At the end of 2006, the cell phone landscape was awash with devices that filled specific wants and needs. If you wanted the coolest way to make calls, you got the RAZR. If you needed to email colleagues on the go, you bought a BlackBerry. If you were constantly texting your friends during study hall, there was the Sidekick.
Some had keyboards, some flipped, some gave us access to the "baby Internet," some had cameras. Walking into a Verizon or AT&T store was an exercise in exhaustion, with rows of phones running the gamut of designs. There were no real unifying elements, even as cellphones were clearly heading in a smarter, richer direction. No one was able to put it all together until Steve Jobs pulled the iPhone out of his pocket.
Today we have the opposite problem. Those rows of disparate devices have been replaced with a sea of rectangular screens, all offering touch navigation and a similar range of features. The iPhone has homogenized the lineup to the point where the denominators are so common, you practically have to study the tech specs to find a difference: a few more megahertz here, an extra megapixel there. The smartphone war has become a battle of inches and millimeters, and while there are plenty of choices, when you pit the Galaxy S6 against the HTC One M9, or the iPhone 6 Plus against the Galaxy Note 4, the differences between them are getting a lot less obvious.
Hitting the wall
When we first laid eyes on the iPhone back in 2007, it was instantly clear that it had broken the mold. We've watched as Steve's original vision has been modified and manipulated to the point where we expect a bigger and better design every 12 months, and for the most part, the major smartphone makers all deliver. But as I pored over the two latest entries from Samsung and HTC this week, I couldn't help but wonder: Where do we go from here?
It's the same question I had when Apple jumped into the mega-screen fight with the iPhone 6. It's not that I don't expect next year's iPhone 7 to be innovative, but the current models seem to have already pushed the rectangle as far as it can go. In just eight years, the handsets in our pockets have become powerhouses beyond comprehension, with HD displays and desktop-caliber processors that belie their stature; at the same time, it's unlikely that the Galaxy S7 or HTC One M10 will depart much from what was released this week. They might be bigger, they'll certainly be more powerful, but ultimately the only thing about the experience that will truly change is our grip.
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