EDITORIAL: Have we reached “peak cellphone?”

About a billion years ago, I had this phone. Loved it, too. It had user-customizable ringtones, games, speed dials, changeable skins, and probably most importantly it lasted about a week on a charge and could take a fall from 20 feet with barely a scratch. Try that with any phone today.

Of course, it couldn’t get e-mails, it didn’t have apps like Facebook, and couldn’t play music. It’s possible you could text with it but that wasn’t on my radar back then. It was about as dumb as a phone could be, I suppose. Nothing interesting for today’s generation.

Over the last decade, phones have gotten prettier, thinner, bigger, and exponentially more powerful. And in a strange twist, we’ve cared less and less about every new one. New product releases from leaders like Apple and Samsung make news for a day or so, while other manufacturers merit barely a blip on the news sites. When a flagship phone is released, most of us lay back, not even giving a thought to getting in line like we would have a decade ago.

And you know, I think of myself as an early adopter, but I’m sitting here looking at a phone over 2 years old and I’m in no rush to upgrade. The battery life is still “ok” (I guess that’s how you define 1-day battery life now) and it’s still in good shape cosmetically. I’m not unhappy, and I’m not inspired to run out and get any of the new phones that have been released this season.

So I ask, have we reached peak cellphone? Are we doomed to a future of uninteresting black slabs, each barely better than the last?

I doubt it. I’ve been accused of being pessimistic in the past but honestly I think that we’re going to see another quantum shift in communication in the last five years. It will be a huge jump, like when we all started using touchscreens or going online using our phones. It will be a huge thing, and something we will hardly be able to imagine today.

For several years, we’ve been talking about transparent displays, and I’ve even seen a few prototypes. I would think initially this would start with PC monitors since a transparent display would be useless on a phone if the other components weren’t transparent as well. Still, if someone did come up with a way to make our phones look like slabs of lucite instead of slabs of black metal, that would be really awesome. Besides looking cool, it would add to the phones ability to “augment reality” (think of the way Pokemon Go superimposes images on your phone’s camera feed) and make us feel more connected by showing us the world outside while we look at our devices.

Personally I think the idiom of swiping and tapping is getting a little old, and while it probably won’t go away for a while, I think there will be something new as well. Think of how phones added the swiping, pinching and tapping motions to our lives while we still kept using mice and keyboards on our computers. Now imagine the next wave of interface. I don’t think it will be speech, that’s not fast or compact enough. I wonder if new phones will simply react to our microgestures. You won’t have to wave your hand to get your phone’s attention, a flick in midair might do it. Your phone might respond to a bored expression on your face by presenting new information, or automatically zoom into photos as you look at a specific point.

More than anything, I’m hoping for a quantum jump in battery life. We’ve been talking about this for years, but the truth is batteries aren’t a lot better than they were a decade ago. We ask them to do a lot more, and that’s a problem. If we’re really going to move to the next level we need a battery the size of a postage stamp that can power a phone for a week. It’s not impossible… people are working on things like that because it’s desperately needed. There’s too much to charge now, and if we’re ever going to be able to really rely on our devices, we’ll need not only a much better battery but a much better way to charge it. Maybe the next generation of phones can power themselves over solar, or by sucking the heat from your body, or through your motion like some watches do. I don’t know how that would work, but something has to give… and soon.

So yes, I’m bored with the state of phones this year, even though they’re the best they’ve ever been. I want them to be 10 times better… and I know they can be.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 9,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.