Opinion: Has the smartphone revolution plateaued?

Forecasting endless growth is over-optimistic

Opinion: Has the smartphone revolution plateaued?
Did you know that 92 percent of mobile industry predictions won't ever come true?

Ok, I may have just made that up, but who goes back and checks all the forward-looking data that gets lobbed our way every day? Not me.

We're usually too busy trying high-fiving about the near-term prospects of our booming industry. How does 300 billion apps downloaded annually by 2016 , or the 1,021.8 million smartphones expected to shift in the same year grab you? Research and Markets' latest reports say we're gonna be rich!

The feeling is that we're still in the early stages of the smartphone boom, and that there's all to play for, but is that really a fair reflection of what's going on?

Yes, it may well be true that the people that are buying feature phones today will be buying (much cheaper) smartphones four or five years down the line. When you've got a potential market of 2 billion to shoot for, the growth prospects are there for all to see.

But the way this new smartphone market monetises will be extremely different from the cash-splashing one we observe today.

Modest returns

In simple terms, cash-conscious customers in emerging markets won't be racking up obscene £1,000 in-app purchases for their latest freemium obsession, and revenue will come through operator billing and advertising, in sums that will be comparatively modest, to say the least.

The sheer scale of the market makes it look impressive, but it will require a concerted effort to make the most of it.

As for the established markets here in the West and in Asia, there's already a sense that the revolution is plateauing.

The novelty value of being at the cutting edge of smartphone tech diminishes with every subsequent release. It's the same with any technological revolution - what once felt fantastic and magical becomes normal all-too quickly.

The expectation that cash-rich markets will continue to grow is a flawed notion.

What if they're already at their peak? What, in all honesty, can handset manufacturers do in the coming years to tempt people to keep on buying new smartphones? What magic, must-have features can they cram in that they haven't already?

They can tinker with the user interface, and brag about the blazing speed of 4G networks, and make them evermore graphically powerful, but will anyone pull a rabbit out of the hat that makes our existing hardware feel obselete? I'm not so sure. Phones right now, across the board, are amazing. Even the also-rans are fantastic.

Saturation pointAnd then there's the issue of app saturation. If you've owned a smartphone for more than a couple of years, it gets to the point where you've got so much junk on your device that it's faintly embarrassing.

You download stuff on recommendation or on plain impulse, and end up with a curious buyers' remorse of having cumulatively spent a fortune. A handful of apps tend to 'stick', and the rest are throwaway, and you - most likely - start to slow down your habit.

Anecdotally, I'd say that many - if not most - smartphone owners I speak to tell a similar story: once obsessed, then guilty, now a lot more choosy. Some go even further and stop buying apps altogether, unless something absolutely outstanding comes along.

If this reflects what's going on elsewhere, the growth explosion can't go on forever. Eventually, a more mature market will emerge that's not propped up by excited newcomers.

And not only will people start to question how many apps they're downloading, but perhaps also question why they're such slaves to the handset upgrade process.

Excitement drop

Already this year, we've seen a general drop in excitement, with the iPhone 5, in particular, the very definition of a solid update.

On top of that, the experience of owning multiple smartphones over the past three to five years had made customers more discerning and increasingly nit-picky about the details.

Rather than show off their amazing gadget to anyone who cares, there's a brusque acceptance these days. We all know what they can do. Being slightly lighter or thinner barely even registers.

People are getting smarter and holding onto devices longer than perhaps they did a couple of years ago, and that's only going to become more common as handsets get even better.

And so if we fast forward today's scenario another four or five years, owning a capable smartphone will be as remarkable as having a debit card.

Cheaper smartphone alternatives will also be far more compelling than they are now. While a premium handset market will always exist, you can bet that the big winners of 2016 and beyond will be the manufacturers who disrupt the status quo with keenly priced, high quality alternatives.

So far from blindly predicting that this ever-growing bubble will continue to inflate indefinitely, it's far more likely that disruptive elements will change the landscape all over again.

Could we be sitting at the peak right now and not even realise it? Only time will tell.

There's no such thing as 'not enough time' in Kristan's world. Despite the former Eurogamer editor claiming the world record for the most number of game reviews written before going insane, he manages to continue to squeeze in parallel obsessions with obscure bands, Norwich City FC, and moody episodic TV shows. He might even read a book if threatened by his girlfriend.