Smartphones – Where is the Innovation?

This is a rant. Probably a brief rant, but a rant nonetheless. Prepare yourself.

There’s a reasonable chance you own an iPhone. Me? I own an iPhone 4 – a device that should by all means feel like an absolute relic at this point. The iPhone 4 is over 2 years old, and 2 years old in the technology world translates to obsolescence. Yet the iPhone 4 truly does not feel like it’s an obsolete device, and this strikes me as a very bad thing.

Now don’t get me wrong. I know Moore’s Law is alive and well, and chip speeds are increasing. I know cameras and displays are becoming more and more sophisticated. I know there’s a fifth row of apps on the iPhone screen. I know there’s Siri. There are differences between the iPhone 4 and what we have 3 iterations later in the iPhone 5S. They just don’t seem particularly groundbreaking. From my standpoint, you have essentially the same device over two years later when you’re talking about what has changed since the iPhone 4.

One might argue Siri and the fingerprint recognition are significant innovations. Siri certainly has become a ubiquitous figure in popular culture, but most people I talk to find Siri to be more of a gimmick than an asset. Perhaps my circle is in the minority in this respect, but until Siri stops misunderstanding basic statements I will tend to think that is not the case. I do appreciate the fingerprint recognition concept on the 5S. I think, though, that’s technology we’ve been capable of using for years now. I’m almost wondering why that wasn’t in a much earlier model. Price? Perhaps. Regardless of the reason for the delay, I still count one significant difference between the iPhone 4 and the iPhone 5S. This wouldn’t be a major issue if there wasn’t so much more that mobile devices could feature.

First: digital wallets. Before someone comes up and tells me that digital wallets aren’t widely used enough to be a practical addition to a smartphone, my immediate argument is that a smartphone is a platform. Platforms are what bring innovations to the mainstream, so including a digital wallet built-in with your platform will immediately give your innovation more exposure. I’m sure there are thousands of legal issues standing between smartphone companies and a practical digital wallet, but this is something that needs to happen, and in my opinion should have happened already. The world is going paperless, why is currency lagging behind? I’m not saying we should all go all in on Bitcoin (yet), but there’s no reason why paying for anything and everything easily using a smartphone isn’t commonplace yet. I want to use Google Wallet. I really do. But vendors aren’t sold on it yet. A huge paradigm shift needs to occur before my wallet becomes obsolete, and I think this responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of smartphone companies.

Looking past what could have been already, let’s briefly look at what is/will be soon: Curved screens. An innovation that seems minor, but one that actually will improve visibility on screens significantly. Will glare be a thing of the past? I doubt it. But I’m glad that curved screens appear as if they will be somewhat widely-adopted. Might feel a little strange in our pockets at first, but I think we’ll all get used to it in exchange for being able to see what’s on our screens in the sunlight.

ImageThe LG G Flex; curved screen highlighted

What about what, well, might be? Apple recently invested in inexpensive solar-charging screen technology, and I had speculated that this was destined for the iPhone 6. After months of saying my next phone wouldn’t have an ‘i’ in front of it, I had a little bit of hope for Apple’s next phone model. Apple then announced, though, that their smart watch would be using this technology. This is certainly not a confirmed report, nor does it mean that it won’t be used in the iPhone 6. Phone battery life is always a pertinent issue. With how quickly iOS 7 and other sophisticated operating systems eat through phone batteries, innovation to extend battery life seems like a paramount issue, as there hasn’t been significant developments in the battery industry itself in recent years. I’m holding out hope that the iPhone 6 will have some sort of game-changing innovation. Or really that any phone releases something that really wows me before it comes time for me to replace my fossil of an iPhone 4. I want to be really excited about a new mobile device again – I haven’t been excited like that in what feels like years. It’s time for smartphone companies to step up and change that.

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