You may think the iPhone 11 is boring, but innovation is hard to find in the smartphone sector
There's a narrative out there that you've probably seen before. It popped up again in the wake of Apple's (unsurprising) new iPhone announcements: Apple isn't a leader anymore, and the real innovation is coming from China.
It's a narrative that I can't disagree with more.
As an iPhone owner, you'll call me biased. Sure. I probably am! But at the same time, as an iPhone owner, at no point do I look at any of the wild handset announcements from China and go: "Damn. Apple's really falling behind here."
To be clear, I have no interest in arguing that the iPhone 11 Pro is somehow a towering achievement in innovation. It's not. It's a pretty standard upgrade to a very good phone, but it's not an innovation.
Instead, it's the idea that there's greatness elsewhere that I dispute. So much of what has been declared "innovation" is, in my mind, nothing more than gimmicks.
Pop-up camera modules? Let's start with the biggest gimmick of them all. You cannot tell me with a straight face that a whole motorized module for the selfie camera -- which takes size, draws on the battery, and provides a potential point of failure -- is a legitimate alternative to, uh, a slightly thicker top bezel. Sorry, no. It's an unbelievably over-engineered solution to something that was never really a problem to begin with.
Second screen on the back? No, hang on, I take it back: This is the most over-engineered solution. Avoiding a small notch on the front by building a second screen with enormous bezels on the back? Come on.
Hole-punch selfie cameras? How is this different to a notch? It still cuts out part of the screen, and the area between the camera and the bezels might technically be usable, but… for what?
Foldables? Truth be told, I'm actually fairly bullish on these… but not yet. Foldables in their current state are so far from the finished article that it's laughable to even consider them as anything other than vanity projects. (Enjoy getting scratches on the pliable plastic screens of your US$2,800 phone!)
Gamer phones? I know you'll find this hard to believe, but it is possible to be a hardcore gamer without wanting every device to have sharp black plastic edges with neon green highlights.
"Waterfall" screens? Let me tell you, nothing says true innovation like a screen you can't see clearly.
To be fair, there is one thing I've seen from China that I am looking forward to, and something I think Apple will struggle to match: Oppo's in-screen selfie camera.
Yes, early results are poor -- pictures are blurry and the part of the screen over the camera is noticeably worse -- but it's everything a motorized pop-up camera is not. It's a natural and intuitive way to solve the "bezel-free" dilemma. And I'm not sure Apple can match this, seeing as Touch ID requires a whole bunch of sensors that might not all fit under the screen.
Beyond that, what is there to envy? If anything, it feels like it's all happening in the other direction.
Just look at OnePlus, which took a veiled swipe at Apple for removing the headphone jack… and then, uh, removed the headphone jack.
Or Huawei, which just yesterday unveiled the Mate 30, which continues to have an iPhone-style notch.
Or Xiaomi, which… well, you know that story already.
For all their protestations that Apple is yesterday's news, Chinese smartphone makers continue to be awfully concerned with what comes out of Cupertino.
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