Flat Slab Finale?

The Mobile World Congress (MWC) show in Barcelona has always been somewhat of a paean to the mobile phone and, for the last several years, to smartphones. This is the trade show where the world has witnessed the flattening and expanding of smartphones from the smaller screen, thicker devices of just a few years back into the thin, large-screen devices they are today. With the exception of Apple—who never has a booth here—many other companies have also used the show as a launching point for a fair number of tablets.

In other words, Barcelona has become the place where most of the world’s vendors have introduced a whole lot of flat slabs of smart glass. This year’s show was no exception. Samsung introduced the S6, HTC unveiled the M9, Microsoft released the Lumia 640, Sony introduced the Xperia M4 Aqua, etc.

Many of these new smartphones offered some notable improvements over their predecessors—better cameras, faster processors, tougher glass, slightly slimmer sizes, and all the other things that have come to represent enhancements to today’s smart phones.

But as with CES, I was disappointed to find that virtually no company has done any fundamental rethinking or redesigning of smart phone form factors. It’s a bunch of smart, flat, planes of glass.

The problem is, that’s not really exciting any more. We can’t exactly get bigger screens without getting devices that are too big. In fact, several vendors have pulled back from 6” and larger devices and settled down into the 5-5.5” sweet spot that most vendors and consumers seem to see as a relatively ideal size. We may be able to shave off a few fractions of a millimeter in width, but only at the expense of battery size and, likely, battery life. Bottom line is, it increasingly feels like we’ve come to the end of the line when it comes to the basic design of both smart slab smartphones and smart slab tablets. We’ll continue to see improvements in the internals, of course, but despite vendors’ best efforts, all these devices are increasingly looking the same.[pullquote]It increasingly feels like we’ve come to the end of the line when it comes to the basic design of both smart slab smartphones and smart slab tablets.”[/pullquote]

To be fair, this form factor seems to work for most consumers overall, but they provide absolutely zero tactile feedback. Now that lack of feedback has been perfectly fine on billions of smartphones sold over the last few years, but it feels like the time has come to rethink where smartphone and tablets designs are going.

We have seen an interesting experiment via LG’s Flex smartphone, which features a curved screen, but not really much else. There have also been some demonstrations of interesting haptic technologies, which provide force feedback to users of touch-based devices, such as tablets and smartphones. The latest is the Tactus Phorm iPad Mini case, which uses a fluid-based screen overlay technology that can generate physical keys seemingly out of nowhere and then disappear when they’re no longer required. In addition, I’ve heard rumblings of technologies that can leverage supersonic audio waves to generate a type of haptic force feedback as your hand hovers over a flat display. Nothing, however, has really made any kind of impact just yet.

I made the prediction at the beginning of the year —and have since had the thought verified by a number of long-time industry players—that we are overdue for much more tactile devices and experiences. So far, the market hasn’t moved in that direction, but I’m certainly hoping that by next year’s MWC, we’ll be able to start looking beyond the flat slabs of today to more interesting form factors of tomorrow.

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Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

13 thoughts on “Flat Slab Finale?”

  1. While I understand your disappointment in the lack of fundamental rethinking of the current smartphones. I think you are looking at it from the wrong angle. You are correct when you say this form factor works for most of us, and to expect oem’s to change the current formula (that is working btw) is asking for too much. The conclusion I got from reading your piece is that you are looking for changes at the physical and shapes of smartphones.

    IMHO that would be a mistake to deviate from the current smartphone shapes just for the sake of change, not yet anyway. Let’s think back to pre-iphone for a moment. Plenty of smartphones existed, but they remained a niche because all of them had one major flaw, their software. What the iphone got right more than anything was how inviting and easy it was to everyone. You did not need a manual, anyone could pick it up and start using, it was liberating for the average users, it got rid of the intimidation factor the average users dreaded.

    If you listened to Tim Cook’s Goldman Sachs talk earlier this year, you can put together what they are thinking long term in that area. Not saying their vision will work, since a lot hinges on their execution on things they do not excel at yet (cloud). It painted a vision of multiple hub (phone, watch) platforms, (HealthKit, HomeKit, Apple Pay, CarPlay and Siri).

    The iphone, eventually the watch will be the hub that will help us interact with the world around us, it will serve as a form of identification and more. In a world like this, our smartphones do not need to change, it’s already the smartest thing all of us carry. What needs to change and improve are the rest of our physical world (IOT). That’s what I am excited about and where I think most of the advancements will come in the next few years. What the smartphone needs to continue to improve on are some of the frictions we have on the software side. More than anything the software needs to evolve if the world Tim Cook (Apple) is looking to help shape is to come true.

    1. Great comment, though I would add its all about use cases and jobs to be done that we haven’t necessarily imagined yet. It is up to OEMs but more so developers to think of how we would use such features. If you don’t include the speculative physical capability, developers have nothing to work with.
      The Apple watch will have the Force Touch and the Taptic Engine because there are simple use cases for this in the watch (direction, notification, etc.). There are rumors that the Force Touch will come to the 6S and the Taptic Engine to the 7 when people are more used the function (and they can fit it in the slim body). None of this precludes all the software and ecosystem improvement you outline above.
      Then there’s holographic displays…

  2. In terms of pure smartphone form factors, I think we’ve never had that many
    – sizes up to 7″ for real smartphones, plus phone-enabled tablets. Ok , all slabs, but sill, usage & handling vary greatly between 4″ and 7″.
    – dual-sided smartphone w/ e-Ink on the back
    – curved G Flex
    – …edgy… S6 Edge and, mostly, Note 4 Edge (GS6E is mostly cosmetics, GN4E is actually an extra screen)
    – a range of camera phones, from very camera-y (Samsung), to very smartphone-y (Lenovo)
    – a few phonewatches (LG and others)
    – and still the sliders (no horizontal one though, I think), and even flip smatphones.

  3. Just to give you some ideas, let me talk about a fun phone that we have in Japan.

    A Flip-phone / Smartphone hybrid!!

    http://image.itmedia.co.jp/news/articles/1501/19/yuo_garaho_07.jpg

    It looks just like a flip style feature phone, but the keypad also works as a trackpad so you can freely move a cursor around on the screen. It runs Android 4.4 on a quad-core CPU, doesn’t work with Google Play, but messaging apps like LINE run OK. It has a full browser and LTE. You can download apps from an app store run by the carrier (in this case, KDDI). It also comes preinstalled with a maps app, which is, you guessed right, created and owned by the carrier. It even has an office suite!!

    http://image.itmedia.co.jp/news/articles/1501/19/yuo_garaho_04.jpg

    You can tether to your tablet, if you really feel like using a boring flat slate.

    So Bob, is this the kind of thing you are looking for?

    http://www.itmedia.co.jp/news/articles/1501/19/news115.html

    When you run out of ideas, you should come to Japan!

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