A curious thing happened after last week's big reveal of the highly anticipated Samsung Galaxy S 4, the successor to the wildly popular S III, which was the first smartphone to seriously contend against the Apple iPhone. While the hype around Samsung as the new innovation leader went over the top, the disappointment around the S 4 hit immediately. That conflict shows that something is really off in the tech industry and among the tech punditry. I'd go so far as to say the industry and punditry at large have crossed into a parallel universe of stupidity.
Most of what analysts, journalists, and pundits have written on blogs and circulated ad nauseam on Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn goes along these lines: "[Apple is] not currently carrying the torch for innovation in the enterprise smartphone market -- Samsung has grabbed the crown with its recent Galaxy S 4 announcement." That's from a blog post by Aberdeen Research mobile analyst Andrew Borg, one of the smarter industry analysts.
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Sure, I expected BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins to declare the iPhone to be dated because it uses a six-year-old operating system. He's trying to resurrect the BlackBerry, whose UI had not changed in more than a decade and was trounced by the iPhone until the company finally got a clue last year. The new BlackBerry Z10, while a good device, itself uses a UI based on the fundamental construct that Apple's iPhone introduced and is largely a clone of 2009's WebOS.
Heins can't claim to be an innovator; he makes that dubious statement because he's engaged in marketing, and no one expects advertisements to be fair analysis. But Borg and the rest aren't selling their companies' products, so their "Samsung is the new innovator" claims are harder to understand.
Just what is innovation, exactly?
The picture is much more complicated than the blog posts suggest. If you define innovation as changing the game, Apple is responsible for nearly all the innovations we see in mobile today. Google deserves credit for the unified notifications tray and Samsung for the reinvention of pen computing. The rest -- gestures, apps, app stores, phones as computers, phones as media devices, contextual operation, and the notion of a unified ecosystem across device types -- are Apple's.
As Trip Chowdhry notes, they set the assumptions for every mobile device out there, whether running Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry, Ubuntu, or another OS. Each platform may bring its own inventions and distinctions to the table, but they're playing in the world Apple defined. Samsung has done nothing like that -- it just copied and sometimes refined or extended Apple's innovation, he says: "There have always been 'innovators' who drink their own Kool-Aid. Samsung has done nothing significant to the user experience." (Chowdhry, Global Equities Research's research director for equities, is a controversial financial analyst who nonetheless has the best track record in that community for Apple analysis.)
The problem is, the last fundamental innovations in mobile -- that is, on the scale of the iPhone, Siri, and the iPad -- came several years ago. I'd argue that the iPhone 4 was the last truly innovative iPhone. The iPhone 4S's Siri voice assistant service was a true innovation, and of course the iPad was a game-changer, reinventing personal computing as we know it, as the declining PC market now shows in spades. Everything else is engineering refinement and leveraging of those innovations.