More Disruptive Mobile Innovations, Please!

23 November 2013 by Martin W. Angler, posted in big data, Innovation, prediction

There are many definitions of what an innovation is. Usually, it is a new idea that is transferred into a service or good that customers will pay for. In that sense, the major smartphone producers like Samsung and Apple are producing innovative products: they are profitable and people buy their (incremental) innovations.

In another sense, they are totally not delivering innovations: more cores, faster CPU speed, 64-bit architecture, fingerprint readers, more sensors, yeah. It’s all nice to have. But these are gimmicks, nothing more. These features don’t change our society. They don’t change anything at all.

Clayton Christensen, professor at the Harvard Business School, coined the term “disruptive innovation” like this: expensive, complicated products become accessible to the public, get widely adopted and, as a consequence, disrupt existing markets.

If we develop this idea further, the logical consequence of the public at large adopting a new technology is a change in society. This is where real innovation starts for me. The way we use the Internet has changed because of the arrival of smartphones and tablet pcs.

Archaeology & iPads

The iPad (introduced in 2010), for example, was a disruptive innovation. Since then, it has been disrupting the now declining PC market, but it has also had an impact on some scientific disciplines, too. US archaeologists in Pompeii, led by Steven Ellis of the University of Cincinnati, are using it to record their findings and draw mappings on the spot. Carrying heavy drawing boards? No more. Recording errors are minimized, since the researchers don’t have to manually transfer their findings from the analog to the digital world. Ellis’ team of researchers has sparked a movement called “Paperless Archaeology”, which is often presented at conferences about new technologies in archaeology.

Tablets in archaeology: the new iPad "Rock". It's AMAZING, FANTASTIC and ELEGANT! It ROCKS! / Copyright Lucasfilm Ltd.

The introduction of the first iPhone in 2007 was disruptive, too. It disrupted the business phones market, which up to then had been dominated by BlackBerry. But since then? Haven’t we seen the same smartphones, just incrementally improved, over and over again? Double the CPU speed, quadruple the pixels, halve the weight. It's an arms race that has cost the mobile industry its capability to truly innovate. Principles are thrown overboard for the sake of entering new market segments (for example, with the introduction of the iPad mini).

Kevin Dicus, professor at the CRWU, Ohio, records his findings on an iPad, directly on the spot.

Smartwatches, No Value Added

So, what is the next big disruptive innovation in mobile computing? The much-hyped smartwatches? That’s hardly likely. Earlier this week, Samsung told Reuters that it has sold 800,000 units of its smartwatch Galaxy Gear in the last two months. Whether these sales went to retailers or directly to the consumers, Samsung didn't tell. The truth is: nobody really knows what to do with these smartwatches. They are extremely miniaturized smartphones strapped to the wrist – with fewer capabilities and, in the case of Galaxy Gear, a screen of only 1.63 inches and a battery that requires nightly charges. Did I mention already that smartwatches don’t work without syncing with smartphones that deliver the data to Gear’s display (phone calls, email notifications, etc.)? To make things worse, the Galaxy Gear works only with Samsung smartphones.

Let's Leave Our Passwords Everywhere!

So, what about Apple’s latest innovations? Like Touch ID and 64-bit architecture? 64-bit architecture on a customer device is barely noticeable. It helps a device to work with memory larger than 4 GB. The iPhone 5S currently has only 1 GB of DRAM, though. Effect: zero. This architecture matters for large infrastructures and servers that address a lot of memory. Moreover, 64-bit architecture is well known for causing compatibility problems. For example, Microsoft Internet Explorer's 64-bit edition is not even fully supported by that same manufacturer's enterprise software SharePoint (which runs on 64-bit architecture only). Does that make any sense?

For consumer devices, 64-bit architecture is currently just marketing fluff. And Touch ID? Let me think. I’ve always had fingerprint sensors on my notebooks. They worked okay, nothing more. I am still typing my password faster than the software can verify my identity by fingerprint reading (you are welcome to draw conclusions on the length of my passwords). Fingerprint readers have been here for a long time. Yet, they never really made it. As a security measure, they are easily hackable. IMO that makes fingerprint authentication far worse than regular passwords, because you can’t change your fingerprints once they have been compromised. And your fingerprints are everywhere. It’s like you leave little post-its with your passwords all around your surroundings. Like the idea? I don’t.

Thankfully, there are other, meaningful mobile innovations that have sneaked into our lives without being noticed. For example, crowdsourcing weather forecasts via citizens’ smartphone sensors and even batteries. With enough data collected this way, we might soon encounter a whole new level of forecast predictions (even though, the sheer amount of data collected alone is no guarantee for precise predictions).

Crowdsourcing weather via analyzing smartphone batteries. / Copyright WeatherSignal

My conclusion of all this? In absence of true, disruptive innovation that actually adds value to what we do, the major companies try to sell us old stuff, only revamped and relabeled. Many features (Touch ID) and non-features (like colors, remember the hype about the space gray iPad mini? “It’s AMAZING”) are so not new.

Personally, I’d love to see more innovations that have the strength to change both society and science. Like smartphones and tablet pcs, that have turned over the way we use the Internet, the way in which we do research, and, most important, the way we communicate about it. (Heck, they have even changed what today's Internet is).

Until then, I am officially bored by the latest mobile innovations.

2 Responses to “More Disruptive Mobile Innovations, Please!”

  1. Martin Holzherr Reply | Permalink

    Disruptive technologies change our life, our way to do things. Only the  right combination of technology and customer adoption makes  a technology disruptive. Tablets e.g. were introduced many years before they really succeeded. Bill Gates praised them and they didn' succeed. 
    Smartwatches could also finally succeed with the right combination of technology (e.g. wireless loading), applications and interactive elements. Google Glass shows another problem: there are already many meaningful applications for special needs, but will the man and woman of the street wear such a device? 
    Disruptive Technologies are the exception, incremental improvements the norm. But they are also important. That new ipads weigh less makes their use more natural, that they have a 64-Bit processor is only for developers, which can write software now which will work in 5 years, when new ipads standard memory capacity requires such a processor.

    • Martin W. Angler Reply | Permalink

      This is a good point: smartwatches are perhaps not yet mature enough to succeed. As a matter of fact, this is where technology becomes interesting and sometimes disruptive - when people find use cases the creators didn't think of.

      64-bit processors have a raison d'être, sure, but currently not on mobile devices. Even though, writing software that will work in five years is unlikely due to the short software lifecycle (renewed operating systems every year, new devices every 6-12 months, etc.).

      Thanks and have a nice evening!

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