Is Phone Innovation Dead?

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Considering the mobile phone was the quickest item to ever gain worldwide domination, the moment when momentum slowed down was sure to arrive. In the last few years, fewer and less innovations have been seen in this device and the emphasis has been on refinement. The problem is that innovators have maxed out on the number of innovations that they can provide but there is also a more subtle problem in play here.

Intellectual property rights has always been a contentious issue. Over 100 years ago Thomas Edison hired thugs to beat up filmmakers who were infringing on his intellectual property rights on the east coast of the U.S.A. They soon relocated to the west coast and so Hollywood was born. This pattern of action and reaction continues to this day.

If people have an incentive to innovate, then they will innovate. If they have an incentive to litigate, then they will litigate. It really comes down to where the best return on investment is to be found. Hence there is a huge amount of litigation being taken to enforce patents, with up to 250,000 active patents in operation in a single smartphone. The threat of mutually assured by the threat of big companies for a long time kept the peace. But those days are over. An endless race to the bottom with Microsoft suing Motorola Mobility sing it’s video coding patents was met with Motorola suing Microsoft. What followed next was a complex pattern of litigation that resembled an old spaghetti western shootout. with no winners and plenty of losers.

A Nexus 4 is now 7 years old for example and cost $299 at the time of its release but it has all the apps and features that one would expect from a phone of more recent vintage. The  major difference is that it doesn’t have a fingerprint reader and the price, with some phones selling for more than $799 these days. The upshot is that a tremendous amount of time and money is spent on doing something which is ultimately fruitless whereas a company that concentrates on innovation will take the lead. This seems to be a pretty disappointing result.

Perhaps it’s just a fact that there are only so many innovations to think of within the bounds of a single platform. I read a technology website called and most of the innovations are incremental improvements to do with vehicles, biotech and computers. The car that you drive is merely a refinement of what was on the road 100 years ago. So it is with mobile phone technology. The task now is to improve reliability and charging time.

Mods were supposed to be the great new innovation a couple of years ago with the ability to keep on upgrading cameras, batteries or other devices. This was an innovation started by Google and it never really caught fire with the customer. Wearable technology on the other hand seems to be a trend that is growing despite the patent wars because the phone itself seems to have reached its limit. The Apple Watch is a great example of this because it combines the ease and comfort of a watch with most of the features of a regular mobile phone. It even comes with a software framework called ResearchKit with apps that can detect the early signs of diseases and monitor your general health signs as well.

So it is a combination of both the patent wars and innovation that will lead to the surprisingly early demise of the smartphone within the next decade. At this stage developers have run out of ideas and customers are losing patience with the clunky black rectangle that is forever being dropped, lost or just being plain awkward. The future will still hold many surprises, but it could’ve been done so much sooner and with far more efficient if the patent wars hadn’t taken place between the major developers.

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Nick Hanlon

I'm an Aussie interested in topical issues.

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