Whatever happened to device innovation?

At Azenby we are always interested in and tracking what innovation is happening in the world of mobile. One of our product design and development experts Phil Knight has been observing what is happening in the world of mobile device innovation:

Last week I looked at all my old phones, I have a terrible habit of keeping all of them, each time I upgrade, yet another phone goes into the drawer. I have them going all the way back to the old feature phones, and even a couple that could barely do SMS and could double as dumbbells, the batteries were so heavy. I even found my very first phone, a Siemens brick that took so long to charge that even if I put it on to charge as soon as I got in from work, by the morning it was still only half charged by the time I had to leave again. It could store up to 30 numbers though!

We have certainly moved on a long way from those days, and actually over the whole course of the history of our industry, I would have to say it is the terminal vendors who have really played the major role in getting the industry to where it is. Sure the networks have been built and some clever people have written and agreed some clever standards, but the terminals are what have given the mobile industry popular appeal. It’s all the customers see of the mobile industry after all and all they care about, well the price plan as well I guess.

Anyway, back to my beauty parade of old phones, so there it was, a long line of mobiles that have changed immeasurably from the early days and added huge amounts of functionality and style, or so it seems. I say this because there is another very noticeable trend that seems to have happened over the last 5 years; all the phones look the same, maybe a little bigger, with screens that are so good now they are beyond the visual acuity of my eyes, but basically the same designs from all of the vendors for the last 5 years and more, when someone says smartphone these days, there is no question about what it looks like….. they all look identical!

This can’t be the case surely, they may look the same, but they must do lots of new things? Well not really, some modest innovations like finger print sensors, and even (if it works) face recognition, but pretty much identical units with the addition of greater definition. This leads me to the question, whatever happened to all the innovations in terminals that took us from my Siemens brick of 25 years ago to the smartphone of today? The innovation appears to have stalled, we seem to have plateaued.

Maybe this is unfair, maybe the identical terminal designs we see from every vendor is really totally optimal, and there is nowhere else to go and that is why all the innovation that has really captured the customers imagination in the last few years has been  the OTT apps they run. I am joking of course, you can see lots of options and it is odd they haven’t emerged For instance, in the laptop market we see 2 in1 device formats where the same device can be used in tablet or PC mode, both very effectively. The same could be applied to mobile terminals for instance, a smartphone form factor that is for every day mobile use which the user then opens up to provide a screen twice the size for browsing.

Then there is the input mechanism, it is so primitive, still reliant on one way or another a thought being turned into the motion of  fingers on a keyboard or other iconic touch displays, though here I was really pleased to see an announcement from Facebook about attempting to make an interface that would allow text messages to be constructed from brain wave analysis Sounds tricky but well done for trying to do something really innovative.

There have been other innovations of course, smart watches are an interesting idea, but pretty much a notification adjunct to the terminal with some new health  considerations. Also, a brief foray into glasses that try to present augmented reality in a seamless fashion, but largely attempts so far haven’t been engineered well enough to have mass appeal. Perhaps that will be a new thread, the practical implementation of visual input output devices which link back through the terminal, even to the extent where the need for a screen on the terminal becomes obsolete, it becomes relegated to just handling wide area communications.

Perhaps I have unrealistic expectations, but it seems to me that we have reached a point where the technology is more able than the ideas behind it pushing new applications. Perhaps we are missing the true visionaries of the past who combined their ability to see a way forward with the ability to motivate and deliver. Maybe the duopoly of Operating systems and their limitations is hampering innovation. One thing I am sure of though, this continual optimisation of existing designs with gimmick products to justify new releases and higher price points, is really all rather dull.


If you have any thoughts or comments on this post please feel free to get in touch.

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