We used to live in simpler times. Five years ago, there was only one iPhone, one Palm Pre, one Nokia N8, and one Xperia X10.
Each mobile company’s flagship phone was readily identifiable. But then 2011 and the inexorable rise of Android happened, and now the very idea of a flagship is starting to feel dubious. Is LG’s best phone the G4 or the V10? Is Samsung’s flagship the Galaxy S6 or the Note 5? And which iPhone is Apple’s most important one?
In today’s mobile world, every smartphone manufacturer recognizes that one size isn’t enough to fit all. Google has the single-handed Nexus 5X and the extra-large Nexus 6P, which are neatly matched by Microsoft’s 5.2-inch Lumia 950 and 5.7-inch 950 XL. Beyond the aforementioned iPhones and Galaxy devices, Sony has an established habit of producing its flagship device in two sizes, and Motorola has even contemplated screen size as an option for its Moto Maker customization service.
As smartphones have matured, two related trends have combined to kill off the notion of a singular, idealized, best phone. One is that the diversity of operating systems that once offered multiple directions and means for defining what is best has shrunken down to a simple duopoly. We no longer have the Palm way, the Windows Mobile approach, or the BlackBerry path — there’s just iOS or Android, and those two remaining champs are closer to each other today than they’ve ever been. Simultaneous with the homogenization of software has been a plateauing of hardware capabilities. Every smartphone has a great display, a responsive touchscreen, and at least reasonable build quality. Many, especially in China, even offer fingerprint sensors, fast cameras, and other previously fancy extras at a fraction of yesteryear’s flagship prices.
The picture seems bleak for anyone looking to sell a new phone into such a developed, highly competitive, and undifferentiated market. But new companies persist in trying, and their exploration of the extremes — such as Lenovo’s Vibe P1 with a massive 5,000mAh battery — help us to define the best set of smartphone characteristics for the future.
It’s a tough market for its participants, but it’s actually a wonderful one for its customers.
Because it’s so hard to stand out in any singular way, phone makers have taken to offering more choice and diversity to cater to all tastes. Some of their actions have been self-destructive, like the unsustainable price wars being waged in China, but taken as a whole, the smartphone market is thriving today because of its harsh competition.
For a long time after the release of the original iPhone, every hotly anticipated smartphone that followed it was dubbed, ironically by some and seriously by others, an iPhone killer. History has shown that none of them truly lived up to that title, and now the very definition is becoming obviated. There’s no “iPhone” left to kill anymore — there are iPhones, from big and expensive to small and (relatively) affordable ones, and there are also many iPhone competitors. Flagship specs and features can be found across all size ranges and price brackets.
Buying a smartphone in 2015 is a more complex task than it was in 2010. Picking a preferred operating system is just the start, to be followed by choices of size, materials, colors, memory, storage, and, of course, price. But it can also be as simple as taking a fancy to a device you find attractive and going with your instinct — another difference from five years ago is that there are almost no terrible phones left. The Microsoft Kins and BlackBerry Torches of this world are gone, because they weren’t good enough. The loss in diversity that they represent is a desirable, evolutionary one, and it has been replaced by a greater range of user choice.
All of that leads us to the flagship phone’s retirement party. Smartphones have become too unified in their software and too similar in their hardware for there to be just one perfect one. There are no clear flagships left because all phones have grown to be very good — and the things that will determine the best one for each person can be subjective, whimsical, and even fun. Who needs flagships when the entire fleet is awesome?