Where’s the innovation?

I find in very difficult to get excited about phone and tablet releases these days.

To start with there are just so bloody many of them. 93 android phones were released in 2011 just in the US.

Then there’s the fact that every “big” launch (typically preceded by all manner of leaks, rumours and innuendo) is salivated over by a desperate seeming technology press – a problem not unique to phones I’ll grant you.

But mostly I’m starting to find the hype-drenched cycle of almost indestinguishable product launches to be boring, verging on off-putting. Where’s the innovation?

This is all coming to a head with me now because, of course, of the iPhone 5 launch. You. Could. Not. Escape. It. My timeline was rammed full of news outlets promising live blogs, minute-by-minute countdowns (COUNTDOWNS!), repeating rumours, posting articles compiling rumours, asking what people want to see, what people don’t want to see, listing what they think will be revealed, what won’t be revealed… you’d swear nothing else happened that day.

Like… um… this? Well no one is going to be stupid enough to try launch anything serious on the same day as Apple. Samsung had a go, but clearly wasn’t taking it too seriously.

But what did we get in return for my ignoring the internet for 24 hours out of frustration? A taller, thinner, faster iPhone & iTouch. A bigger (!) Nano and an unchanged Shuffle. Apparently they “started from scratch” with the iPhone 5 – yet it looks remarkably like the iPhone 4…

Full disclosure – I have a reputation for being a bit anti-Apple. It’s an accurate reputation. I dislike a lot of their business tactics. I dislike the self-righteous smugness that afflicted Apple aficionados in the pre-iPhone days and I dislike the herd mentality that seems to afflict more recent fans. But that doesn’t mean I think that Apple are the only ones guilty of phoning it in.

Both Samsung and HTC (really all of the manufacturers, including Nokia and Blackberry), for all the fanfare with which they launch their “flagship” devices, have failed to introduce anything more than iterative improvements (bigger, thinner, faster etc) in hardware for quite a while now.

The last time I got excited about “technology” was the Surface launch. And even then it wasn’t the Surface device itself (the grown-up one, not the “we need to do something about the iPad” one) that caught my eye, it was the very well executed keyboard-covers. They’ve existed for a little while for tablets, but this one came with Microsoft’s Hardware Division’s talented fingerprints all over it (nerds are often greasy) and seemed like genuine reason to be interested.

The only “innovation” we’ve seen pimped in mobile phones for the last few years has all been in the software. The Samsung Galaxy S3 turns itself off if you close your eyes, HTC’s Sense interface has 3d bits and the iPhone 5 has turn-by-turn navigation (like Nokia – among others – has had on its Symbian devices for years). But this isn’t innovation, these are OS features at best, “free apps” at worst – typically superseding functionality that 3rd parties have already provided.

Maybe I’ve missed something somewhere, but I’d felt the most remarkable thing about the approach both Apple and Google (and more recently Microsoft) took with their mobile OSes was to embrace the “App Store” concept and allow 3rd parties to offer new functionality. That one idea has created a lucrative new economy almost overnight.

Hardware manufacturers had an absolute fit when Google released their own phone and there were similar noises after the Surface announcement – if 3rd parties are freaking out about having their toes trodden hardware-wise, why aren’t developers calling foul when their blood, sweat and code is trampled upon by an OS refresh? Like an OS maker putting their own web browser front-and-centre at the possible expense of 3rd party offerings…

Ultimately I have two thoughts to offer. And I offer them freely as I’m now under the influence of two bottles of really rather very nice Weston’s Vintage Perry:

  1. We’re in what Intel might call a “tick” period for much of our technology – the big idea of the current generation is already here (touch devices, mobile internet) and the focus at the moment can be summed up as “bigger, thinner, faster” (and perhaps “longer” battery life). The tech media needs to accept this, dial down the press-release fuelled rhetoric and get to work finding the next big idea;
  2. I’m really very hard to please.

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