The end of smartphone innovation

Industrial Management Consulting
Industrial Management Consulting

This autumn Apple will release a new iPhone design, and the fact that it postponed a new design and kept the 6 design for three years instead of two suggests it has something that will attract attention. However, it will really still ‘just’ be another iPhone. Meanwhile, we have some indications that Apple is working on AR glasses (of which more later) and certainly was working on a car project – but neither of these is likely to see a mass-market consumer release for a year or two at the least (cars perhaps longer). So, expect a lot more ‘innovation dead at Apple!’ stories.

This is paralleled at Android, I think: the new developer release of version ‘O’ has lots of good work and solid worthy stuff, but nothing world changing. Again, the cry will go up, “innovation is dead!”

Really, though, this reflects where we are in the product cycle. New technology of any kind tends to follow an S Curve – at first improvement and innovation seems slow as the fundamental concepts are worked out, then there’s a period of very rapid change, innovation and feature expansion, and then, as the market matures and the ‘white space’ is filled in, perceptible improvement tends to slow down. You could see this in cars, or aircraft – far more obvious change in the middle decades of the 20th century than in the first decade of the 21st – and you can see it in PCs or increasingly smartphones now. The PC curve has been completely flat for years and smartphones are now starting to flatten out as well. There will still be substantial improvement in cameras, and in GPUs (driven by VR), but the war is over.

This means that the questions change. We don’t ask ‘will this work?’ or ‘who will win?’ – Apple and Google won (Google only outside China, of course), and their victory is now complete, just as Microsoft’s was in 1995. Rather, we ask what can we do now that there are 2.5bn people with a smartphone, growing to 5bn in a few years.

There’s a paradox here, perhaps: slowing innovation in the iPhone and in Android doesn’t mean weakness (“Apple doomed!” “Android falling behind!”) but strength: it reflects the fact that we are in a phase in which they’re unassailable. The fact that almost all of the white space has been filled in – the big problems solved – also means that we have left the part of the S Curve in which a new idea or execution could overturn the incumbent. They’re too feature-rich and, of course, have too much scale in units and ecosystem.

Of course, that is only true until the next S curve comes along and resets the score, just as the iPhone did to both Microsoft and Nokia. The trend this year is to say that this new S-Curve will be voice (I’m skeptical) or just AI in general (yes, but I’m not sure it changes the dynamics in phones). AI certainly is the new S-Curve in the tech industry, but for actual devices you carry around with you, I increasingly think that augmented reality is the next fundamental platform shift. AR, in the sense not of waving your phone at something but of glasses that can place objects into the world around you, can probably be the new universal interface, replacing multitouch just as multitouch is replacing the windows/mouse/keyboard model.

This won’t happen all at once. Multitouch effectively had three launches: the Jeff Han demo in 2006, the iPhone launch in 2007, and then the explosion in unit sales from 2010 onwards, accelerated by Android. The new S Curve will start out flat as well – for a bit.

The fun part of this kind of innovation is that when you’re at the end of the curve the stuff at the beginning seems really boring. It didn’t feel like that at the time. Today this video of the iPhone from 2007 seems almost baffling – of course all phones are like that! Not then they weren’t. Lots of people even claimed the demo was faked.


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