Did the mobile industry reached an innovation plateau ?

I was watching the live annoucement of Nokia 920 and 820, and what I just thought about this phone is: “again” ? The truth is that I got bored of these rectangular unicolored touchscreen phones. I was waiting for more. And I remembered that in 2012, this happened to me already twice, when Samsung announced their GSIII, and Apple their new iPad.

The raise of the touchscreen technology

When Apple unveiled the first iPhone, it changed the mobile world, that were dominated by Nokia and Motorola. Apple introduced new ways of interacting with devices, intuitive gestures and so on. It was in 2007.

Now, 5 years after, the mobile market is full of touchscreen devices, and iOS and Android are the two main mobile OS, delivering very nice and sleek user experience. Nearly all mobile devices have a large touchscreen, that is nearly always capacitive. They have between one and three buttons on the bottom of the device, that are used for going back or closing application, as well as other buttons around.

Apple and Google replaced Nokia and Moto. Touchscreen devices replaced T9 keypad devices. It took quite a lot of time for Nokia for being the master of the keypad. A lot of iterations were needed, starting from the 3310 to the N95, but in only 5 years, the mobile landscape radically changed.

Evolution of Nokia phones

Although the first iPhone (without apps) were mostly a big toy, I were more surprised of how Android evolved. From version 1.0 to 2.0, there were a lot of improvements and innovation. I was also impressed by the features that iPhone 3G shipped, and more by those of the HTC Desire.

Some of these features and innovations are (no order in that list)

  • Android widgets, the best implementation I have ever seen
  • HTC sense, one of the prettiest homesreen
  • Games like doodle jump, that are using sensors in a nice way
  • Swype keyboard, one of the most innovative one
  • N900 multitasking, something that no other Nokia / phone could have done
  • Apple’s copy and paste, a very neat implementation of copy and pasting that is adapted to touchscreen phones

In just 5 years, the mobile phone became one of the most versatile device, capable of doing anything, from music playing to photography, and internet browsing.

Now what ?

Mobile devices are now so advanced that they have nearly all features that any electronic device can have. They easily replace a camera, a music player, a computer, a GPS and so on. Due to their limited size and processing power (they don’t have Core i7), I think that they cannot replace anything else from now. But people are still waiting for the next breakthrought.
Indeed, thanks to Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung and all these companies that are fighting to get marketshare in this highly competitive space, there were a lot of innovation that were unleased during these last five years, but now, it clearly reached a plateau.

Recent mobile phones now just have better spec, better screen or better battery. They might get some new but light features like a better multitasker, or a better reserch bar, but nothing groundbreaking. Compare a Galaxy SII and a Galaxy SIII, what changed is mostly the design, the processor and the size of the screen.

Nokia tried to bring awesome new features, like Pureview, and Puremotion, but they are missing the point. Although these features are nice, they can still be considered as “light”. The OS, the UI and how the phone is used did not changed. All phones look the same. Rows of icons that are scrolled, cards or icons for multitask, buttons to go back. There is no innovation.

As I have said before, it is normal because the UI that Apple designed (or copied) and that Android and all other OS also have is already very well optimized. Kinetic scrolling, large clickable buttons, the design of pages, all these components are the best way to interact with a touchscreen device, and you cannot do better.

And still, users are waiting for the next big thing, the next Apple that will reveal a device that will transform all these touchscreen devices into old T9 devices, something groundbreaking in the UI. Why the UI, it is actually what the user sees first, and the first impression with a device is with the UI. People don’t see the HW when playing with a device, and that’s what Nokia missed. A lot of people won’t care about a 41 MPX camera, they just want a nice UI, something intuitive to use. That’s why, when Nokia announced the N920, Nokia stock didn’t raise but fall. Investors were waiting for something fresh, instead, they got a plain windows phone.

I’m nearly sure that people will be dissapointed with the next iPhone, as they were with the “new iPad”. What new feature did the new iPad bring ? Well, close to nothing. It is heavier, and have a lower battery life for what ? This “retina” display ? Oh well, the iPad 1 already had a nice display, the iPad 2 too ! Once again, it is hardware, people don’t care.

The 4S compared to the 5. The boring rows of icons again …
(from Mac rumors)

iPhone 5 will sell well, obviously, because Apple is known as doing their marketing job well, but the new device will not be that innovative. A bigger, thinner, and more powerful iPhone 4S, basically what the Galaxy SIII is, compared to the Galaxy SII.

What will be the next big thing ?

The only breath of fresh air for 2012 was Nokia N9 swipe UI. For the first time, a company decided to remove the “home” key, replacing it with a natural gesture. This simple replacement is something innovative, as it changed people’s behaviour. While using an Android or Windows phone, the habits are the same: navigating inside the apps, and pressing back, back, back, or home. The iPhone have a similar concept, except that the back button is on the upper-left part of the screen.

Using swipe, in the other hand, seems to be quite strange at the beginning, but quickly, you get this habit of quick multitasking gesture. Most mobile OS are app centric, and can run one app very well, while other apps have limited capabilities. iPhone froze background apps, whereas Windows Phone 7 simply stop them. The N9 were designed with multitask in mind, and the swipe gesture is perfect for that, it is used to quickly go back to the multitask grid, so switching app is done in an efficient way.

After using an N9, other phones seems to be more sluggish, just because the user have to take time to switch apps, or only use one. Swiping instead of pressing home also happened a lot.

So, is swipe the next big thing ? Sadly not. Although interesting, swipe do not bring enough innovation to change the market forever. It is a nice addition, and profiting from multitasking abilities can be something important for the future, as mobile processors became more and more powerful and can more and more tasks simultaneously.

No, users are waiting for a new paradigm, something different. For example, people might want to get rid of apps, and rows of icons. But if that new paradigm is to come, it have to be more intuitive than the current paradigm, and that is really hard, as user experience seems to be already normalized on mobile devices.

What I think is that although people are waiting for innovation, there won’t be much in the near future. Maybe, one day, embedded computers, like google glass will come to the market. Maybe neuronal interface will replace touch and voice interface, but all these things are still sci-fi, and people will still get frustrated of seeing these rows of icons for some years.

(Disclaimer: I love my N950, but I’m not a fanboy. I have played with nearly all OS / smartphones and am just trying to unerstand mobile market. These ideas are my own, but based on people I know, reactions on my twitter feed or in tech blogs.)


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