LONDON – If you were hoping to find a hotel room in Barcelona last week, then tough luck. Barcelona was full, period. It was the week of the Mobile World Congress, you see, the annual convention of what is, for the moment at least, the most dynamic industry on the planet. Everybody and his dog was there, except of course Apple, which sees no need to play second fiddle even to a global conference when it can attract more media attention with its own events.
Leave aside the fact that it was Apple that triggered the most recent explosion in the mobile industry — the smartphone revolution — and ponder what was actually on show in Barcelona. The answer, in the words of one astute and unsentimental observer, professor Barry Avery, was: “Many phones, little innovation.” (Shades of Yeats’ pithy description of his — and my — native land: “Great hatred, little room.”)
“The message coming out of this year’s event,” wrote Avery, “is that while there are lots of new phones coming, we shouldn’t expect a great technological leap from any of them. Most of the phones are incremental updates, running the latest version of Android’s mobile phone operating system KitKat.”
Avery is too polite. The truth is that the cellphone industry has run out of ideas. Every single smartphone on the market is basically just a variation on the Apple iPhone theme. And the variations, such as they are, are looking increasingly — and desperately — baroque: bigger or sharper screens, better cameras with more megapixels and xenon flash, louder speakers, more sensitive accelerometers and microphones, maps and navigation, fingerprint access control, etc, etc.
What we’re into, in other words, is the “feature bloat” that was once a distinguishing characteristic of Microsoft Office software. And the only new idea the mobile industry currently seems to have is that of wirelessly hooking up the phone in your pocket with a wearable device, whether it’s a wristwatch, a wristband, a pair of geeky glasses or (in due course) a sensor connected to the more intimate parts of the user’s body.
The richest irony of all is that the purveyors of increasingly baroque “smartphones” have devised a contemptuous term for those mobile phones that only make voice calls and send SMS messages. They are called feature phones, if you please.
I have a good friend who runs an exceedingly busy life using one of these despised devices. It’s so small that she often has to hunt for it in handbag or rucksack. It has a battery life of nearly a week, even with intensive use. It has a predictive text algorithm that sometimes produces the kind of unintended consequences celebrated on innumerable websites. (My favorite is the one where, in response to the message, “Dude, where are you?” a chap replied, “Sorry bro caught up here with my mom. She asked me to help her sell her vagina on Craigslist. So I’m photographing it and stuff.” What he thought he had typed was “china.”)
Of course, my friend also uses email — but only at the beginning and end of the day. As a result, she is much more in control of her communications — and freed from the intrinsic distractions that mobile email and Internet access offer to the rest of us. And she doesn’t have to worry about running out of charge even at the end of a long working day.
What’s happened to smartphones is really just par for the technological course. These things follow a sigmoid — S-shaped — curve. Development starts relatively slowly, then picks up rapidly until about 80 percent of the potential of the technology has been realized, after which the rate of innovation slows down and we’re into the period of incremental change and the baroque encrustation with dubious “features” that characterized this year’s Mobile World Congress.
For that reason, the most interesting device to emerge from the congress was not a smartphone or a wearable gizmo, but a simple, down-to-earth, cheap phone made by — you guessed it! — Nokia, the troubled technology giant currently in the process of being gobbled up my Microsoft. The Nokia 220 comes in a range of bright colors, has a basic camera (2 megapixels), a simple browser that uses data compression, comes with access to Twitter and Facebook baked in (but doesn’t do 3G or 4G connections) and can handle dual SIM cards. It has a quoted standby time of between 24 and 29 days (depending on whether you have a dual-SIM model or not). Oh, and it will cost just 29 euros, which is about £24 (¥4,100) in real money. It goes on sale next week. The journey back to the future starts then.