What Innovation?

Apple reinvents the phone

I was having a discussion with an old friend who declared that there has been no innovation in mobile devices for years now. I immediately took exception to this claim and set my mind to disproving his assertion.

There is no disputing that Apple “reinvented the phone” in 2007 when they launched the original iPhone to an expectant world. I’ll never forget the looks of joy and amazement when I first demonstrated the iPhone’s touch screen interface and clever pinch and zoom gestures.

Let’s not forget how tired and utilitarian other ‘smart’ phones of the time were!

2007 Smartphones

Apple’s early dominance in the smartphone market has been successfully challenged by Google’s Android operating system and the countless slab clones churned out by Far Eastern manufacturers, but do any of them truly innovate?

What have we seen in mobile phone design in the last six years which could be considered innovative? We’ve had different form factors, sizes, colours and storage capacities, but the fundamental iPhone design concept has hardly changed.

Certainly display technology has improved, with more vibrant colours and pixel densities higher than the human eye can distinguish, but that’s evolution not innovation.

Processor power has increased, the latest smartphones boasting quad-core CPUs with dazzling performance, but this is standard Moore’s Law territory.

Camera technology has gradually improved, with manufacturers attempting to out-gun each other in the megapixel arms race. Fundamentally though it’s still a digital camera on a phone.

Mobile apps are the emperor’s new clothes, but this is just a trendy new name for what we used to call ‘computer programs’ or software.

A few new features have appeared like voice recognition, Near Field Communication (NFC) and wireless inductive charging, but these technologies have been around for years and are just being retro-fitted to mobile devices.

The sad truth though is that there hasn’t been any innovation since the original iPhone. Yes there have been gimmicks and incremental improvements, but the iPhone’s simple touch screen design and user interface has remained largely unchanged and unbettered.

Unless Apple regains the ability to surprise and delight with the unveiling of their 7th generation iPhone later on today, I’ll have to concede that my friend is right.

Please don’t leave us in 2007.

Macworld 2007 Teaser

iPhone 5

An industry insider told me that sales of Samsung’s Galaxy S III sky-rocketed the day after Apple’s big reveal of the iPhone 5. Evidently potential customers were holding off their upgrades until they had seen the new product, but what they saw disappointed.

I probably shouldn’t be admitting this, but I have already used the iPhone 5 and I was underwhelmed too. iPhone has become the safe (even boring?) option, something you would confidently give to your Mum and Dad. Apple’s runaway success has become the de facto smartphone, but the commercial imperative not to alienate their mainstream customer base has stifled innovation.

The original popularity of iOS (then iPhone OS) was due to its perfect blend of technology, form and function. Often it wasn’t possible to customise something to your liking, but that was by design and the intention was to keep things deliberately simple.

I look at iOS 6 and wonder where Steve Jobs’ painstaking obsession with simplicity has gone. I never expected CEO Tim Cook to share the same ethos, but since Jobs had apparently described Sir Jonathan Ive as being his “spiritual partner” there was a hope that he would carry forward Jobs’ legacy. It’s likely however that Ive’s control only extends as far as the hardware design, not the operating system, which is the responsibility of Scott Forstall.

Watching the official iPhone 5 promo video, it’s hard not to be impressed by Apple’s manufacturing techniques and the obvious attention that has gone into the hardware design (like crystalline diamond-cut chamfers!), but it doesn’t detract from the hard truth that to the average customer the new iPhone just doesn’t seem all that different.

With each new iPhone Apple usually succeeds in generating enough excitement and desire to persuade existing customers to follow the natural upgrade path, but they also lose some customers to Android – and they rarely return. I don’t know anyone (including myself) who has switched to Android and then gone back to an iPhone. Once you’ve broken away from the closed iPhone ecosystem it feels quite liberating to have the freedom of open services and a wide range of devices.

Conversely with each evolution of the Android platform the gap has been closing and arguably the Android 4.1 ‘Jellybean’ release has leapfrogged iOS by delivering a simple intuitive user interface and powerful features – much like the original iOS.

Samsung are seizing the opportunity to capitalise on the apathy surrounding iPhone 5 with a marketing campaign directly comparing their two flagship products:

Apple fanbois have responded with their own parody advert, but when the best they have to brag about is ‘fits all pockets’ and ‘elastic bounce back’ (the subject of Apple’s recent patent dispute with Samsung), it doesn’t bode well.

It’s certainly not all doom and gloom for Apple. They will of course sell iPhone 5 by the millions, but the shine is starting to fade.

I do have an answer to their predicament. Apple needs another product with which to dazzle and showcase their technical excellence and suppressed innovation.

Dear Tim, how about you add a new model to the iPhone range? Call it the ‘iPhone X’, pack it with enough fancy gizmos and new technology to satisfy the Android crowd and demonstrate what the biggest company in the world can really do.

Adobe retires Flash for mobiles

In early 2010 Apple announced the eagerly anticipated iPad and iPhone 4. They were hugely successful product launches, but at the same time Apple also came under increasing pressure from customers and developers to support Adobe Flash on their shiny new iOS devices.

In reaction to the criticism Steve Jobs delivered a scathing personal attack on Adobe Flash in an Apple article entitled “Thoughts on Flash“.

Jobs began by saying he “wanted to jot down some of our thoughts on Adobe’s Flash products so that customers and critics may better understand why we do not allow Flash on iPhones, iPods and iPads“.

In his critique Jobs went on to detail six main reasons why Apple was so staunchly against Flash, which I have paraphrased below:

  1. Open. Adobe’s Flash products are 100% proprietary. By almost any definition, Flash is a closed system.
  2. Full web. Adobe has repeatedly said that Apple mobile devices cannot access “the full web” because 75% of video on the web is in Flash. What they don’t say is that almost all this video is also available in a more modern format, H.264, and viewable on iPhones, iPods and iPads.
  3. Reliability, security and performance. Symantec recently highlighted Flash for having one of the worst security records in 2009. We also know first hand that Flash is the number one reason Macs crash.
  4. Battery life. H.264 can be decoded in hardware which doubles battery life during video playback.
  5. Touch. Flash was designed for PCs using mice, not for touch screens using fingers.
  6. Cross platform. We know from painful experience that letting a third party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform.

Reading Jobs’ article again really highlights his genius for strategic vision.

New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too). Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.

Steve Jobs
April, 2010

How prophetic that closing paragraph was in light of Adobe’s announcement just 18 months later to cease development of Flash for mobile devices, and focus on HTML5 instead.

The news of this dramatic Adobe turnaround came in an official blog post from Danny Winokur, VP & General Manager, Interactive Development at Adobe.

Flash to Focus on PC Browsing and Mobile Apps; Adobe to More Aggressively Contribute to HTML5

HTML5 is now universally supported on major mobile devices, in some cases exclusively.  This makes HTML5 the best solution for creating and deploying content in the browser across mobile platforms. We are excited about this, and will continue our work with key players in the HTML community, including Google, Apple, Microsoft and RIM, to drive HTML5 innovation they can use to advance their mobile browsers.

Our future work with Flash on mobile devices will be focused on enabling Flash developers to package native apps with Adobe AIR for all the major app stores.  We will no longer continue to develop Flash Player in the browser to work with new mobile device configurations (chipset, browser, OS version, etc.) following the upcoming release of Flash Player 11.1 for Android and BlackBerry PlayBook.

Although Jobs was undoubtedly correct to back the HTML5 open standard, I have to question whether he was merely a soothsayer or the architect of Flash’s demise. Clearly with no Flash support on Apple’s iOS products there was a massive disincentive for developers to continue using Adobe’s technology.

Either way, Jobs got his way. It’s a shame he never got to see it.


Steve Jobs

I am feeling quite emotional about the sad passing of Steve Jobs. I have previously been closely involved in the technical development of iPhone and so perhaps feel a more personal connection that extends beyond being an Apple fanboi.

The closest I came to meeting the great man in person was at the ‘Mum is no longer the word‘ Apple press conference at the Regent Street store in London on 18th September 2007. I’m lurking in the crowd somewhere in the auditorium below!

I’ll never forget the buzz of anticipation from the assembled hacks as Steve Jobs took to the stage to announce the exclusive partnership between Apple and O2 (to sell the original iPhone). This was the worst kept secret in the industry, but the excitement of Jobs coming to town to personally reveal the deal was palpable.

I read the news of Jobs’ death this morning while checking the BBC News app on my touch-screen mobile phone. This is the type of information snacking that most smart phone users do habitually and now take totally for granted.

The way we interact with mobile devices and consume mobile data has changed beyond all recognition since the original Apple iPhone launched in 2007.

Jobs’ obsessive attention to detail in all aspects of Apple’s product development has made complicated technology accessible to all. iPhones, iPods and iPads have become ubiquitous, not just because of their technical capabilities but because they are beautifully simple to use.

Jobs has left a lasting legacy of technological achievements, but his early death is also a reminder of the fragility of life.

The man had an almost limitless supply of cash and arguably the most technologically inventive minds in the world at his disposal, but he could not buy his health.

So long Steve – and thanks.