Smartphones are all the same now—but only on the outside

One of these things is just like the others.
One of these things is just like the others.
Image: Reuters/Albert Gea
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BARCELONA—At the Mobile World Congress this year, there were connected cars and bluetooth toothbrushes and smartwatches in spades, but above all there were phones. In every one of the the eight and a half football-field-size halls, there were hundreds upon hundreds of sexy, sleek, shiny smartphones. And they all looked exactly the same.

Some were a little broader. Others were slightly narrower. A few were shinier. Not many were tinier. But they were all glass-and-silicon rectangles with only superficial differences. Few people except for the phones’ brand managers, gadget journalists, and hardcore fans would be able to tell them apart from 100 paces.

Andreas Gal, the technology chief at Mozilla, which makes the popular Firefox browser as well as an operating system for mobile phones, says that things will change. Gal refers to the dominance of black slabs a “monoculture” that has left behind designs such as the once-popular flip phone.

The demand for something different is apparent. Last year, a Russian company launched the Yotaphone, a device with two screens that captured the imagination of phone geeks, more so for its novelty than its utility. The phone has since been improved and become more useful.

The two-faced Yotaphone looks twice as much like every other phone.
The two-faced Yotaphone looks twice as much like every other phone.
Image: Yota Devices

Yotaphone isn’t alone; a Chinese company produces iPhone cases embedded with a second screen. Another innovation comes from Snail Mobile, which add buttons and controls to the black slab to make it also serve as a handheld gaming console.

Snail’s gaming handset: it still looks like a phone.
Snail’s gaming handset: it still looks like a phone.
Image: Snail

But both these examples of innovation still largely conform to the black-slab format. And that may be as far as it goes. The smartphone does what it does very well. It would be foolish to expect a change in design to unlock whizzy new features. Instead, separate devices will emerge to complement it. The proliferation of smartwatches is only the most recent—and most obvious—example of what marketing people like to call a different “form factor.”

This is not to say that smartphone innovation is over—it’s alive and well inside the phone.

Xiaomi, a Chinese smartphone maker, is often called “China’s Apple.” The general perception is that it makes money by copying designs and selling good-looking phones at low prices. But that alone does not explain Xiaomi’s massive $45 billion valuation. In an era where anyone can produce black slabs of glass and plastic by simply calling a guy in Shenzhen, Xiaomi’s success is due to the company’s insight that smartphones are about brand, community, software, and user experience, not processor speed or the number of pixels on the screen. When every phone looks the same, how it makes its users feel is what sets it apart.

China’s OnePlus and India’s YU are also trying the same thing. Both have taken a leaf out of Xiaomi’s playbook, selling phones for cheap via limited-time “flash sales” and building communities of fans drawn to the unique experience that comes from using a modified version of the Android operating system called Cyanogenmod.

Every phone may look the same, but in 2015 it is what is on the inside that counts.