Even on cruise control, mobile still blew past the PC

The irony is that as smartphones and tablets slowed to PC-like innovation they overtook PCs in sales

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The real drama happened in the BlackBerry and Windows worlds, the mobile backwaters, but these dramas have been tragedies rather than triumphs.

After ignoring the shift in mobile usage for several years, BlackBerry finally released its modern smartphones, the Z10 and Q10, powered by BlackBerry OS 10. The devices are decent, but in no way are they iPhone or Android killers. Sadly, even diehard users of previous BlackBerrys didn't upgrade to the new models, which shocked me given how they are better smartphones and retain the characteristics that make a BlackBerry a BlackBerry. At this point, BlackBerry is struggling to survive and now seems to be placing its hopes on its mobile management server, BES10.

Following years of languishing, Windows Phone saw a meaningful increase in sales, especially in Europe. But its user base tends toward those who treat smartphones like older cellphones: former BlackBerry and Nokia users who find Android and iOS too complex. That's not a great foundation, though it's better than nothing.

Windows tablets flamed out, repeatedly. Microsoft lost nearly $1 billion on its Surface tablets, then came out with a thinner version of one of those failed models. Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer, and even Nokia gamely released Windows 8 tablets, which range from awful to adequate. The problem, of course, is that tablets don't run traditional Windows Desktop apps well, and there are few compelling Metro apps in Windows 8. Windows 8.1 fixed a few obvious issues, but not the core problems. As the year ended, Microsoft began leaking news that it was going to rethink the failed Windows 8 approach. Let's hope it actually does so before everyone has bought their iPad Air.

The one area that could have been exciting was the open source world, namely Mozilla's Firefox OS and Canonical's Ubuntu Touch OS. But open source's committee approach meant that progress has been slow and accessibility limited to those able to root their phones from a Linux environment. And at the end of the day all you get is a basic OS that rivals the first iPhone and Android devices. Double yawn. The first Firefox smartphone is horrible to use, and Ubuntu Touch phones are still coming, though the beta is intriguing. Wake me up when they're really here.

As someone well into middle age, I appreciate that my life is not full of drama. Dependability, stability, and consistency are good things. And I appreciate quality more than ever. I shouldn't feel bad that tablets and smartphones seem to be hitting middle age, gaining those same qualities, at least in the Android and iOS worlds. But I miss some of the excitement of those early years, at least in theory. That's why I miss the big shifts in mobile technology we saw in previous years, even if I understand we also saw a lot of half-baked offerings and failed experiments.

But despite my perioidic yearning for a shakeup, here's to another year of incremental improvements, thoughtful engineering, and quality design in smartphones and tablets -- just as if they were PCs.

This article, "Even on cruise control, mobile still blew past the PC," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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