Bigger screens. Near-field communication. High-speed data. Productivity suites. Barring a major breakthrough that allows a smartphone to do the dishes or change your motor oil, we're on the verge of a plateau in terms of what the ubiquitous devices can add to our lives.
So when Apple comes out with a new iPhone version next summer, it will be interesting to see what new innovation the folks in Cupertino can come up with to provide the "wow factor" the company needs to stay on top. Better screen resolution, a sharper camera and slimmer form factor may not be enough to keep current users upgrading, bring in new customers, and compete with the wide range of competitors. That includes Samsung, whose devices are most similar to the iPhone.
Behind the Curve?
The latest speculation centers on curved screens that may allow you to better view games and video.
Many major iPhone rumors, from the Verizon CDMA version in 2011 to the larger screen on the iPhone 5 in 2012, and the cheaper 5C model this year tend to be true, whether the result of leaks or good guess work by analysts. So with some curved displays already on the market, and Apple recently gaining a patent for a curved display, it seems likely the iPhone 6 will be seriously bent.
Analyst Charles King of Pund-IT sees the trend as an ushering in of stylistic changes in the smartphone market that have little bearing on functionality.
"We may be nearing a defining 'tailfin' moment for smartphones," said King, noting the era in the late 1950s and early 60s when cars such as Plymouths and Cadillacs sported tailfins.
"Some dealers claimed the fins defined advances in streamlining that enhanced overall speed and stability. But the fact was that tailfins were simply stylistic encumbrances that reflected current taste (or lack thereof) in Detroit."
King added that manufacturers already seem to be exhausting other options for varying their products.
"We've seen fat phones and thin, narrow phones and wide-body 'phablets,' all in various shades of black, white and silver," King said. Apple even tried multiple colors of the iPhone 5C, borrowing from its playbook with the iMac computers in the '90s. "The next frontier appears to be altering the utilitarian smartphone rectangle into something more memorable, though unfortunately fins seem out of the question," he said.
The question is whether Apple will come across as trying to "play catch up" since Samsung and LG already have curved displays, including displays that are flexible. Apple was also late to the party, so to speak, on larger screens and LTE and it still does not have near-field communication (NFC) for automatic payments or data transfers on the iPhone.
But King said the track record shows that fans see a difference between innovation in general, and innovation when it's available for the iPhone.
"The iPhone install base is deliriously loyal, after all. But that doesn't address the fact that there seems to be less original thinking going on in Cupertino than many assume."
The Washington Post, which reported the patent for Apple's curved screen on Dec. 10, speculated that it may be for a new smart watch.