Smartphones have come so far in the past decade that your choice of a new one is probably informed more by your software preferences than by comparisons of key pieces of hardware, like the processor, screen, sensors, or camera system. In fact, consumers looking to purchase a new smartphone are often best-served by paying the most attention to the price and operating system of potential contenders as they narrow down the large field of possibilities.
Owen Williams reports for The Next Web that it’s difficult for smartphone makers to differentiate their products by hardware alone. Most of the phones you’ll look at when it’s time for an upgrade will look largely the same, and offer hardware features that are, generally, quite similar. Williams writes that “smartphones are now nothing more than slabs — and that’s great.”
Flagship phones from most manufacturers are extremely close, in terms of performance. Williams reports that it’s virtually unnecessary to compare the 1.8GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor used in the OnePlus Two with the quad-core 1.5GHz Cortex-A53 used in the Samsung Galaxy S6, because they both perform the everyday tasks they’re designed to handle at a fast pace. As The Cheat Sheet reported, a recent comparison of the camera systems in the iPhone 6s and the Galaxy S6 found that there wasn’t a clear winner, and another comparison of the cameras in the LG G4, Galaxy S6, and iPhone 6 by Android Central concluded that the competition was “a very close race between all three phones.”
While some manufacturers — think HTC, Nokia, or the handful of other original equipment manufacturers that are already on their way out — have struggled to stay alive, others, like Apple, have thrived by continuing to successfully pair innovations in software and hardware, and to market that pairing to consumers. Once a user has chosen an operating system and its ecosystem of services, features, and third-party apps, there’s little reason to change unless he’s concerned about software features offered by the competition, like Google Now or iCloud integration.
Williams thinks that as smartphone offerings continue to converge, it will get more and more difficult to differentiate between devices yearly, and there will be less of a reason to replace your phone as frequently. He projects that “One to two year replacement cycles will stretch to three years and beyond, just like computers,” and launch events will slowly lose their appeal. Alternately, plans like Apple’s new iPhone Upgrade Program could become the norm, and while you’d get a new, slightly different, moderately faster phone each year, in reality everything would remain about the same.
Along the way, hardware innovations could help sell phones. Williams thinks that 3D Touch — which “isn’t exactly revolutionary but is executed in a way that makes people think they’re seeing it for the first time” — is the first of such “hardware bumps” that will help sell new devices. In the future, Apple’s removal of the iPhone’s home button or Samsung’s release of a fully curved phone could have the same effect.
But in this new world of smartphone convergence, software will be the key differentiator, and will be what keeps consumers locked in to a given ecosystem year after year, as the differences between specific phones increasingly blur. Google Now on Tap, which can predict what you want to do based on the active task, will be a major selling point of future Android devices, while Apple’s renewed focus on privacy and security even as more iOS features depend on the cloud will help sell future iPhones. Eventually, we’ll likely stop caring about the specifications of a phone’s hardware as long as everything just works. And choosing a smartphone will increasingly become a simple matter of selecting an operating system and determining a price range.
When you’re choosing your next smartphone — whether you’re figuring out when to upgrade to a new iPhone or choosing from among the vast array of impressive Android smartphones — you’ll likely notice how suddenly, you’re less concerned about the speed of the processor or the number of megapixels in the camera than how easy the operating system makes it to access the information you need and how quickly it enables you to accomplish the tasks you complete everyday on your smartphone. Get used to that feeling; things won’t be returning to the specs-obsessed status quo anytime soon.