What's wrong with smartphones today? They're boring

Carriers are hurting, while Apple and Samsung get grief on Wall Street. The root of the problem: Slowing smartphone innovation

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Fast-forward a few years: Now I use an iPhone 4S. I like it a lot -- it's certainly an improvement over my old iPhone, but has it changed much about how I use technology? Not really. When the iPhone 5 came out, I might have upgraded, but it wouldn't have been worth another $200 or $300 because it's simply not that different from the 4S.

This isn't just about Apple. Samsung's Galaxy line of phones really stood out as an alternative to the iPhone a year ago. They did some things the iPhone couldn't do, and they did them rather well. Moving to the Galaxy S III from earlier models was compelling. But upgrading to the Galaxy S 4? Not so much. In fact, Samsung tried so hard to make the S 4 different that it actually made the Galaxy S 4 worse, as my colleague Galen Gruman wrote a while back.

What's true of Samsung and Apple is doubly true for Microsoft and BlackBerry. The new Windows Phone doesn't offer anything individuals or business buyers really want. As to BlackBerry, sales of its new BlackBerry 10 smartphones are disappointing, to say the least.

The wireless carriers can fiddle all they want with user plans, but unless the technology vendors come up with compelling new products, their financials will continue to suffer. AT&T's most recent quarter illustrates that point. Ma Bell's revenue fell from last year's $31.82 billion to $31.36 billion for the same quarter this year. Even worse, the company lost nearly 70,000 subscribers. Today, Verizon will report its earnings. From analyst reports, I think the quarter will be decent, but then there's this: It looks like Verizon, which has a deal with Apple, is falling far short of its commitments to buy iPhones over a number of years by as much as $12 billion to $14 billion, according to some accounts.

Forklifts and pumps: More innovative than the Galaxy S 4
It's a long way from smartphones to wearable computers for industry. But the technologies that SAP and Epson are close to (separately) pushing out the door remind me how exciting technology can be when it is applied to real business needs. Both companies are working with various partners to bring wearable technology to industry.

In SAP's case, a forklift driver, for example, could see a heads-up display that tells him or her what item to pick up, where it goes, and what's left in inventory. Epson has a wearable app that could allow a mechanic working on a pump to see a schematic that shows how to repair the equipment while he or she is working on it, then records the mechanic's actions and beams that information back to a supervisor for review.

OK, forklifts and pumps aren't sexy or very much fun. But they have the potential to change how important work gets done.

Likewise, IBM's development of flexible semiconductors that could be implemented as monitors in the body could have enormous medical benefits, and a Plantronics headset that can pull data out of a Salesforce.com application makes real sense in a sales environment.

I'm not bemoaning the lack of innovation in the technology industry as a whole -- there's plenty. But we're not seeing much of that in the realm of the smartphone. Beating on Apple CEO Tim Cook, a popular pastime in the blogosphere, won't solve that reality. Technology doesn't advance on a steadily rising curve. Sometimes it plateaus for a while, and vendors and carriers will simply have to deal with.  

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here (Add a comment) so that all our readers can share them, or reach me at bill@billsnyder.biz. Follow me on Twitter at BSnyderSF.

This article, "What's wrong with smartphones today? They're boring," was originally published by InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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