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What happened to big ideas in smartphones?

What happened to big ideas in smartphones

Soon after the big iPhone announcement last week, a friend and I met for dinner. He was an early adopter of a Motorola Droid, which has since departed this earth due to hardware issues that occurred conveniently after the warranty had concluded. He was now “rockin'” his wife’s old, purple Blackberry.

No man should have a purple phone. No professional woman, like his wife, should either. But that’s beside the point.

Recognizing that he is both out-of-date and hideously color-coordinated, my friend had decided on his next phone: the Nokia Lumia 900. But he wasn’t committed yet.

“Sell me on the iPhone 5,” he said, knowing that I am both a technology columnist of very little note and a member of the Church of Jobs. So I went through the specs. Since we knew the details months ago thanks to the numerous leaks Apple has in its outfit, I already had them memorized. As we were talking, it turns out the Nokia is similar in nearly every respect, as is the Samsung Galaxy S3.

Then I went to the tried-and-true “ease of use” argument that Apple devotees have been touting forever. But I was talking to someone who was nearly sold on a Windows phone. From my limited use of them, they are just as easy to use as an iPhone. Perhaps more so.

I ran out of steam. He was gracious enough to let me come up with my own conclusion: There’s nothing new under the sun. Cell phone technology hasn’t changed all that much since his purchase of the original Droid. Screen sizes are roughly the same (excluding the Samsung Note). Processors are, too. Features that one doesn’t have over the other are usually solved by a third-party app.

So what happened to all of the big ideas? Don’t tell me we have to wait for Zombie Steve to come back to get a better cell phone.

I went back to read some reviews of the original iPhone, trying to remember what features and designs got us excited back then. It’s hard to remember because those features are now ubiquitous, or so says a patent jury.

original iphone

The overall tenor of the reviews was that it seems the iPhone was a hit because it was the first to meld a bunch of features and functions together. It eliminated the need for multiple devices. People no longer had to carry a phone, an iPod, a camera, and (for some uses) a laptop anymore. We were experiencing what I call “device-creep” back in 2007. Our messenger bags were filled with these toys and then were suddenly made lighter by one device.

We have device-creep again.

It might not be quite as pronounced, but it’s there. And this time, it’s even more redundant because our devices, for the most part, all do the same thing.

I know quite a few people these days who own a phone, a tablet of some variety, and a laptop, including me. Granted, they rarely carry them all around at the same time, but they are all used in very specific environments. The phone is obviously for staying extremely mobile and on the move. The tablet is usually used in front of the TV or in bed. The laptop is for work and either stays docked on a desk or propped up at the most conspicuous table in Starbucks so that everyone can see the bright Apple logo. Wait, that’s just me…

The point is, the next big thing needs to eliminate this device-creep yet again.

I don’t know how it would work. That’s Jony Ive’s job, not mine. But somehow, whether it folds in on itself or stretches organically using the “rubberband electronics” idea as shown in the video DT published a couple of weeks ago, it changes its shape from something the size of our typical phone to a tablet to a tablet-with-keyboard. You can carry a laptop in your pocket!

Further off, I think the future of mobile technology will combine Google Glass with the input controls from Minority Report. People will be walking down the street wearing what amounts to a monocle gesturing into thin air. In other words, everyone will be that elderly person I avoid at the grocery store. But the Foldy Phone (TM) is something that is possible now with very little advancement of technology. We just need someone to realize the need and invest in a solution.

I don’t think people like that exist in our technology companies anymore. At least, not in the decision-making positions.