10/16/2013 10:08 am ET Updated Oct 16, 2013

What Would Make The iPhone Magical Again


Most tech writers will tell you there's one question they're asked more than any other: "When's the new iPhone coming out?" A close second: "Should I get it?"

In the past several years, it's become harder to answer the latter. The iterative progression of the iPhone has prompted doubts about Apple's ability to innovate, and these questions are likely to surface again this week in the run-up to Apple's Oct. 22 press conference (though it's expected to focus on iPad news).

Although the iPhone has been at the center of talk about the increasingly mundane nature of smartphones that once seemed miraculous, the breed of devices as a whole has ceased to amaze us. All the talk of how boring smartphones have become made me want to ask some of these unimpressed smartphone owners a question of my own: If you're so bored by your phone, what do you want it to do? What would make the smartphone magical again?

We posed those questions to readers on Facebook and Twitter. It turns out that if Apple were to ask, our wish list would be wide-ranging -- from the mundane (better battery life) to the fantastic (mind-reading!).

According to a 2013 J.D. Power Associates survey of over 16,000 smartphone-toting adults in the United States, battery life was ranked the least satisfactory attribute of smartphones today, coming in dead last out of 19 different characteristics. An informal survey of HuffPost readers on Facebook confirmed phones still aren't living as long as their owners would like: Battery performance emerged repeatedly as an ongoing annoyance, while others lamented the fragility of their phones. Harriet Geoghegan, one of my Facebook followers, hoped for phones "not made of the most breakable materials imaginable."

But those features are hardly revolutionary. It's easy to imagine people yawning at a press release touting a slight bump to battery life, even if it is convenient. (Did you know there's a new phone that can get 20 hours of heavy use on a single charge? Exactly.)

Smartphone owners want their gadgets to have bigger brains, not just brawnier bodies. The smartphone we have pales in comparison to the geniusphone we're dreaming of -- one that knows when to interrupt, is carefully attuned to our subtlest cues, and anticipates what we want by paying close attention to our environment.

"I want to just look at the phone and have it know what I want to do," wrote John Hayter on Facebook. Malay Chakrabarti asked for "emotion-sensing capabilities," and Al Podboy said he'd like a smartphone that would "'ring' only for a list of 'loved ones' or emergency services/calls" in the evenings. (The iPhone's Do Not Disturb tool offers this kind of feature, though it requires some setting up). J.D. Power found the most-desired feature for future smartphones was seamless voice control: 18 percent of respondents wanted to be able to boss their phones around just by speaking to it.

Smartphones have become our most constant companions, and research suggests we'd like them to be more thoughtful ones. After all, our current smartphones give all alerts the same prominence, meaning we're constantly checking our phones to see if that vibration came from a Facebook friend request, or a text from our boss. It's easy to imagine a phone that, like a human assistant, could intelligently learn when to interrupt us with an incoming alert, and when to save a non-essential notification for later, when we've finished dinner.

More than two-thirds of smartphone users check their phones even when they haven't received any alert, a 2012 Pew Research Center survey found. The biggest annoyance for cellphone owners polled in that survey was being "always reachable" by "people bothering me" -- hinting there might be appetite for phones that can better field messages or calls, just as Podboy requested. As it is, over a third of 18- to 24-year-old cell phone owners complain that their phones have made it harder to avoid distractions and focus on a single task, according to Pew.

"The constant chirp, beep, ding, buzz and vibrate of my phone is far worse than 'mosquito buzzing in ear' syndrome. I know the Internet exists, but I don't need to be reminded of it at two-minute intervals," wrote Carine Carmy, the director of marketing at 3D printing startup Shapeways, in an email. "I'd love a phone that would be more sensitive to my context and priorities, but the responsibility is probably on me to unplug a bit more often."

More broadly, we seem keen to have our phones evolve beyond communication tools and take on new functions as control centers for our environments -- we're looking for phones capable of doing things like heating, lighting and monitoring our homes. The Nest Learning Thermostat, for example, already allows homeowners to control their thermostats via their smarpthones.

The sandwich-making, fruit-ripening, pancake-flipping and back-massaging smartphones HuffPost readers requested might be far off, but the idea of a phone that can react intelligently to signals from built-in sensors isn't so sci-fi.

"This first wave of smartphones have been more about how people communicate," said Kirk Parsons, J.D. Power's senior director of telecom services. "I think the next big leap will be about physical connection with your being and the environment outside of you." Ten percent of smartphone owners want phones to have built-in sensors that can track noise, temperature and brightness, J.D. Power's study found.

But there's another camp of people that would prefer to see the smartphone revert. In a Facebook post that received 10 "likes," Lisa Simmonds wrote, "I wish they'd melt down and become paperweights so people would start interacting with each other again."

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