Flagship phones have gone completely mad and it’s all our fault
I can't watch it again. I just can't. Won't. You can't make me. Please.
I don't care about the Samsung Galaxy Fold's inconvenient, well, 'fold' down the center of its magic expand-o-screen. Or that some other reviewers' Folds reportedly broke after just a few days. Or that it'll cost nearly two grand and is a bit fat. It's the "Galaxy Fold: Unveiling" video on Samsung's official YouTube channel that's squelching my adrenal gland like a spider choke-holding a satsuma.
We begin in darkness. Then, the eerie gloss of some… thing fades into view. A woman starts singing: "Come with me, and you’ll be, in a wooorld of pure imagination" – but in that sort of creepy lullaby voice that's best juxtaposed with footage of a serial killing clown sharpening his tools or shaky-cam footage of a zombie outbreak. Bursts of static. People screaming. "Come with meeee…" The camera falls sideways. The screen cracks. A wailing man is dragged out of shot by tearing, grasping hands. Buy Samsung.
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It's terrifying. It's also mad. Brad-Pitt-Chanel-advert mad. "We didn't just change the shape of the phone. We changed the shape of tomorrow," Samsung proclaims. You changed Friday? Into what? A cube? What else did you do? I wasn't there for the Fold's announcement, but I can imagine the Brand High Priest onstage with his hands raised addressing the flock. "We didn't just create a folding phone. We deleted Tuesday," he declares. One seventh of the audience immediately disappears. The rest are on their feet, shouting in tongues, applauding and rending clothes.
The video ends with a hashtag imploring us to, "#DoWhatYouCant". Which I can only interpret as, "buy our unaffordable phone". But I haven't had time to check that with the auguries yet.
Apparently, this is what it takes to sell a flagship smartphone in 2019. It's the natural end-point of Steve Jobs' coming-down-from-the-mountain Apple press conferences (often with literal tablets). You can't just sell a phone anymore: you have to spritz it with a magical glamour and Derren Brown people with hashtag hypnotism. It isn't a phone: it’s a statement. A lifestyle. A talisman of beauty and wealth. That makes phone calls.
And while Samsung's Fold is the device currently flexing self-consciously in the limelight, all this sparkly nonsense really did begin with Apple. In his book, The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, NYU professor Mark Galloway expertly dissects how Apple leapfrogged the total dominance of its competition to become the 'it' brand. It's a long book and only a quarter of it is about Apple, but basically: Apple didn't sell phones; Apple sold luxury. Even more basically: Apple sold sex.
"Since men are wired to procreate aggressively, the caveman in us hungers for that Rolex, or Lamborghini – or Apple," Galloway writes. "And the caveman, thinking with his genitals, will sacrifice a lot (pay an irrational price) for the chance to impress."
'Irrational' barely starts to cover it. Today, the most expensive iPhone you can buy – the iPhone XS Max, with 512GB of storage – costs one-and-a-half-thousand pounds ($1449, AU$2,369). The first iPhone, which launched in 2007, cost £269 ($599 in the US for the 8GB model).
Which, if you adjust for inflation, might help take your mind off the fact you just spent £1500 on a telephone. Like an eighties Wall Street tycoon. Or a Kardashian. Or Donald Trump.
What do you get for your £1500 with the iPhone XS Max? The Apple website simply can't contain itself. It doesn't have videos: it has "Films", describing in nebulous buzzword-ery just what each model will deign to provide for your money.
You get surgical-grade stainless steel (as you'd expect from a phone that's just gouged your eyes out), an "Intelligent A12 Bionic" chip with a "Neural Engine" (either an upgraded processor or one of those eggs that trap people in virtual reality in Black Mirror), and wireless charging. What's that? Does the outside use an advanced physical vapor deposition process for colors and reflectivity? Um, of course it does, grandad. Why else would it cost so much?
And therein lies the rub. Right there, in the messianic advertising rubbish. It's not technological breakthrough that's driving every major brand to release more blindingly flash smartphones year-on-year. It's us. The cavemen. And our throbbing caveman genitals. Because the truth is, technologically speaking: smartphones are done. We've finished them. We can stop now.
Remember Steve Jobs' insistence that the iPhone would always have a 3.5-inch screen, because that was the "perfect size for consumers"? Well, OK, he was wrong about the number – but Apple (along with everybody else) does since seem to have settled on a new "perfect", which hovers somewhere around six inches.
Until we evolve bigger hands, six inches just is about the right size to hold comfortably. You can make bigger phones – the XS Max, the Galaxy Note 9, for example – but you'll reliably sell fewer of them than those phones which conform to the post-Jobsian standard.
And if you go too big, then you've stopped making phones and started making tablets. Which is fine. Unless you're a company that already makes tablets, in which case you've added yourself to your own list of competitors.
So, what else can you tweeze into your flagship smartphone to justify both a high price and the mandatory twelve-month update? Well, that £1500 iPhone XS Max managed to swallow 512GB of storage. Which would totally hold all your music and TV shows and films (proper films, Apple – not ones of models taking photos on sand dunes for some reason). Or at least it would, if Apple wasn't simultaneously pushing Apple Music and Apple TV Plus, which covers all three of the above – as do Netflix, Amazon Prime, Google Music, Spotify and so on.
Resolution? That can always go up, right? Right. Except, again, screen size can't. So sooner or later, you inevitably reach the point where the human eye can't tell the difference between one screen's clarity and another, even if one is technically 1000 times sharper. And unless you're projecting the contents of your Instagram feed onto a field from a circling blimp, the same goes for camera resolutions.
So, what are you actually selling when you launch/unveil/conjure a flagship smartphone today? Numbers, mostly. 512GB of this. 20MP of that. Words, too: "bionic", "neural", "bokeh", "surgical". Not technically meaningless – just meaningless in the practical sense.
Small incremental increases, year-on-year, in what boils down to an incredibly expensive game of Top Trumps. The digital equivalent of those diver's watches that can survive depths that would crush a human torso into giblets for isopods.
Or, you can make a phone that folds. Or rolls. Or makes toast. It doesn't really matter – so long as your audience is just a bunch of horny cavemen playing Top Trumps. It's only if those cavemen ever put your new phone, your last phone and a print-out of their bank statement next to each other that you have worry about being clubbed.
- Is the Galaxy Fold worth Samsung's hype? Read our hands on review