much like buying a Jaguar XK-E then walking out one morning to find that is has been "upgraded" to a 2CV.

        Paying for something does not guarantee getting what you paid for. The old "You get what you pay for" has never been true. Even "You never get more than you paid for" is subject to interpretation. Does the boot full of rabid weasels count as "more"?

        (Yes, I understand that "software" can effectively change the "hardware", but some aspects of hardware still have to respect the laws of physics.)

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: I only use a fraction of the functionality of my current phone

          Sorry, I wasn't clear - I meant if enough people got together and paid to create an organisation to create an OS, Apps and supporting services. The people who own the organisation would own the software fully, not just 'own' a licence to run it on their phone.

          I only meant it to illustrate a hypothetical business model.

  8. Franco Silver badge

    I'm finally replacing my tablet (Google Nexus 7) after 7 years. Even then only replacing it because the battery life is terrible now and half the apps I have on my phone (Nokia 6.1) don't work on the tablet because it's Andoid 6.0.1. Really not seeing any great leaps forward in technology in the old one and the new though (Lenovo M8)

    1. Korev Silver badge

      Nexus 7s were almost killed by an OS update which the tablet just wasn't powerful enough to run; I'm guessing you didn't update :)

      1. 0laf Silver badge

        There was no "almost" in it. I had one, nice little tablet, that update made it unusable and the little bit of squiming and token tweaking by Google made no difference. Mine ended up in the trash.

      2. Franco Silver badge

        I've never declined one, possibly it was pulled before it got as far as me.

        It WAS a great tablet, the Lenovo arrived yesterday so we'll see how it holds up. Got it for £90 from Currys on black friday, just meant that I had to wait ages to get it. And hope that I got it at all, given what happened with them.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Old devices do work

    But I suspect that I'm not alone in not wanting to pay over the odds for the latest bit of shiny,shiny from Apple or Samsung.

    I rely on those who do upgrade every year and buy used phones.

    My iPhone 8 was bought over a year after the model was released at a price well under what the new cost was.

    Like the authors iPhone X, my phone is workng perfectly and see no reason to upgrade this year or even next.

    I really don't care if phones are interesting or not. My phone is a tool not a fashion item or a bit of bling.

  10. Blackjack Silver badge

    I retired my Samsung Galaxy S3 mini in 2019

    And it was mostly because the battery was dead and Signal no longer updated for it. I replaced it by a New Nokia 1 that updated up to Android 10 Go.

    And I still use my Samsung Galaxy S5.

    So unless one of the two things break not getting a new Smartphone any time soon.

    1. Dave 15 Silver badge

      Re: I retired my Svamsung Galaxy S3 mini in 2019

      I consigned two Lenovo laptops to the bin because the battery charging failed and the hardware is so shittily designed it won't run plugged in if it can't charge the battery (what total and utter bozo in the design department thought that acceptable should be shot for being too stupid to be a slug never mind a human). I think it is time that there was a law permitting people to take their failed devices and shove them up the CEOs arsehole. Maybe then these people taking billions and selling total crap might think a bit more carefully

  11. Marty McFly Silver badge
    Meh

    Latest phones...

    ...have all been evolutionary, not revolutionary.

    1. Blackjack Silver badge

      Re: Latest phones...

      Correct and if you are stuck at home using Wifi you can wait a year or two to get a 5G phone. Or like threee years if you don't live in a big city because yes it can take that long for a new mobile standard to get everywhere.

  12. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge
    Meh

    Meh

    I recently replaced my aging Pixel with a Pixel 4a 5G (really, Google, you can't do better with branding?). I was fairly cranky about having to do so, as my Pixel still basically worked fine, but the battery was totally shot, the battery replacement difficulty is high, and the overall cost of replacement would, in any case, wind up being a significant chunk of the cost of a new phone (yes, I know you can get replacement kits for cheap from iFixit, but the difficulty rating deters me as I'm fairly certain I would fuck up some delicate component). Despite my irritation, the new phone offers substantially improved performance, a larger screen, and a better camera, so I'm pleased with the purchase if not with the lack of battery replaceability in the Pixel line. However, if not for the industry's clever ploy of making batteries non-replaceable, I probably would have just stuck with the Pixel until some more serious issue afflicted it.

    1. alexmcm

      Re: Meh

      I think if a battery technoology were discovered that significantly extended the lifespan of batteries, it would be suppressed by the smartphone industry. Can you imagine the hit to the bottom line for Apple or Samsung if the glued in and hardwired battery in your phone worked to 90% of capacity 10 years later. They would have to find some other method you convince you to buy a new phone, like intentionally slowing the phone after a few years.

  13. LDS Silver badge

    "to become a source of endless novelty and delight "

    Sure. When they can break the speed of light (which is even slower than in vacuum) and make remote processing indistinguishable from local one.... for CRM it is, but for "delight"?

  14. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge
    Flame

    What's new?

    For reasons I'll never figure out, phone makers went back to the camera megapixel wars. Places that could have been used for cool new tech are stuffed with massive camera arrays that still produce unimpressive photos. Features that were making pretty good progress like audio, displays, signal reception, and memory regressed. Folding cameras seemed so cool but disappointed with their fragility, limited features, and insane prices.

    I upgraded because my Galaxy S9+ no longer has any reception. I could try to guess whether the radios burned out or got bad firmware, but Samsung is the kind of company that delivers both. I now have a new T-Mo Velvet 5G that's bulkier, slower, and has fewer cell bands, but at least I haven't lost my 1TB microSD card or headphone jack. I hear it may eventually use 5G in a useful way if LG hasn't already forgotten that this phone exists.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: What's new?

      > For reasons I'll never figure out, phone makers went back to the camera megapixel wars

      It's quite sensible really - people are more likely to want to photograph distant objects in daylight, when there is enough light that even small photocells can capture images without too much noise. Result is that you can crop the centre of a high-megapixel sensor to get a 'zoomed' image.

      At night, people are more likely to snap pictures of things nearby, like people. Multiple sensor pixels can be combined into one, i.e, taking an 8 mp image from a 32 mp sensor, increasing the amount of light gathered for each output pixel, thus reducing noise.

      But to say it's a full megapixel war... the acknowledged leaders in phone cameras are Google and Apple who haven't been talking about megapixels, but instead talk of better processing or of sensor size (larger photoreceptors)

  15. Martin Summers Silver badge

    Phone manufacturers. Battery technology. Spend all your R&D money on that. Please.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      There's plenty of money being spent on battery R&D.

      In the meantime, the cost of phone battery replacement is roughly ten percent of the price of the phone, every two to three years - fairly easy to budget for.

      The limiting factor for many an Android phone is the duration of security updates. We're now a couple of years on from when phibes were shipped with Android incorporating Project Treble, so we should now start to see if that has helped the situation.

  16. AnAnonymousCanuck

    Want something interesting. Buy a phone you control. That means no Apple, no Android.

    Purism and Pinephone are two options

    YMMV

    AAC

    1. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

      It used to exist in the Android world. When I had a Find 7, Oppo created a brick-proof recovery mode, offered two flavors of OS, and listed links to 3rd party OSes that worked on the phone. I loved the phone but the overcrowded LTE band 4 was all it could use.

      LineageOS is still somewhat around but manufacturers do what they can to prevent it from working.

    2. Dave 126 Silver badge

      > Want something interesting. Buy a phone you control.

      For a certain definition of interesting, I guess. Like, may you live in interesting times.

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