We are living in mobile phone purgatory

Lost in space.
Lost in space.
Image: Quartz/Jason Karaian
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“The market is getting a bit bored now of the black rectangles.”

That’s a strong statement to make at the mobile-phone industry’s biggest annual expo, which brought more than 100,000 people to Barcelona this week. But the boss of a major reseller of handsets told Quartz at the Mobile World Congress that everyone is still “waiting for a game changer,” and he had a point.

Consider the devices unveiled at the expo. Samsung launched a souped-up version of its previous flagship, another retro Nokia was given a modern makeover, and obscure Chinese manufacturers faithfully copied the worst aspects of the iPhone X. Oh, and Asus made a big deal of unveiling the ZenFone 5, touted as a big improvement on the, er, ZenFone V. During the show, it emerged that quarterly global smartphone sales fell for the first time ever.

So, have we run out of ideas?

Not necessarily. To listen to the telco execs tell it, soon-to-come 5G networks will bring gigabit speeds that will enable self-driving cars, robotic surgery conducted across continents, and ubiquitous AI. Then again, they’ve been saying that for years. Privately, they fret about the enormous cost of upgrading their networks and worry that the step up from 4G to 5G will be as inconsequential as the “meh” move from 3G to 4G.  

The industry demands continuous disruption, and gets anxious during times of incremental improvements. Think back to 2006, when delegates in Barcelona had little notion that a niche computer company in San Francisco would soon announce a shiny black rectangle that would change the course of the industry for the next decade.

A similar disruption could be around the corner—perhaps something to do with AI, AR, or bots—unbeknownst to the telco execs in Barcelona. In the meantime, the best the established players will continue invest in things like slimmer handset designs and faster networks in the hope that, if they build it, the next iPhone will come.

This was published in the weekend edition of the Quartz Daily Brief, our news summary that’s tailored for morning delivery in Asia, Europe and Africa, or the Americas. Sign up for it here.