Smartphones and tablets are often praised for their utility. The ability to watch video, write, or listen to music isn’t new, but being able to do all of those things with a device that fits in your front pocket is. Smartphones can do all of those things and more, and are often – rightly – described as all-purpose devices that can serve almost any function.
Most of these features are gained through software and not directly present within the device itself. I can use my iPhone to check the weather, take notes, and perform a variety of tasks, but only because I have the proper applications installed.
The supplanting of hardware by software isn’t anything new. Marc Andreessen* said that software would rule (by way of ingestion) the world back in 2011, and he’s been proven right. Hardware might be an increasingly powerful force in Silicon Valley, but, on the whole, the tech industry continues to be dominated by software. Thankfully, for the first time since 2010, it looks like that’s about to change.
We’ll (unsurprisingly) begin with Apple. The company is set to reveal at least one product this month, and the whirlwind of rumors surrounding an “iPad mini” has become powerful enough that the as-yet unannounced device merits inclusion in this post. While the company hasn’t confirmed anything yet, all signs point to a newly-designed iPhone that finally, two years later, breaks from the design of the iPhone 4.
To be fair, 2010 was a great year for Apple. Not only did the company introduce the Retina Display via the iPhone 4, it also created a new market and popularized a “new” form factor with the iPad. Since then the company has relied on small, predictable changes and software to sell new products. Sure, the iPad and the MacBook Pro got a Retina Display, but nobody was surprised by either announcement. If anything, most of us were wondering why it took so long for the iPad to get a Retina upgrade.
Apple has even used Lion and Mountain Lion to sell new computers. The 2011 and 2012 MacBook models introduced some small changes (and one big change, with the Retina Display) but many were released alongside the new version of Apple’s desktop operating system. The message was clear: If you just bought a computer, don’t worry – we haven’t changed that much. But, if you’re in the market, these models over here come with our new operating system.
If anyone has been waiting for a true hardware upgrade, though, it’s Windows Phone owners. (I love you guys. Please don’t torch my apartment – I’m going to be nice, I promise.) Manufacturers were limited to a very specific spec list by Microsoft, and haven’t deviated from that list for Windows Phone 7′s lifespan. That’s set to change this Fall.
Samsung has already announced the ATIV S, a Windows Phone 8 device that packs quite the punch. Compare the ATIV S to one of Samsung’s other Windows Phone devices and it’s clear that things are about to get interesting in Microsoft-land. Nokia is also expected to announce a new line of Windows Phone devices, and the company is looking to hit Apple right where it hurts: the camera lens.
Since the iPhone 4 (noticing a trend?) the iPhone’s camera has been heralded as the best smartphone camera on the market. The iPhone 4 and 4S are the most popular cameras on Flickr, besting even dedicated point-and-shoot models and real, professional level kits. At least part of this popularity can be attributed to convenience – “the best camera is the one you have with you” – but the quality of the iPhone’s camera can’t be ignored. Which is why I’m excited to learn more about the so-called Lumia 920, which, if it’s outfitted with a camera at least half as good as Nokia’s 808 PureView, may best the iPhone.
The Lumia 920′s other features aren’t to be ignored either. The Verge reports that the phone will ship with wireless charging capabilities by default, a major differentiator that will make anybody interested in ditching the charging cable take notice of the device. Testing Windows Phone 8 will be interesting, but I’m most excited about getting my hands on the ATIV S and Lumia 920.
Even Amazon is said to be throwing its hat into the ring and updating its Kindle line and the Kindle Fire tablet. Barnes & Noble may have beaten Amazon in the race to a backlit e-ink screen, but if Amazon updates the screen’s resolution and the Kindle form factor (which it did last year, with the Kindle Touch) it will probably have another hit device to advertise on its home page.
For the first time in years it doesn’t seem like a pipe dream to expect something new and exciting from a big company. We’ve been watching incremental upgrades roll out of the factories for two years, and now it finally looks like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. There are certainly some products – Stompy, SmartThings and the gTar come to mind – coming from smaller companies that are more exciting than a new iPhone, but it finally feels like there’s a good reason to watch a keynote or stay up to preorder the latest and greatest from your manufacturer of choice.
*[Disclosure: Marc Andreessen is an investor in PandoDaily]
[Image courtesy digaoSPBR]