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New colors and headphone ports: the new smartphone “features”

Since when did a headphone port become a feature? Why hype the existence of a black color option for your phone? OEMs need to stop hyping the past.

Published onMarch 18, 2017

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: smartphones are so good these days that they’re almost all basically “good enough”. Camera performance stepped up across the board a few years ago and battery life in 2017 is pretty much guaranteed to get you through a busy day. Fast charging is widespread, build quality is exceptional and water-resistant ratings are becoming the norm. But are companies that desperate for differentiation now that the simple presence of a headphone port or a new color suddenly becomes a unique selling point?

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When Apple dropped the 3.5 mm headphone port on the iPhone 7 it claimed it was being courageous, but we all know it was really just about encouraging the sale of wireless AirPods. The included lightning connector EarPods and lightning to 3.5 mm adapter showed just how timid Apple’s courage truly was, but ever since then, smug OEMs that haven’t done anything differently since before the iPhone 7 announcement suddenly felt the need to make a big deal out of the fact their new phone still had a headphone port.

Let me put this clearly: a headphone port is not a feature. Neither is a charging port or volume buttons or an IR blaster. They are just things that are there (or not). If some company down the road decides to remove the charging port entirely in favor of wireless charging, are other OEMs going to spontaneously start crowing about how their phones still feature a charging port?

Let me put this clearly: a headphone port is not a feature.

The change from microUSB to USB Type-C is equally uninteresting to me. It just is. If a company removes the headphone port but provides me with cabled headphones that work and an adapter for my other headphones, I don’t see the big deal. Likewise, if a company includes a charging brick that supplies my new phone with power, what do I care what the end of it looks like? USB Type-C is a new standard, not a feature.

I’ve written before about nitpicking, in the sense that if the things we tend to focus on these days are all we have to complain about then we’re in a very fortunate stage of the smartphone evolution. It wasn’t that long ago that the vast majority of smartphones produced potato camera results, that a mid-afternoon recharge was essential for making it to dinner time, or that getting caught in the rain would mean the end for anything but an Xperia device.

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But with phones being so good across the board now, companies seem to think that increasingly banal “features” are suddenly newsworthy items of interest. For example, OnePlus did its typical hypebeasting this week, all in the name of introducing a limited edition new color for the OnePlus 3T. Black. A black smartphone. Wow, whoever woulda thunk it? Again: color choices are table stakes options, not something special.

The Collette edition OP3T is exactly the same as a regular 3T, except it’s black and it has Collette’s logo branded on the back. Forgive me if I’m unlikely to line up in the streets of Paris to try my luck at buying a black smartphone.

Forgive me if I'm unlikely to line up in the streets of Paris to try my luck at buying a black smartphone.

Now, I don’t blame OnePlus for advertising a new limited edition phone, even if it isn’t exactly exciting. But where most companies would have simply announced the new color on their Facebook page, OnePlus went through the effort of teasing an announcement and then counting down the days to the big reveal: of a very standard color in extremely limited edition that’s only available at one store in one city in Europe for one day. Suffice it to say, OnePlus’ fans were not very impressed.

And nor should they be. Of course, OnePlus never claimed they were doing anything revolutionary, and if the limited edition color was anything other than black then perhaps the backlash wouldn’t be quite so palpable. The issue I have is that OnePlus tried to hype something as bland as a black color option as something of importance. It’s the same problem I have with OEMs making a big deal of the headphone port. These things are not a big deal, people, so stop acting as if they are.

I'm sure we're going to see more of the status quo being sold as something significant in the years to come.

Unfortunately, I’m sure we’re going to see more of the status quo being sold as something significant in the years to come. As the IR blaster disappears, as physical buttons become virtual and so on. You don’t get to hype the past. No car manufacturer makes a big deal of the fact their new vehicle has four wheels and a combustion engine. These things are a given. What we want to see hyped is what’s new, what’s fresh and what hasn’t been done for years before.

But as consumers demonstrate they’re not into goofy gimmicks like LG’s modularity and that a solid, capable smartphone is what they truly want, it’s going to be increasingly hard for companies to hype new features. We as consumers seem to be willing to become beta testers for updates and quality assurance testers for new products that creep ever closer to the $1000 mark, so can we really blame OEMs for trying to hype yesterday’s facts as features? Probably not, but we should really learn not to fall for it.