Individuality and The Smartphone

“Did I ever tell ya that this here jacket represents a symbol of my individuality, and my belief in personal freedom?” So said Sailor Ripley in Wild at Heart back in 1990. And while a snakeskin jacket may be a little ostentatious for the majority of us, there was a time when the cellphone we chose to carry represented our individuality. That was a few years ago, in the pre-smartphone era, when the phone came in many shapes and sizes allowing us to be… well, us. While rummaging through a box of old chargers and phones recently, I came to a sad, but somewhat obvious conclusion: mobile phone design has become boring. The cool looking phones in my pile of discarded devices are from the pre-smartphone world. Choosing a Sony Ericsson W380i or Motorola's Razr (both of which came in various color options) made a personal statement, and I loved it.

Diverse device options were also good news for the carriers, as they provided the opportunity to offer unique devices for customers. And for that reason, the phone was considered to be the "eye candy" of the mobile market. The right phone could draw a consumer into your retail store, tempting them to switch carriers just to buy something that was different. Of course, on the flip side, the wrong phone would simply collect dust on the shelf, meaning carriers had to be careful when deciding which devices offered just enough “uniqueness” without falling too far from the mainstream need.

Unfortunately, as we entered the era of the smartphone, the device market has moved on to some rather banal design choices. Place a range of devices together and they all look remarkably similar, as they are, first and foremost, a slab of glass. Sure there are subtle differences – and an iPhone still manages to look a little different from the pack – but the "flair" of the pre-smartphone era has vanished. Or at least, I should qualify, the external flair. Clearly innovation continues at a breakneck pace, but mostly these improvements are on the inside with better cameras, faster processers, and even facial recognition. But while beauty is supposed to be more than skin deep, the ability to show off at a distance requires a more visible demonstration of individuality. Of course, you could rightly argue that the sense of individuality is now the domain of the accessories market, particularly as we all look to sheath our new phones in a protective cocoon as soon as we unbox them, but that’s still not the point to me… or to the carrier retail market.

There are multiple challenges facing the market in the face of such banality. First, there is far less need for a consumer to visit a carrier store than in previous times. If the phones all look the same, then there is less need to touch the device and play with it before the purchase decision. Instead, it typically comes down to a brand choice and the convenience of where to purchase the device from. That will increasingly become online; meaning that one of the last retail holdouts against web-based shopping will fall. That means less opportunity for carriers to persuade us to switch network allegiance, but it also means there’s less opportunity for the carrier rep to see what else they can sell us (screen protector anyone?), to fine tune our plans, or just to make sure that we leave the store feeling that our carrier cares about us.

The second challenge is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for device OEMs to break into the carrier space. Simply put, if all the devices look the same, carriers need to ensure that they cover the couple of brands that are truly in demand and then throw in a few other device choices to fill out the pricing brackets where necessary. Take AT&T, for example, which reduced the number of unique OEMs carried in the retail store from eight in early 2016 to five in 2017. That’s hardly good news for the struggling OEMs, especially as AT&T, out of all the carriers, has a reputation for being willing to try anything new.

There is hope for the device OEM that can truly come up with an innovative device, thanks to growing consumer willingness to buy an unlocked phone. Creating something unique, and more fashionable, will appeal to a wide swathe of the consumer audience. Assuming, of course, that it’s still a flagship-level device under the skin deep beauty.