The western trenches of the smartphone war are empty. Pretty much every user has picked their side and gone home. It is time for the makers to start improving on features and add what users really want from their phones, rather than play out a pointless specification war.
Users Putting Up the White Flags
Brought a smartphone? Spent money on apps and entertainment within that ecosystem? Not likely to change the brand, are you? There is little that Apple or Google (under the Android umbrella) can do to their platforms to sway existing users to switch with the undecided few a mere statistic.
That stagnation is already starting to whiff. iOS 4 introduced FaceTime, a largely ignored treat; iOS 5 gave us Siri, something that most will ignore or treat as a gimmick, despite its potential. And the interim updates seem to be more about firefighting as these ever-more-complex devices become unpredictable in the wild.
The new Ice Cream Sandwich, Android 4.0, gives users a facelift, a refinement of the known and adds further gimmicks such as facial recognition. Google Music is playing catch-up, and there is little else to get excited about. As an enthusiast, the big hole in their collective press releases for actual new stuff is a growing sore spot. There is little new to make the average smartphone user leap around the room like a child on Christmas Day.
Sure, Nokia's new Mango Windows Phone devices offer a different take on the interface, but currently lack the market share power to force others to change. BlackBerry may try something different, but figures from the analysts show sales splits congealing as the market solidifies and whatever happens in the coming years will only be of interest to the statisticians.
Running Nowhere Fast
All players can throw newer, faster, hardware and better screens at the marketplace as quickly as they like, but the fundamentals for the user won't change. So, most of us, apart from periodic upgrades, will be less and less keen on the hype-laden battles. Think of the PC wars when Intel and AMD, or ATI and Nvidia, were slugging it out -- it was fun at first, but then most of us moved on to something else in life and stopped worrying about not having the latest MegaDoom Processor Doodad installed.
While it's quite likely that voice control could become a de facto feature on all phones, most users will be quite happy with their little touchscreens. Remember the maxim 90% of the users use 10% of the features… that's a lot of expensive effort and waste going into the next generations of devices.
So, as the current round of big new launches comes to a climax with the arrival of the Galaxy Nexus, we are faced with a year-long cold war of software updates and feature creep… the next big areas where our phones can come to up benefit or brighten up our lives.
Bring on the New Stuff!
The clear area untouched by the likes of Google and Android (but something Yahoo has a heads-up on with its IntoNow "TV companion experience") is the increasing use of the phone or tablet while watching the TV. The idea of sharing what we watch and socializing around it will be one of the next big things.
Yahoo's (currently U.S.-only) IntoNow app figures out what you're watching and shares that information with friends. It won't take much for either Apple or Google to throw in some real-time chat, informal voting for reality TV shows, sports statistics or "what brands are the cast wearing today" nuggets of information.
Then, you have a whole ecosystem based around the western world's favorite hobby. When such an app spots you watching a film, it could offer up stores to help you buy the Blu-ray, a digital copy of the 1970s original, the soundtrack, poster, T-shirt and so on. Revenue is key to those behind these kind of apps, and one linked to TV could see developers raking in a percentage of those sales.
Looking beyond the fun element, security will also play a big part in future phone updates. In a mirroring of the 90s desktop vulnerability dramas, the dodgy apps and mobile sites seems to be fast becoming the virus threats of the smartphone world.
Apple and Microsoft have smartly tightened their environments to minimize the risks, but aren't immune from the criminals who are after your online accounts, data and bank details. Whatever the vector -- rogue apps, broken websites, dubious PDF files, email scripts and so on -- users will have to play it safe and vendors will be looking to sell supervisory overlord apps that can help in keep the nasties at bay.
So, if you're upgrading, start asking what the phone can actually do for you, rather than being taken in by a shinier screen, a slightly faster chip or more detailed graphics. The only way the players in the smartphone world are going to change those user statistics is to come up with something special (That is if you ignore them limiting new features to the latest model of phone).
Perhaps Apple's big-screen TV dream is a part of that. TV and phone in perfect harmony sounds like a great idea. The trouble is, the other side will have a clone in a matter of weeks (how long did it take for Android to pick up a host of Siri-alikes)?
So whichever brand you've gone for, invested all that money in apps, you're more likely to stick with it unless there's a compelling reason. And whatever the other guy does, your guys will come up with something similar soon enough. Looks like the status quo has been reached and only the real smart thinkers will move the market now.