Is Apple’s iPhone getting boring? It’s time to rethink mobile devices


For many, the most anticipated new smartphone announcement for this fall is the next generation iPhone 12. After all, it’s the newest version of the most popular mobile device in the U.S., and it’s widely expected to be the first iPhone to integrate support for 5G wireless networks. So, it’s easy to see why people are excited for it.

On the other hand, based on the numerous rumors and industry leaks about the device, it’s likely to be more of the same. Sure, it’ll have a better camera, faster processor, slightly bigger screen, and perhaps a few other interesting tidbits that Apple manages to squeeze in there, but at the end of the day, it’ll be yet another slab of glass.

Now, for many, that familiarity of design feels comfortable and just works. But, in light of the growing range of intriguing new foldable, twistable, and radically different styles of smartphones that we’re starting to see from companies like Samsung, Microsoft, Motorola, LG and others, it does start to feel like the iPhone is getting kind of, well, boring.

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The original Galaxy Fold, left, compared to the new Fold2, right, unfolded. (Photo: Mike Feibus)

What’s particularly intriguing about the new types of devices that have been launched this fall is that they’ve raised even more questions about the smartphone category overall. I mean, honestly, what percentage of your time do you really use your phone to make calls or even create text messages anymore?

Obviously, this trend of using smartphones as mobile computing devices has been going on for quite some time now. In fact, from a historical perspective, it was the iPhone and its incredible range of applications that really turned mobile phones into smartphones.

But now the question is, isn’t it time to move from the smartphone to some new kind of mobile device category? I wish I had a clever name to call it – unfortunately I don’t – but having been able to use a number of these new devices, particularly the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G and the Microsoft Surface Duo, it’s clear to me that we’re on the cusp of a very different way of thinking about and using that most ubiquitous of pocketable, mobile computing devices, the (insert ingenious product category name here).

All joking aside, the experience of using these foldable, large-screen, always-connected devices really emphasizes how much more we can experience, produce, and do on devices that break the flat slab of glass model and the mentality that has dominated the smartphone market since its inception.  

Microsoft’s new Surface Duo “smartphone,” for example, offers a completely different way of thinking about what a mobile computing device can do. Its two physically separate 5.6-inch screens, slim, lightweight glass body, and clever hinge design all allow you to do things with a mobile device in ways that you’ve never been able to before.

Sure, you can open and use multiple apps side-by-side – the company has even created a special Apps Group within Android to enable this feature – but you can also turn the device on its side and use it like a mini laptop for many purposes, including video conferencing, text-based messaging (such as emails), scrolling websites, playing games, and much more.

You also have the ability to use the full 8.1 inches of available screen space as either two views of the same app – like viewing a list of emails on one side while simultaneously seeing one message on the other, viewing two bits of related information, like a restaurant’s web site and directions to get there, or as a single large display.

The challenge in this full-screen mode is that there is a very noticeable hinge gap between the displays, and Microsoft chose not to “draw” the pixels that normally go there, leaving it up to your mind to fill in the gaps.

While that may sound fine in theory, in reality, missing central portions of videos you are watching, words or letters from a web page you may be reading, or even having difficulty getting access to things like the play and pause buttons right in the middle of a YouTube video definitely distract from the large-screen experience.

Still, it’s a very intriguing type of device that certainly gets you thinking about how mobile devices have started to evolve – and where they could go.

For those more focused on the tablet-like experience that a full, uninterrupted 7.6-inch foldable display can offer, the new Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 2 5G is hard to beat. A significant improvement over the original Fold, the Fold 2 steps up all the critical hardware specs in every way you could desire – from full 5G support to a 120 Hz refresh rate display for much smoother, easier viewing. More importantly, thanks to the significantly upgraded 6.2-inch front display, the Fold 2 is arguably the world’s first pocketable 2-in-1 device.

Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 2 (Photo: Samsung)

Another important new addition to the Fold 2 is a hinge design that, like the Surface Duo, allows you to create a range of flexible modes of operation. Like the Duo, this lets you do things like view two apps side by side, operate it like a mini-laptop, or utilize hands-free camera operation, which is unique to the Fold 2. Again, all of these modes are way beyond what a basic slab of glass smartphone design can do.

If you want other alternative designs, you can also look at LG’s radical new Wing 5G with a screen that swivels into a  “T” shape, or check out the new 5G-compatible version of Motorola’s reinvented iconic Razr device. In all cases, it’s clear that the vendors are working to create a new vision of what’s possible with pocketable mobile computing devices – regardless of what we end up calling them.

The one downside to all this innovation is that none of it comes cheap. Prices on these devices range from about $1,400 to $2,000. If you want a taste of the future right here and now, however, there’s never been a broader range of more tantalizing devices from which to choose.

USA TODAY columnist Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Microsoft, HP, Dell, Samsung and Intel. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

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