That's why the bigger action in smartphones in the last couple years has been in the software realm. Take Apple's Siri voice assistant, the auto-stitching panoramic photography feature that debuted in Android and was copied in iOS, and the software in the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S 4 that lets its infrared sensor be used for touchless gesture detection and for sending scan codes to traditional shopping checkout terminals.
My suspicion is just as the Galaxy S 4 hardware is little different from the Galaxy S III, the iPhone 5S hardware will be little different from the iPhone 5. If there's to be a wow factor in the new iPhone, chances are it'll be in iOS 7 and/or accompanying apps.
New software doesn't mean we'll get a wow factor, of course. The Galaxy S 4 had an amazingly hyped lead-up, but Samsung showed a fairly uncoordinated collection of apps that each had promise but didn't revolutionize the smartphone -- followed by an almost angry reaction by the same media that created the hubbub in the first place, a phenomenon we saw a year ago with the iPhone 5. The same media-hype-and-backlash cycle hit the mythical Facebook phone predicted by bloggers for years and that came sort-of true this month in the guise of the Facebook Home main screen on the forthcoming HTC One, a device that suffered from extreme prerelease hype, then unhappy reviews from fanboy reviewers who drank their own Kool-Aid.
The lunacy of the fanboy Web aside, the lesson is that after six years, it's harder and harder for smartphone makers to find truly revolutionary new hardware capabilities to wow us. It's easier to find new software capabilities that turn heads, but "easier" does not mean "easy," either.
As smartphone technology matures, our expectations need to change. We need to expect less each year from our favorite device makers. Perhaps we'll see a new spurt of deep innovation again after a regrouping period, but expecting it every year is unrealistic. At some point, expecting it at all is dubious. Just ask the PC makers.
The good news is that the pressure to upgrade your device will lessen. The carriers are already anticipating this shift to normalcy. Verizon Wireless last week extended the period after which you are eligible for a subsidized upgrade from 20 months to 24, and T-Mobile has jettisoned the subsidy notion, moving instead to an installment plan approach with -- you guessed it -- a 24-month payback period. The carriers have good financial reason to increase the gap between subsidies, but the switch to the installment model doesn't have those advantages and better reflects carriers' predictions as to how long people will keep a device before feeling compelled to upgrade.
Just as people hang onto PCs longer than ever, so too will they hang on to their smartphones as the wow factor for each new version declines.
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