Tech

This Is How The Smartphone Wars End

With a long, jargon-filled whimper.

1. Last week, after the iPhone 5 announcement, Samsung took out a full-page ad in the New York Times:

Samsung has already taken some heat for misrepresenting the features of both the iPhone and the Galaxy S III, but to pick nits here is to give in to the ad’s conceit: that the protracted smartphone marketing race — the so-called Smartphone Wars — is still important. It’s similar to a real war almost solely in that after a while the public has gotten used to ignoring it. And now it’s tapering down.

I write about this stuff professionally and I’ve used a lot of Samsung’s Galaxy products, but I couldn’t tell you what some of the features in the right column are. Even the left column assumes an obsessive level of interest in specs and branded features from its readers — the phrase “a totally different plug” has so little context that almost reads like a mistake. The group of people outside of the Samsung Corporation who know what “Palm Swipe Capture” and “Shake to Update” and “S-Beam” and “Palm Touch Mute Pause” (?????) is is vanishingly small, and consists almost exclusively of Samsung Galaxy owners. It’s even sillier when you consider that this ad was published in a print newspaper:

To say that the smartphone wars are ending isn’t to say that anybody has won, or ever will. The largely unchanged iPhone 5 is a model of a post-war phone: a slowly iterative product that is becoming more, not less, like its competitors. It’s Boring and Amazing, as Mat Honan at Wired puts it.

This shift may also offer a clue as to why Apple and Samsung’s recent legal fight over shockingly broad and vague patents was so heated: because legal protections are one of the few remaining tools Apple has to slow its only real enemy in the tech world: commoditization.

Every new phone from Apple or Samsung, or Nokia or Motorola for that matter, is one more step toward a time when there won’t be complex cases for buying one premium smartphone over another. There will just be our allegiances to, and deep investments in, ecosystems, which at this point many of us have been literally buying into for years. (How much have you spent on apps over the last four years?)

This entrenchment will be what ends the old Smartphone Wars, making the increasingly small differences in hardware and software—its battles—feel inconsequential, even before they are.

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