As cellphones evolve, manufactures keep looking for ways to distinguish their products, and some reviewers keep looking for finer points to focus on, like the curvature or color of the case or the location of a certain button. Phones have become a bit of a fashion item, which is probably great for the phone industry if it means that people will upgrade for mostly cosmetic reasons.
Other selling points touted by Apple and other companies and repeated in reviews is the speed of a phone's microprocessor. That was a very important factor when phones were routinely sluggish, but I can't remember the last time I complained about my phone's performance.
Screen resolution is another point of competition in both phones and tablets. Phones with high-definition screens are now commonplace. In August, LG announced a phone with a 538-pixels-per-inch screen that supports 2560 x 1440 pixel video playback, which is actually higher resolution than HDTV. I haven't tested a phone in the past two years with screen resolution that isn't more than good enough for reading text and watching video.
I don't know when, or if, we'll reach a point where screen resolution and performance become completely irrelevant, but I think we're close, at least in terms of how people are currently using phones. There may come a time when phone apps become far more demanding, requiring faster processing power but we're not there yet. And even if we were, the limiting factor for now is battery life.
Heavy-duty apps and faster and more powerful processors typically use more energy than slower processors of the same generation. But over time, they will also become more energy-efficient, just as battery technology also will improve.
And when it comes to screen resolution, it's hard for me to envision an application running on a tiny screen that screams out for higher than HD resolution. But just because I can't imagine an app like that doesn't mean it won't someday exist. What's great about tech is that there are lots of people who come up with things that surprise and delight us.
Styling and esthetics are a totally different issue. I admit I'm not particularly fashion-conscious, but plenty of people are. Many people spend a lot of time using their phones and are often seen with them by friends and in public. And just like some are willing to pay more for a car or clothing based on looks, so it goes with phones.
As I was waiting for a plane the other day, I noticed that the majority of people sitting around me had their phones out. I'm not sure what they were doing with them, but, for the most part, it wasn't talking. Their hands and eyes were on the screen, meaning the phone was the center of their attention and -- because they were focused on their phones -- the phones were the first thing I noticed when I looked at the people.
Could it be that your phone is now as important a fashion statement as your outfit or your shoes? If so, than maybe Apple is on to something by offering the iPhone 5C in five colors. Those choices don't impress me. I care about color when I buy a car, but if I wanted to change the color of my phone, I'd just get a new case. Nevertheless, it sure seems important to Apple's award-winning and knighted design guru, Jony Ive, who knows a lot more about styling than I do.
I also find it interesting that cellphone carriers in the United States are trying to make it easier for people to upgrade their phones more often. I was struck by Sprint's recent full-page newspaper ad touting an annual upgrade plan. Until very recently, carriers encouraged customers to upgrade every two years by offering them a subsidy if they waited two years between upgrades. Those biennial subsidies are mostly still there, but the industry is now offering pay-as-you-go finance plans that encourage more frequent upgrades.
I'm struck by the similarities between the cellphone industry of today and the car industry in the '60s, back when it was common for people to replace their car every year or two whether they needed a new one or not. Cars back then were sold on the basis of horsepower and styling and the promise that they would enhance your image and take you to places you might have never gone before.
The roads, like today's cellphone networks, were sometimes slow and unreliable, but the cars were sexy and powerful. And like today's cellphones, they were available on an easy payment plan.
Contact Larry Magid at email@example.com. Listen for his technology chats on KCBS-AM (740) weekdays at 3:50 p.m.