Smartphones: What More Can We Pile On?

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Just how does one select a new smartphone today? Brand loyalty? Bigger screen? More memory? Peer recommendation? Operating system?

It is getting increasingly more difficult for the smartphone makers to distinguish themselves from one another. Today smartphones are all just rectangular boxes with a big color touch screen.  They all look alike and work pretty much the same.  With the recent introduction of the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the new HTC One (M8), I started thinking about what I could do as a product manager to make my phone more desirable than the others.  Both of those new phones sport 5 inch screens and have just about every available feature common to a competitive smartphone.  Which one is better and which one would I choose?  Answer:  I don’t know.  Do  you?

Just how does one select a new smartphone today?  Brand loyalty? Bigger screen?  More memory?  Peer recommendation? Operating system?  Or do I go by the carrier price and service plan rather than phone specs?  Or maybe there is some unique feature that attracts you to that phone.  An example is Apple’s iPhone 5S finger print scanner.  What other unique feature might sway your decision?

Virtually all modern smartphones have a 4+ to 5+ inch screen, LTE service, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, music and video capability, front and back cameras, NFC and voice query (like Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s new Cortana).  When you buy a new smartphone you expect all that to be there.  Our expectations are very high.  But what would make me choose one phone over another?

It is getting harder to find a new feature that stands out or might become a new trend.  For example, some phone manufacturers are creating curved screens?  Is a curved screen really better?  And for what?  A curved screen has to be harder and more expensive to make or to replace.  I think it is just a gimmick but that shows you how far the manufacturers are going to get your attention.

Another thing to look for in a new phone besides the desirable 5 inch screens is the latest version of Wi-Fi 802.11ac.  This 5 GHz band Wi-Fi is super fast and is a real benefit if you use Wi-Fi a great deal.  Even 2x2 MIMO and multi-user versions are becoming available making Wi-Fi faster and more reliable.  We may even see the faster 802.11ad 60GHz WiGig in a future phone.  But for what?

And speaking of MIMO, does your phone have LTE MIMO?  Some 2x2 versions are available making LTE data faster and more reliable.  MIMO is a super option but it is difficult to implement in a small package as the antenna spacing is an issue.  Bigger screens and housings make MIMO more likely.  A subtle but desirable feature.  In the near future you will be able to get an LTE-Advanced enabled phone for even higher data rates.  5G phones are way off for now.  What is 5G anyway?

Another feature that will attract some is longer battery life.  I know people who have to recharge their phones at least once to get through the day.  That means poor battery life.  Or does it mean you are really using your phone way too much and ignoring your other life?  In any case a strong battery that gets you through the day is a good but not very glamorous feature.

So what else could we possibly squeeze into a smartphone?  I always wanted an AM or FM radio.  Some phones have had FM but guess it was not popular.  Single chip AM/FM radios are available but there is the long antenna problem that has not been solved.  For some far out options, how about CB or Family Radio Service (FRS) radios?  How about a ham radio option?  What about a satellite phone option?  Could a spectrum-sharing cognitive White Space radio be a future option?  Current smartphones are all electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) nightmares anyway.  All those radios interfere with one another as it is, and adding more radios just makes EMI more of a problem.  Wireless design has never been more difficult.

Some other possibilities are a print capability, a version of Microsoft Office, or a built in knife blade like a Swiss Army knife.  Bullet-proof and water-proof versions may be popular. And let’s not forget the smartwatch options like Samsung Gear and Pebble that are becoming an attractive smartphone peripheral.  Other wearables are also a possible accessory.  These will no doubt be a popular niche.  Are they enough to get you to buy?

The rumors are saying that Apple will have their new iPhone 6 available by summer.  What will Apple do?  They are innovative and they could conjure up some interesting feature that none of us ever thought of.  The word is the screen size will increase to 4.7 or 5.5 inches, a welcome feature.  But what else could possibly make us upgrade?

What feature or option would you like to see?  I think the ultimate solution to making you buy a new smartphone is to bring back the flip phone.

Discuss this Blog Entry 4

on Apr 7, 2014

Based from Blackberry's current status, it might be the operating system. Blackberry still uses its own os, the BB10 which is incompatible with android. And now their sales is on a dive.

Oh, very nice to mention the technical difficulty in am radio with mobile phones. 535-1605 khz demands long antennas not to mention vertical polarization.

Swiss army knife hahaha... XD why not a nailcutter?
Never heard of a bullet proof cp. Would kevlar still work?

A lot of thought-provoking questions. Reminds me of what steve jobs used to say, "people really don't know what they want" :)

on Apr 16, 2014

As a point of interest, AM radio doesn't demand a "long" antenna. While an electric-field antenna is common for car radios (the whip), a magnetic-field antenna has been used for over 50 years ... witness the "loopstick" inside virtually every AM pocket radio since the 1950s. Regarding "features", I'd like to see some backward movement to fill the huge gap between Jitterbugs and phones aimed at those who must put their entire life in a pocket device. There's a couple of generations of folks like me for whom almost any modern phone is utter overkill. Personally, I don't play video games, I don't "do" social media, and will gladly wait to surf the net until I can sit in front of a full-size screen (not everyone has the eagle-eyes of a twenty-something). And I'll add a very basic complaint to my gripes ... full-duplex voice operation. Real human conversations are highly interactive, but cell phone technology prevents simultaneous talking and listening ... as "old fashioned" land lines do. I often feel the urge to say "over" at the end of every sentence. And I'm certain I'm not the only one who feels essentially ignored in the marketplace. I think it's time for a couple of "backward" steps for those of us who would rather have quality rather than quantity of "features".

on Apr 17, 2014

Sorry for my awkward wording ... I meant to say that "old fashioned" land lines allow full-duplex conversations, while cell phones do not. It amazes me that so many folks simply accept this as "normal". Seems to me that a better use of the extra bandwidth so common now would be to add this "new (to cell phones) feature" with it.

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Lou Frenzel

Lou Frenzel is the Communications Technology Editor for Electronic Design Magazine where he writes articles, columns, blogs, technology reports, and online material on the wireless, communications...
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