Galaxy, iPhone, Pixel, oh my! Why pay a premium when every phone runs the same apps?

When you start talking about a $400 to $600 difference in price, the mystique and perceived advantages of a brand and OS platform look a bit silly when they all run the same applications.

zte-axon-7-8856-001.jpgZTE Axon 7  Image: CNET

 

 

 

Ah, that annual smartphone product refresh cycle.

We've managed to merge all of the worst aspects of a secular new year festival with the Super Bowl. We celebrate the bounty of product shipment in the arena of combat, where titans stack up their wares to be judged by the hungry masses and the always-snarky tech industry thought leaders.

The execution of this is practically Roman, with its bread and circuses approach to product release cycles. Thumbs up, thumbs down. Render unto the Twitter feeds. Hunger Games for the technorati.

The latest object of our obsession is the Samsung Galaxy S8.

And while this cycle is predictable, and the months of product leaks prior to the releases leave nothing to the imagination, some of us still look for innovation where it does not exist, only to find ourselves completely disappointed when the reality sets in.

With all this anticipation and pre-gaming of the product announcements, it's very hard, nay impossible, to live up to expectations year after year.

It isn't as if companies like Apple, Google, Samsung, and the others vying for our attention have not been expending resources and enduring long development cycles to make better products.

They have. There are key quantitative improvements in performance between this year's models and those of prior years. The benchmarks tell us this, as does the spec creep.

The problem is that the mobile technology has now matured to a certain level where every single product at every single price point is now more than good enough to address every consumers' key needs in almost every conceivable use-case scenario.

The hardware has now become completely commoditized, and the capabilities of these mobile chipsets and display technology have vastly outstripped the capabilities and functionality of the software applications that run on them.

We've seen this before, of course. It happened to the PC industry during the 1990s and the early 2000s. The commodity desktop PCs got so powerful -- with the fourth- and fifth-generation x86 CPUs and the amount of memory and disk $600 to $800 could buy. It didn't make any sense to purchase a more expensive model since real-world performance -- using the same dozen or so core business applications that everyone used -- was the same.

The majority of the apps couldn't make use of the surplus resources, and there was little or no value added to distinguish one brand of PC from another.

They were being produced out of the same factories in China, anyway.

Clearly, there were edge cases: Some users actually needed much more expensive and powerful machines. But for 90 percent of the population, the $1,500 PC was overkill.

For the PC to advance to the next stage of its evolution, two things happened: one was mobility and the move to lightweight portable form factors like ultra books; the other was the rise of broadband and ubiquitous Wi-Fi. This allowed more processor- and media-intensive applications to become more commonplace, and the need for more sophisticated OSes to run those applications and make better use of the surplus resources on those PCs.

Something very similar is happening in the mobile industry right now. Apple's phones are now so good that it's hard for a consumer to see real improvement over the models from the year or even two years prior. The same goes for Samsung and everyone else.

My iPhone 6S was already an incredibly powerful and responsive phone. It already did everything I wanted it to do, and so was the 6 Plus I had before it, as was arguably the 5S.

I upgraded to a 256GB iPhone 7 Plus recently and paid over $1,000 for it.

The benchmarks say my iPhone 7 Plus is faster than the 6S that my wife is now using. Camera tests have been inconclusive: I'm not sure whether I'm actually taking better photos on the new phone, as the 6S camera was already pretty outstanding.

But the apps on these phones did not change, nor did the end-user experience. Facebook is the same, Twitter is the same, Instagram is the same, Gmail is the same, and so is Outlook and everything else I use on this $1,000 phone. And we shouldn't expect them to be any different because they are designed to run on a certain lowest common denominator of hardware -- not the most expensive hardware available.

There isn't a "special" Facebook or Instagram for more powerful iPhones. The apps don't unlock any special feature just because your processor is faster or you have more RAM to use. There may be a few games out there that can better leverage the more powerful GPU, but let's face it, your average 2D game like Candy Crush isn't exactly a GPU stressor.

Are the apps responding a little faster? Sure. But we're talking about a perception in improvement in fractions of a second. Maybe multitasking is a bit better, but honestly, multitasking using a smartphone is a bit of a myth. It just means I can be a bit more careless about shutting apps down now because the phone has more RAM and some extra CPU cycles.

 

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