Smartphone innovation is dead: Here are four ways to breathe life into it again

Smartphone innovation is dead: Here are four ways to breathe life into it again

Summary: ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener: Underwhelmed by the latest version of your favourite black slab? You're not alone – here's where the smartphone makers should really be focusing their efforts.


The smartphone has effortlessly replaced the PC as the centre of our digital world: last year one billion smartphones were shipped, accounting for more than half of all mobile phones sold.

And yet, behind the big numbers, there is uneasiness: the smartphone market in the US and Europe is already showing signs of saturation, and much of the growth elsewhere is coming through sales of cheaper models.

Adding to the pressure, companies' flagship smartphones are ageing and not especially gracefully — the iPhone is approaching its seventh birthday now, the Samsung Galaxy S series is almost four — and aren't generating the same levels of excitement they once did.

And while every new smartphone launches with a multitude of apparently must-have features, there's a nagging sense that, for smartphones, innovative has now been replaced with uninspired iteration.

I'd go further. The smartphone has become an innovation-free zone. What was the last great smartphone leap forward? The phablet, otherwise known as... a really big smartphone.

There are obvious (if not particularly good) reasons for this slowdown — the competing smartphone ecosystems are quite mature now and change is risky. Those small black slabs of plastic and glass are really supertankers in disguise: it's hard to change the direction of strategy due to the risk of negative effects on the broader ecosystem. Add to that the enormous costs involved in building and marketing smartphones make it very hard for new players to make an impact in the market.

As a result it seems that most of the excitement in mobile hardware has already shifted onto wearables such as Google Glass or the various attempts at igniting enthusiasm for smartwatches.

That's a shame, because there are still big problems to tackle with smartphones — and potentially exciting breakthroughs to be had, too. So in the run up to the annual Mobile World Congress (MWC) show in Barcelona next week, here are four that I'd really like to see engineers working on to inject some energy back into the smartphones market.

1. Escaping the black mirror

We are in the era of the anonymous black slab; there's almost no differentiation on form factor anymore. The smartphone is now such a design dead end that how the back of a phone looks is considered to be an important distinguishing feature. Curved and foldable displays could be manufacturers' salvation here: pretty much every phone maker has been working on these but they haven't yet managed to make them a must-have.

2. Getting mobile payments right

I carry around a wallet full of rectangular pieces of plastic with a few kilobytes of unencrypted, easily-lost data on them: credit cards. Sure, they're a lot smarter than they used to be, but all these cards still take up a lot more room in my wallet than an app does on my phone. Using phones for mobile payments has been dogged by competing standards and manufacturers, along with banks and credit card companies jockeying for position with the net result that nothing has happened fast. Getting mobile payments going would make smartphones much more personal again.

3. Making devices work together

Phones are resolutely solitary characters and yet there is huge potential to make them work better with each other. I'd like my phone to do a much better job of sharing or interacting with my tablet, PC (or, in the future, my wearables). I'd also like them to do a better job of talking to other people's devices around me, whether that's sharing content or playing games.  

4. Battery life is still no good

Moore's Law advances haven't been matched by advances in battery life (something that's going to be an even bigger problem with wearables, of course). Getting more life out of smartphone batteries is a must-do for manufacturers. Modular design might help with this — something like Google's Project Ara or ZTE's Eco Mobius could help out by allowing you to add more battery if that's a key element for you while dropping something less relevant.

What do you think — which smartphone innovation would make the biggest difference to you?

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Read more of ZDNet's Monday Morning Openers

Topics: Mobility, Emerging Tech, MWC, Smartphones

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  • What if there's more to life and economy than just innovation

    or at least thew buzzword "innovation"?

    And smartphones existed before the iphone, had touch screens, etc... they just didn't have wide adoption and had cost more...

    Still, smoke and mirrors behind mirrors and smoke...
    • battery life is doomed... to the battery suckers

      The tracking & spying will dominate, as battery power increases so too will the traffic to draw it down. You don't own these things, especially not the service(s) they rely on.

      I just got an email from a site I accidentally entered through an inadvertent touch, and isn't that the purpose of the screen shifting popup? I never registered on or visited the site before... but because my device ID is tied on an online service I "willfully" gave them my email address.

      My usage of identity obfuscation technology is increasing but I haven't implemented it ubiquitously yet. I don't want to play the game.

      Smartphone... looking dumber all the time.
  • Hmm...

    1 is a matter of the current fashion, really. I think that'll change eventually. Personally I'd like to see more personalisation... having said that, I'm quite fond of my black slab.

    2 ... well, I haven't yet been convinced this is a great idea. I'll probably get in on this late, if it ever takes off. Am I going to have any disadvantage from not being an early-adopter? Probably not.

    3 is a great one - and yet I think won't happen. There's just no interest from manufacturers (except with wearables, for some incomprehensible reason). Even portable game devices are eschewing local networks for "the cloud". Of course, this is the point I'm not really sure about. If app developers make full use of it, assuming the technology for local interactivity between devices is available, then it could drive demand for this feature - a bit chicken and egg though. And this begs the question, why couldn't they just do it online? I'd like to think we'll live in a cross-platform, fully-transferrable future, but I'm not convinced it'll happen within the next few years.

    4 battery life is definitely a big one for most people who use their smartphone more than half an hour a day. Of course that's not just higher capacity batteries (which we're all waiting for), but more energy-efficient software... Perhaps Google and Apple can be encouraged to include energy ratings for the Apps in their App stores... Hah.
    • App power

      That's actually a really good point; energy ratings for apps would be a great idea!
  • Another issue are the carriers,

    and the pricing for data plans. Although some improvement has been seen the past few months, most data plans are still rather expensive. If smartphones are going to be the center of our digital lives, something needs to be done to make it more affordable for users. I don't have any statistics to back me up, but it sure seems the newer smartphones such as Samsung's Galaxy and iPhones chew through data like everyone has almost free unlimited data access plans.
    • that should read

      "Samsung's Galaxy and Apple's iPhone"...sheesh...Samsung was accused of copying the iPhone, not making it Wiz!!! Hehe..
  • A different take

    >>The smartphone has effortlessly replaced the PC as the centre of our digital world:

    Not for everyone... A PC for me is far more productive and more the center of my life than any gadget level device on the planet. No smartphone/iphone, or tablet/ipad/ereader, or mp3/wmv/ipod/cd/tape player can match what I get out of my mainstay notebook.

    >>Smartphone innovation is dead

    Innovation death on the hardware level was inevitable for gadget level devices. you have to take into account not only the technology, but the human interaction aspects.

    For smartphone/iphone gadget level devices, you need the phone within a specific size range or you lose either mobility or appeal, probably both. That size limits a lot of innovation. Space for port types, screen size/resolution, battery life, thickness, etc...

    This same logic carries to other gadget level devices, each has a expected size range and baseline functionality... this seriously limits things.

    This same thing happened on the PC platform, but in a different manner of course. Keyboard input can only be changed so much (DVORAK keyboards never gained acceptance), pointer input is only one of several methods like mouse, touchpad, or touchscreen (still wish more systems offered accupoint/trackpoint on netbook/notbook/ultrabook level). resolution, color depth, and refresh rates are pretty much maxed out at when the human eye can discern.

    IMHO where innovation can still occur for gadget level devices is on the software side. In addition to some of your own ideas, I'd say...

    - Availability of full function apps. Libre Office equivalent for Android for example comes to mind. A truly good pro level text/HMTL/XML editor. On the order of like Helios Textpad or Notepad++. *Most* such office suites or full blown apps for android carry tons of limitations and are fairly limited.

    - Ability to interface with common devices that were originally meant for the PC. For example my brother recently could not get his smart phone to interface with my HP USB port replicator, all he was hoping to access was the USB ports on it, but his phone would not even acknowledge the device existed. Ditto his android based tablet.

    That last is important, there is literally a humungous amount of pre-existing infrastructure that currently cannot be easily accessed by gadget level devices. Allowing them to access all that existing equipment would make transition away from PCs much smoother without requiring people to pay to repurchase what they already have.
    • Couple additions

      As a add on to the prior post by me off this article... support for all the old IDE/SATA devices, not just HD's, but old legacy devices. I know adapters exist for most all but SCSI to be converted to USB... if the support is added to the OS, then all that need be added is the adapter to run off existing USB port. It need only read them, not write them.

      We know this is potentially possible, after all, we have emulators platforms that these phones run... so would it be out of line to really expect the need to crop up somewhere that someone may need access to the old media formats. This would turn a Android Gadget level device into a Bit-Curator type access device.

      Lets see, old media formats include but are certainly not limited to:
      - Iomega ZIP 120 / 250 / 720
      - Imation LS-120 / LS-250
      - Iomega Clik / PocketZip
      - SyQuest EZ 135 / EZFlyer 250
      - SyQuest 3270 - 105mb / 270mb
      - Hard Drives and SSD in MiniPCIe, 1.8Zif / PCMCIA / Expresscard / CF / Microdrive / SD / 2.5IDE / 3.5IDE / mini SATA / SATA
      - 3.5/5.25" Floppy Drives (this could actually be possible, there exists Floppy to USB devices already such as 5025, KryoFlux and Supercard)
      - MD / MO / WORM 3.5" / 5.25"
      - a few tape backup standards like Travan / QIC / DAT

      Really, except the last two, I have adapters and a station that can read all those.
      • I see your point.

        Kind of. But I don't really want my mobile phone OS bulked out by support for dead storage formats.
        • Thus,

          The need for open formats and every software house to adhere to these formats exactly (is Microsoft listening?).
        • Agree some of those are dead, but you miss the primary point

          I was referring more to the concept of being able to connect to desktop devices in general. Not so much ancient devices... you technically can support those if you have the genric standards in place. Support for SATA and older ATAPI/IDE devices in general off of the USB would provide the bulk of support needed for new and old devices. Add in generic Printer support also off USB and that would solve a large number of issues.

          The fact my brother had issues getting a device to link up to a simple USB based port replicator and searching on-line revealing tons of similar issues, and lack of printer standard support across the board even for generic type indicates that gadget level devices are ignoring a *HUGE* existing framework to do quite a number of things...
      • Really?

        5.25 and 3.5 inch floppies and Travan tapes? Really?
        • missed the primary point

          I think you missed the primary point... that gadget level devices should have general support through USB for things like printers, SATA and older ATAPI/IDE devices. that would open the doors to much broader support and use a lot of the existing infrastructure.
  • Some thoughts...

    In reply to the points, some things I have noticed already are -
    1) Nokia's use of colors starting back with the Lumia 900's I think was an attempt to try to provide some differentiation on the black slab (that and the curved design on the edges and screen rather than a flat rectangle).
    2) Good idea but is really going to depend on retailers to support, there are trials already underway in a number of places around using phones with NFC chips rather than a credit card for paywave or paypass purchases.
    3) Microsoft is continually poo pooed for doing just this. Starting from the launch of WP7 it is something they have been working towards, and present (call it generation 1) functionality is decent for some games, for office, email, facebook, and so on where something that is done on the phone is reflected on the PC/Web version of the same item. I noticed HP had included NFC chips in a number of their All-in-ones and some other devices, I suspect for this purpose. As for between phones, the sharing is definitely between phones from the same maker only at the moment for ease of use. Sharing photos etc is quite easy between say 2 galaxys or 2 lumias using NFC.
    4) Maybe some of the new air breathing batteries and other technologies will help, but I suspect we will always want more out of our phone batteries.

    So really I'm not seeing innovation from any of the points (in terms of something that isn't already in development or partially released). Perhaps the next innovation will be no phone at all. Just a processing unit embedded in something like a watch or a small black box that stays in your pocket, and uses a wireless connection of some type to a display (like a window on a tablet, or a fold out screen that looks like your holding a piece of paper, and a Bluetooth headset for the phone calls, or the microphone embedded in a watch and the earbud in your sun glasses, the combinations are limitless on the display/interaction side).

    Personally I'm waiting for the tech in the Office Productivity 2011 and 2013 videos and the Corning Day Made of Glass video to be commercially available instead of just visions or prototypes.
    • Good points

      Thanks for commenting these are really good points. Some of the potential innovations I mention are already in development (and in some products alreay such as NFC) but I don't think anyone is really joining up all the dots. As for your point about the future being 'no phone at all' that's exactly the sort of thing my ZDNet colleague Simon Bisson is talking about with 'ambient' computing
  • Windows Phone

    I am really amazed with Windows Phone. I saw the functionality of Live Tiles, Nokia Camera App is superb which almost have functions of a DSLR camera, and main thing Office 365. I like android for games but I play sometimes. I am more interested in sophisticated MS Office on phone. Office 365 in WP is really cool and can easily add, modify excel, word and powerpoint files. For Games Xbox is very nice on WP. WP as per my view is a mix Business cum Entertainment. Check this video I am planning to buy Lumia 1520,
  • OMG! There's so many, where do I start?

    5. Completely invisible phone so you can make calls and everybody just thinks you're talking to yourself.

    6. Phone with flip-down wheels and pedals so you can transport yourself on a tiny bicycle like the ones the clowns use after making your calls.

    7. Edible phone...need I say more?

    8. How about a phone that does everything except make phone calls?

    The list goes on and on, as you see there is no end to the innovation possible in the mobile phone industry.
    • 8. How about a phone that does everything except make phone calls?

      Haven't Apple already made that?
      • Nope

        People were just holding it wrong.
      • phone that does everything except make phone calls

        Yes its is called the iPad