How Smartphones Will Become Unboring

It won’t be Apple and Samsung.

Albert Gea / Reuters

Late last month, I saw the most exciting smartphone I’d seen in a while—a product, much like the original iPhone, so enticing that it felt like it had fallen out of the future. The product wasn’t made by Apple (of course); it wasn’t even made by a company based in Silicon Valley.

And I’ll get to it soon—but, first, let’s talk about iPhones and technology journalism.

All journalists, but perhaps especially technology writers like myself, are basically  nap-deprived toddlers at a cereal bar. That is to say: We crave novelty. It’s our whole raison d’etre. If something is interesting and new, it is “better”—which is to say easier for us to write about than if something is boring and old.

If this immediately seems to present several thousand ethical problems—something being interesting and new has nothing to do with it being good!—then you are correct; indeed, one of these ethical problems currently has the same height and width as the Trump campaign. But this tendency has far more mundane consequences, too: Tech journalists rarely write about staplers and loofas and toaster ovens and Allen wrenches—all important, productive objects in daily life—because they are old and boring. They are solved problems. They are background.

Last week, Apple released its newest iPhone, which it calls the iPhone SE. You’d be forgiven for mistaking it for an older device. Though the iPhone SE has the same innards—including the same processor and camera—as the recently released iPhone 6S, its external design mimics the iPhone 5. The iPhone 5 isn’t, technologically speaking, particularly new: Apple started selling it before President Obama was reelected.

And it’s not like the 5 was super revolutionary when it came out, either. The iPhone 5 itself resembled the iPhone 4, first released in 2010. It was that device that introduced the flat back, the anodized-aluminum casing, and the circular, Leica-esque volume buttons now present in the SE. The SE was also the first time that Apple released a new phone with a “smaller” screen than its previous new device.

To many technology journalists, this slowing of smartphone design—indeed, this retrocession—is just one more signifier of our new era of technological boredom. Walt Mossberg, the longtime Wall Street Journal tech columnist, now at The Verge, said the smaller iPhone and iPad Pro were “business wins,” but that the iPhone 7 had better impress him this fall. “Apple needs to up its game as the premium smartphone market matures and rivals get better,” he wrote. This is not a new theme. When the company released the 6S last year, journalists described the device itself as “the peak of smartphone boredom” and all smartphones as “just boring slabs.”

It’s not like we were immune to this at The Atlantic, either. Last fall, I wrote that the best reason to upgrade was the new phone’s improved camera, and my colleague Adrienne LaFrance pointed out that phones were just computers now.

But it’s not like people don’t want to buy these devices. Apple itself implied that it was making the smaller iPhone SE because of consumer demand, saying it sold 30 million four-inch screens in 2015. People, without a doubt, still want iPhones. They’re just bored by them—or, at least, journalists are.

What’s happening here is something deeper than a slowdown to changes in form factor. The generic smartphone, the smartphone qua smartphone, is becoming background. People know what a smartphone is: a touch screen, one or three hardware controls at the bottom, volume buttons on the side, and cameras facing forward and backward. It has Facebook and it sends texts. (Making calls is a secondary feature.) It is a useful, annoying, image-making, networked slab.

And that’s fine! Every high technology moves to the background eventually. That the smartphone has done it in nine years means that the iPhone and Android’s original designers did their job well: They anticipated what basic features people would want in a device, what form factor it should take; they allowed for people to personalize the device with apps; and they shipped it. Now we’ll live with that device for a long time. Think of TVs: While they’ve changed dramatically over the past two decades, getting thinner and lighter and wider, they are still glowing boxes.

So now we can get to the thing that excited me. When a high technology moves to background, it can get specialized. Think of one of the most common and important technologies: the codex. The codex is the type of book you can take out of a library—many pages bound sequentially between two covers (i.e., it’s not a scroll)—and it is now a background technology. When publishers announce a new codex, they rarely tout its technological features: its numbered and bound pages, its use of both roman and italic fonts, and its index at the back. But codices have evolved tremendously over the past half century. Novels can now be produced cheaply, as paperback books; cookbooks can be printed to have wire-bounding, so that they lay flat on a kitchen counter; various advances have made color printing cheaper and all types of bookmaking more on demand.

All these changes can occur because the codex itself is background. Though the codex has got more useful, its basic physical form didn’t change.

The same thing has happened to wrist watches, which, strung somewhere between fashion and utility, are the best analogue for smartphones. Over the past four decades, watch power sources have switched from mechanical spring to battery, watch casing has moved from metal to plastic; and now sometimes watches track steps and heart rate and often contain computers. And watches have become specialized for different users and usages: You can buy a watch specially designed for diving, for hiking, for running, for impressing your coworkers. Even Apple makes a watch, meant to communicate the same kind of wholesome, populist wealth as their smartphones and computers. But a watch is still a watch. No one is going to change the very definition of a watch, anymore: They are just going to make it more useful for some people.

The iPhone’s stagnation might seem counter to this—but that’s because the most novel changes in the industry, and the ones worth paying attention to, aren’t happening in the mainstream part of the sector. Which brings me to the “most exciting new smartphone” I’ve seen in a while. It was the Caterpillar S60, announced last February. It is, in form factor and function, a phone designed by a company that normally makes bulldozers and backhoes.

The S60’s signature feature is a built-in thermal camera: an ostentatiously useful adaptation for anyone working at a place with fire risk, a delightful gimmick for photographers, and a pointless addition for the vast majority of consumers. But the S60 is generally an uglier, more rugged phone than either Apple or Samsung are making. According to Gizmodo, it can work under water for up to an hour. It survives being dropped up to six feet in the air. Its back-facing camera is 13 megapixels, and it has a high-capacity battery. It has three gigabytes of RAM.

Compare it to any high-end iPhone, and its specs look just fine. It has only 32 gigabytes of storage and a resolution of 1280 x 720. But that’s okay. The Caterpillar S60 is a specialized device, built for the same kind of folks who use other Caterpillar products (though I think other kinds of users could find it useful). Anyone doing high-activity water sports, for instance, might prefer the robust S60 to a shatter-prone SE.

The Caterpillar S60 is not a phone for everyone. First of all, it’s not a phone for Americans: Caterpillar says it has no plans to introduce the phone domestically for the time being. (Though it offers other phones on Verizon.) Second, for a number of users, an iPhone or Samsung will still be more useful.

But I’m doubtful the next era in smartphones will belong to those companies, even if they hold onto their vast market share. As smartphones move to the background, it will be harder to sell them on generic feature improvements. Specialization will look more and more enticing—not just to construction workers and general contractors, but to SCUBA divers and backpackers, to photographers and engineers and doctors.

Because eventually the iPhone will seem boring—not just as technology, but as fashion. That’s what ultimately gets me about the Caterpillar. Even though it might make CAT’s executives in Peoria shiver to say this, Caterpillar is fashion: It has values and an aesthetic and a tone it wants to communicate. As a smartphone, it seems to me that it could as a kind of hyper-specific utilitarian fashion, eventually catching on among a larger crowd. (If the whole lumberjack look can do it, maybe a phone for lumberjacks can, too?) And that will mean the age of boring slabs will have truly ended, and smartphones will be given over to specialization—and all its bizarre utility.