Friday, March 13, 2015

Smartphone innovation is all in how you look at it

(This article originally appeared in The Daily Northwestern on March 13, 2015) 

In Yoni Pinto’s recent column on smartphone innovation, he suggested that the smartphone industry may be fresh out of ideas.  My perspective is different, although no more right nor wrong than Yoni’s.  When I moved into Shepard Residential College in the fall of 1986, I would’ve never imagined that one day I’d carry in my pocket a device with a hundred-fold—or maybe a million-fold—the computing power in the entire Vogelback Computing Center. Vogelback? Google it.

I started carrying a mobile phone in 1991—a Mitsubishi bag phone, so called because it came with a canvas case and a shoulder strap so you could wear it like, well, a bag.  Since the transmitter and handset were separate, bag phones could pump out and receive a much stronger signal than today’s smartphones — up to three watts of effective radiated power (ERP), versus today’s maximum of six-tenths of a watt. You don’t have to dwell in the sub-basement of Tech to deduce that five times the oomph might translate into a better calling experience.

By the late 1990s, I’d upgraded to the first true clamshell phone, the Motorola StarTAC, progenitor of the RAZR. The coolness factor of drawing the $1,000 StarTAC out of your waist holster can only be matched in today’s terms by, well, whipping out the new iPhone on launch day.

By the time the world didn't end due to the Y2K bug, the BlackBerry had become the de facto standard for mobile messaging, with much of its success attributed to incorporation of a well-designed physical keyboard. However, the 1999 launch of the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (which enabled seamless integration with Microsoft Exchange enterprise e-mail servers) was the catalyst compelling so many important (and self-important) professionals to strap BlackBerrys to their waists. Four years later, the BlackBerry 6210 hit the scene, adding a phone to the world’s leading mobile messaging platform.  In the right place and at the right time, the 6210 integrated phone, e-mail, SMS, calendar and contact management capabilities into a single device — and sold like wildfire.

Since the launch of the 6210, I’ve owned 14 (I think) smartphones and four tablets, each of which has been remarkable in its own way, and come up short in its own way. A few years ago, I finally made peace with the fact that I’d never find the perfect device, but that a rooted, high-end, heavily customized Android could at least provide some contentment.

I’m 46, so I’m guessing I’m at least a quarter-century older than Pinto; my fingers are likely pudgier, my eyes likely worse, and my idea of a perfect smartphone different. While I’m quite confident disagreeing with Pinto's belief that “it seems we have reached the limit of innovation in the smartphone market,” I’ll also strongly support the statement that “I’m sure there are still things to change and ways to reinvent how we look at mobile phones, just like Apple did in 2007.”

But, despite our age gap and our differing perspectives, we can agree on at least one thing: We’re both totally jaded by today’s smartphone options. In my view, you’re totally ignoring breakthroughs like the inclusion of multi-band LTE capabilities that don’t crush battery life, or the incredible velocity of feature iteration in ubiquitously connected devices. But you may not care about those, just like I don’t much care about innovations you cited like prettier lock screens and better notification interactions.

In the end, everything’s a trade-off, and everything’s uniquely personal. Just as an NU student’s head is filled to overflowing while studying for finals, maybe the top of the smartphone market just doesn’t have room for anything else truly revolutionary at this particular moment; evolutionary may have to cut it for awhile.

But hey, we’re jaded, right? Microsoft recently introduced the Nokia 215, a $29 no-contract smartphone intended for developing markets. That’s a large stuffed pizza (delivered), so how could anyone think of a ridiculously cheap smartphone as innovative? Well, if you’d never owned a smartphone due to the price, the 215 is a whole lot more palatable than previous options, particularly in markets where $29 is a week’s wages. Consider that in these markets, many people my age have never been on the Internet, or taken a photo, or even been in a photo, so the 215’s incorporation of a camera and Internet connectivity opens up a world of possibility.

Perhaps most importantly, the 215’s battery lasts up to 29 days on standby. In a market where access to electricity may be infrequent at best, or even non-existent, that's tangible smartphone innovation.

Particularly when I kvetch about running low on battery by dinnertime.