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Mobile Innovation Is Stalled: Why That's a Good Thing

The decelerated state of mobile innovation is what we really want--and, in fact, need--today.

The latest iPhones didn't wow. 5G is still a few years out. The new Samsung Galaxy Fold device is cool, but, at $1,980, it's an unafforable luxury for most--especially when a $700 mid-market device will get the vast majority of mobile jobs done just fine. So, where is the true mobile innovation? The truth is, innovative new wireless and mobile products are extremely rare today. In fact, we've lived for some time in an era of incrementalism, wherein generation-to-generation basic functionality remains the same, with the typical faster/better/cheaper (price/performance) of new products and services substituting for any really big news within any given announcement.

Let’s face it, the mobile device and the wireless network it runs on are far less interesting today than the apps enabled and supported by them, especially from an IT perspective. Users in many cases keep their mobile devices much longer than they have in the past (another factor in Apple’s sinking equity price), often for several years, because the hardware increments simply do not justify a major new expenditure. Most new functionality is provisioned via enhancements in operating systems and upgraded apps that run well on older-model hardware.

5G and 802.11ax each has interesting new features, but, right now, the majority are truly valuable only to the vendors and carriers that manufacture products and operate networks.

But, believe it or not, this decelerated state of affairs is what we really want--and, in fact, need--today. Let me explain:

  • First, we need mobility products, services and solutions that just work and that are defined by a stable base and incremental enhancements. Think MacOS, which hasn’t changed much from a user perspective in a decade or more. Change means having to learn to do the same thing but differently (think Microsoft Windows during the past decade), and introduces the possibility of operational errors, security failures, reduced integrity, higher costs and lost productivity. If we’re getting the job done with what we have today, great. If innovative increments have quantifiable benefits, great. But true paradigm shifts better be able to justify themselves broadly, quickly and transparently, or they’ll remain yawns.
  • While I’d be hesitant to say that we’re running up against fundamental, physical technological limitations in radio and network technology, many new and even innovative advances will be embodied in protocols, device drivers, operating system enhancements and related software elements that are essentially invisible to end users. This is good--we can get more out of what we have without major new investments and expenditures.
  • And it really is all about the apps (and applications). They represent solutions--devices and networks are just vehicles to get to the apps. The shift to the cloud that is now underway represents the best use of mobility dollars, moving the residence of IT capabilities to the other side of the link and enabling a broad range of mobile devices to enhance user productivity without additional hardware expense. Look for Apple, which many have described as being essentially a one-product-line company thanks to the glorious but fading success of the iPhone, to shift into software and services as primary revenue drivers. Case in point: The company's March 25 event focused on its new streaming service. Who’s going to care about new iPhone unit sales when cloud services running on many generations of Apple (and other) hardware are generating vast gobs of high-margin revenue?

I’m thus arguing here that a slowing innovation rate in the more traditional elements of mobility is in fact a good opportunity for IT and network managers to take a breather and get the most out of what they already have, while taking a measured look at what solutions currently and will eventually best serve the organization going forward. True paradigm shifts--changes in the way we work--will become fairly rare going forward, and, again, must clearly demonstrate their value to enable meaningful adoption. Change for change’s sake alone is expensive and unnecessary.


 

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