Gimmicks Galore: What Was Tried and Failed
A quick look at the last-minute, half-baked features that ultimately did little more than add length to press conferences.
It’s a fact now that most smartphones across the world run on the same operating system; there are over a thousand different companies that design phones and release them, with software that’s all based upon Android. In this vast sea of similar devices, the most popular way of trying to make waves is to differentiate by developing new software features that aren’t part of the basic experience. This works well, for the most part, but within a world as competitive as the smartphone market there are always going to be gimmicks, so here’s a run-down of some of the most glorified missteps, and whether they had any effect on the competition whatsoever.
NB: In general, we’re defining a gimmick as an additional feature with a function that is very specific or limited, especially those that are poorly implemented or have a low success-rate.
Beyond software, sensors are one of the most simplistic ways of loading up on features, potentially allowing multiple uses for each additional piece of hardware, and no one packs more sensors on board their flagships than Samsung. This means that there is always room for a myriad of arguably useless tech on board each revision, many of which don’t survive the yearly upgrade. Take the S Health UV and SpO2 sensors on the Note 4, the former performing essentially the same job as looking at the sun. More examples that instantly spring to mind were part of the wildly successful Galaxy S4 (and S5), namely Air Gestures, Air View and things like Eye Scroll and Smart Stay, some of which actually survived the generation gap and filtered down to more mid-range models like the Ace series.
The various ‘Air’ functions involved using proximity and infra-red tracking to work out what your hands were doing above the display. This meant that you could perform activities without actually touching your phone, which in some cases can be extremely useful. Those, in Samsung’s case, tended to be limited to the ‘Quick Glance’ gesture, where waving your hand over the phone whilst the screen was off, brought up a brief summary of the date and time, battery level and any notifications. This is similar to Motorola’s Active Display, and something a user can actually use a few times a day, and integrate into a routine. However, the ideas kept coming.
There was the ability to scroll through pictures in your gallery, up and down webpages (limited to the stock browser), or between music tracks by waving your hand laterally above the device, or to answer calls with a back and forth swipe, and even to move homescreen shortcuts by long-pressing them and then waving your other hand left or right. These are smack of late-development spit-balled attempts to find more uses for a technology that could have been left as a simple shortcut, destined to be attempted and then ignored, or to be triggered accidentally by the less-dexterous. Most of the time, any sort of scrolling can be performed more deftly by the thumb of the hand that’s probably already holding the phone, and any motion that requires two hands is instantly headed for failure. The functions did work for the most part, but they weren’t necessary, and any failings made the user look faintly ridiculous and sapped confidence. They also never work when you want to show them off to your friends.
Air View allowed the user to preview content by hovering about an inch above it without touching the display, and again, did work most of the time. However, the functionality wasn’t always consistent or obvious, and once again could probably be performed more easily by simply tapping the display or long pressing; it’s actually surprisingly difficult to hover your finger close to a screen without brushing it, and generally takes more concentration than just opening whatever media you’re looking, which is hardly a selling point. ‘Eye Scroll’ apparently tracked your eyes to see when you were near the bottom of a webpage to enable automatic scrolling, but actually used the Accelerometer to measure the phone’s angle, and ‘Smart Stay’ apparently kept the screen on whilst the user was looking at it, and paused video content when they weren’t paying attention, but rarely worked as advertised.
The main issue with all of the above however, was that the functionality wasn’t widely baked into the OS, and instead only worked in specific apps, meaning that they couldn’t easily become part of your workflow, and served for the most part as a way to show off in front of your friends (and again, they rarely work when you want to show them off!).
The camera is arguably one of the most important factors in modern smartphones, and certainly one of the most common reasons behind a purchase, so it stands to reason that it’s a very competitive area. This will always breed innovation, but it unfortunately tends to encourage gimmicks as well, and in recent years one of the most famous must be HTC Ultra-pixel series. Mentioned as a negative in our recent editorial on OEM failings, the idea was to reduce megapixel count, whilst keeping the camera sensor large, therefore increasing the size of the individual pixels. This allowed each pixel to collect more light and should usually end up creating better pictures, more like that of a dedicated digital camera, especially in low-light situations. While this is true, the sacrifice is image fidelity, and more importantly, bragging rights.
HTC’s 4MP One M7 was released at a time when other manufacturers were boasting 12 or 13 megapixel units, and it was a risky decision to say the least. It did pay off to some extent – low-light pictures were great, and the built-in OIS helped produce crisp results with quick focus times; but outdoors, the low pixel-count quickly became obvious. The real trouble was when this hardware was recycled the following year on the M8, without OIS and with the addition of yet another gimmick, the dual-camera setup. This development pushed further along the line towards pointlessness, adding a second 2MP camera for the (practically) sole purpose of measuring distance info, in order to take multiple shots and be able to modify focus (or add depth-based effects) once the shot was already taken.
This pushed the whole camera module over the line, with critics reacting badly to the loss of fidelity caused by the inclusion of this unnecessary feature. In many situations, the m8 performed worse than its predecessor, and the re-focusing ability, although fun at first, quickly became limited to novelty value, especially as other OEMs performed similar feats by using only software. HTC has since tried the Ultra-Pixel camera again as a front-facer on a few handsets which makes far more sense, where shots are more often taken in darker situations and megapixel values aren’t currently as high. However, this year’s M9 rejoined the megapixel race with a 20MP rear camera, effectively abandoning their ostensibly ‘superior’ arrangement, and proving that their previous practice wasn’t built to last. It is worth mentioning the effect this camera had on the competition though; the idea of larger pixels quickly gained public attention and led to similar practices across the industry, with the pixel size now a fairly regularly stated specification in new devices, although none have taken as extreme a route as HTC did.
Displays are what we spend the majority of our time looking at, so it’s natural for companies to try to find unique ways to improve them. Aside from the mostly marketing-speak innovations like Sony’s Triluminos or LG’s Quantum Display tech, which are actually pretty similar in design, most phones get by just fine with their LCD or AMOLED panels. Some allow you to tinker with the white balance or saturation, which is an excellent option for calibrating colors for yourself, and some try to do the job for you like, again, Sony’s X-Reality for Mobile. This is another classic software gimmick; characterized as something I quickly learnt to turn off after noticing that the black-levels on my pictures had a shininess to them that stood out horribly, and that colors had become wildly unrealistic. This option has actually managed to stick around throughout the many Z-series upgrades, although that’s probably mainly because of its relation to the far better but similarly named process in the Japanese manufacturer’s TVs.
It’s not all software though. Particularly relevant this year, curved screens have hit the mainstream, alongside questions of worth and sensible design decisions. This is an interesting arena however; on one side you have the dual-edge displays of Samsung’s recent breadwinners, and on the other, LG’s fully curved LG Flex series. With the latter, you have have intended benefits that hark back to the time of the classic phone design. Microphones and speakers hug your mouth and ear respectively, videos become apparently more immersive, and the tall display is a little easier to reach the top of during recent use. But the fact remains that barely anyone bought the Flex phones even though there was a hardware refresh this year, and that shows that the average consumer doesn’t see the value in them. In reality, he or she is right not to, because in normal use these changes make a negligible difference to the way we use our phones, and the service they provide.
Samsung’s implementations are even more odd. The Galaxy Round was laughably pointless, curving sideways across its axis and once again providing the user with few benefits, but making the device almost impossible to use on a flat surface. The curved-edge displays mentioned above are really what the Korean company is currently focusing on, but their longevity is yet to be seen. History tells us that without a proper use-case, features are destined for obscurity and that’s exactly the issue with the S6 Edge and Edge +. When last year’s Note Edge, Samsung were quick to show off the various software uses that the curved right-side made possible, including app shortcuts and informative widgets that stayed present while other apps were open, but they were dropped when it came to the S6. Today, the decision seems to be one of design, where the curves are simply there to look good, and be unique in the wash of derivative rounded-rectangles that permeate the market, and once the novelty wears off, function becomes important. Until someone manages to make proper use of these screen contours, simplifying or radically improving the consumer’s smartphone user experience in the process, the curved display is relegated into the realms of gimmickry.
Finally, on the subject of displays, Force Touch/3D Touch is an honorary mention. This has only been properly demonstrated by Huawei in their new Mate S phablet, and by Apple in the new iPhone 6S/+, but their delivery couldn’t be more different. In short, Huawei’s Force Touch is disappointing; it feels rushed to market and incomplete, to the point where the company themselves don’t seem sure what to do with it – for more info, see our recent extended hands-on with the Mate S. Force Touch is over-sensitive, only useful in a handful of situations, and most importantly, slower than conventional methods of controlling what’s on-screen, three sure-fire ways of making sure your ‘feature’ won’t stand the test of time. Apple’s 3D Touch however, benefits from the company’s full control over both hardware and software, making it useful potentially hundreds of times a day, and something that users could end up considering essential making it a little more difficult to judge. It remains to be seen how effective this added layer of control will be, but considering the loyalty Apple seem to bring out in their fan base, added to the constant desire of many of Android’s OEMs to compete with Cupertino, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this feature stick around for years to come.
After watching 3D come and (mostly) go in the usually less rapidly-evolving world of televisions, it seemed inevitable that the technology would make its way over to smartphones as soon as was possible. Sure enough, LG and HTC soon delivered with the Optimus 3D and Evo 3D respectively, neither of which managed to muster up enough enthusiasm to warrant successors. The devices themselves may have been partially responsible for this of course, being bulky, ugly, and having decidedly average battery life, as the 3D elements of both seemed to work quite well. However, gimmicks are not just dependent on their presentation, but once again, on their value. Once users realized that keeping the physical 3D slider set to ‘off’ would increase their battery life, and that they could only use the effect when sitting directly centered and the right distance away from the screen, the life-span of the two devices was inevitable curtailed.
This brings us to possibly the most famous failure of them all; the Amazon Fire Phone. Released in 2014, the Fire Phone was Amazon’s only attempt so far at breaking into the smartphone space, although the company’s Android tablets had enjoyed relative success off the back of the brand’s fame. Unfortunately, the device went down in flames, with prices falling from the initial $200 to only 99 cents on contract within just two months. Once again, there are many reasons for this absurd lack of traction, including its high starting price, slightly under-par specs, AT&T exclusivity and forked version of Android, but the much-hyped 3D display was clearly a massive contribution. Adverts and early hands on emphasized this function endlessly, but in the end it boiled down to the use of four cameras on the phone’s front that tracked the user’s head and provided depth of field on the 720p display without them needing to be in exactly the right place.
It worked quite well, and proved to be of no practical use whatsoever. As with the rest of our gimmicks, it seemed interesting at first and was fun to show off to others, and also provided a hinge from which the marketing weight could swing. But, in the end it was left to die; Amazon was left with $83 million worth of inventory, made a huge loss overall, and the world learned a very valuable lesson about what is and isn’t important when it came to designing smartphones.
So what have we learnt? Or rather, the question should be: What have manufacturers learnt?
Clearly, lots of research and testing should go into every element of a product that you want to sell a lot of, and the pros and cons of each decision should be weighed up thoroughly. In the business world, there is little incentive to put excesses of either time or money into a project when you can get away with doing less, and in reality, the race to get profitable features to market first is one that will always dictate this development process. On the other hand, the practice of stuffing smartphones full of technology of questionable worth, and of throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks is one that promotes a waste of time or resources; time that could be better spent perfecting fewer ideas, or ignoring gimmicky additions altogether and focusing on something that makes the core user experience better, like longer battery life. The public are a fickle bunch, but this does at least help to prove to OEMs what does and doesn’t work in their designs, and what is and isn’t valuable in the long-term. There are many more gimmicks that haven’t been mentioned here, and they won’t stop appearing any time soon, but with each failure they become more refined, and we come closer to making the most well thought-through smartphones more popular, and setting the right example for everyone else.
What do you think are some of the industry’s most infamous gimmicks?
Let us know in the comments!
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