We still have smartphones with compromises. Why?

The ‘morality of compromise’ sounds contradictory. Compromise is usually a sign of weakness, or an admission of defeat. Strong men don’t compromise, it is said, and principles should never be compromised.
— Andrew Carnegie

I’m oh so basic, so I’ll kick things off with that ringer of a quote on compromise by Mr. Carnegie, himself. THE argument is that no manufacturer can release a device that surely pleases everyone. You and I have different wants, needs, likes, and expectations and most of us differ in thinking about how our device should look, function, and cost. They mean different things to different people. Look around, though, and our differences really aren’t all that...different. We all want something that’s fast, sexy, works well, is easy to use, and has a nice camera. It’s really that simple. I’ve tried them all and I’m still unimpressed.

Furious litigation and enormous marketing budgets make the cutthroat competition in today’s mobile-first society pretty evident if you’ve been living in an isolation bubble and are completely unaware and lost in life. Capitalism and competition fuel the fire and promote this rise-up-the-rank mentality. This has set the stage for literally hundreds of underdog entrants into the smartphone and tablet markets, many of whom are stealing market share from the you know who’s of the world. It’s a trend that hasn't showed any signs of slowdown. Apple stealing from Blackberry. Samsung stealing from Apple. Huawei and ten other babies stealing from Samsung. It’s clearly fantastic for the consumer and I really don’t see many negatives for those of us who like choice. There’s a phone for camera enthusiasts. There’s an everyday all-rounder device. There is a device for those who prefer removable backs, expandable storage, and, of course, the venerable endurance champions of battery life. There is a manufacturer that focuses on design and materials. There’s a tablet that aims to have the best sound quality or a few devices that tout the highest resolution screens. There’s even a champion of screen-to-body ratios. Today’s device landscape is full of products that deserve praise and recommendation for the average joe. Lots of devices that fit lots of unique desires. What sucks is that in most cases, our devices are already good enough.  Even among the gadget-loving elite, the consensus seems satisfied with the state of hardware innovation. I’m aware of this “good enough” mentality, but even I admit to falling for it. I love photography (though clearly not a pro) and after checking out blind camera comparisons for today’s most popular smartphones, I walk away thinking they all look rather similar and they all look pretty good to my eyes. We’re all caught in the trap of mediocrity. Things could be so much better.

Cut the bull. That Apple earnings call is all about how many iPhones and iPads were sold last quarter, will be sold next quarter, or what the next halo device will be.  Google relies on competition among Android manufacturers to build devices that promote it’s own version of the web on mobile. In this way they hope to serve up “relevant information” and personalized ads to us across the entire spectrum of web services that we increasingly demand. That’s great; they’re the two largest forces behind the platform wars of today. Each ecosystem is wildly successful and brings in serious dough. But as I step back and think about things, what remarkable innovations have come directly from Apple, Google, or any of the other mobile manufacturers over the past few years from a hardware standpoint? For such a paradigm shift in the way we buy, sell, date, communicate, eat, sleep, and watch, I’m left disappointed when I look at the current landscape of devices. The apps, services, and software that run on these devices are a completely different story. The software, itself, has dramatically altered almost every aspect of our way of life. The hardware side seems stale in comparison. Each year I prep up for Apple’s iPhone unveilings and each year, I’m disappointed. Same goes for the big CES show in January. I keep track of the rumors leading up to the iconic “flagship” releases for Sony, HTC, Apple, Google, Motorola,etc. and I’m always underwhelmed. I sense similar sentiment from others in the tech community.

We’ve seen many advancements in interface, design, usability, materials, and features over the past few years. A fingerprint scanner here, a slightly improved camera sensor there, or even a thinner body or more scratch-resistant glass on the front. And, collectively, that’s pretty neat. Things are progressing, sure. But how does a company like Apple, with more than $150 billion in cash, end up with “#bendgate 2014?” Ask most iPhone 5 or 5s users what they wanted in the next iteration and the ability to NOT be tied to an outlet 24/7 is frequently at or near the top. So how does the design decision like that get ignored? The 6 could’ve been thinner than the 5s AND have had significantly better battery life. The almighty Google partners up with LG to build a fantastic device in the Nexus 5 in 2013. It had some compromises: mediocre camera, no removable battery, weak-ish speakers, but then again it was half the price of anything else. Fine. But then, Google, in all it’s greatness, creates the Nexus 6 for 2014 with a totally unoriginal design (essentially a giant 6-inch Moto X). Samsung, year after year, has built well-liked, feature-packed, class-leading devices with cheapo materials, creaky designs, and janky user experiences. HTC crafts a stunning piece of aluminum-unibody hardware in the One M-8, yet it throws a middling rear camera in.  There’s this common theme of compromise every single year that totally frustrates me.

Sorry but... “If we can put a man on the moon”...

It’s like people either don't care enough or don’t notice. Things work well enough. Companies are not incentivized to build the best. These are small things, though. We’re not talking reusable space rockets or self-driving cars here. It doesn’t matter what team you root for, these companies have this immense power and opportunity to affect change in today’s society. Our entire world is going mobile. Companies like Apple, Google, and Motorola have all the resources at their disposal. It’s frustrating that preserving high margins remains more important than building the best product.  After years of mediocre products, competition has forced everyone to step up their game. I think my expectations are justified and I should feel a little underwhelmed when such trivial omissions drag down otherwise excellent products. Maybe 2015 will be the year.