Has mobile innovation come to an end?

Eerie parallels to the desktop PC's history suggest that smartphones have reached boring sameness -- or completeness of capability -- even faster

In June 2007, the iPhone instantly obsoleted all previous smartphones (the BlackBerry and Palm families), finally approaching the promise that carriers and device makers had been making about the mobile future for a decade: Real Web access. A touch UI -- that rotates. Accelerometer and location detection. E-mail and instant messaging. Photos and music. A year later came the App Store and the tens of thousands of apps -- from games to time-wasters to serious business tools -- that also made the iPhone into a computing device.

Since then, there's been an ever-increasing number of competitors, but nothing fundamentally game-changing. Apple continues to refine the iPhone and iPod Touch, adding capabilities such as a compass, Exchange e-mail support, and video capture -- but the last round of devices didn't pioneer anything significant. Both Palm and Google delivered their own iPhone-inspired OSes (WebOS and Android, respectively), but did nothing significant beyond adding (very welcome) support for multiple simultaneous apps to what the iPhone had already brought to the table.

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But there's been not much else.

RIM's BlackBerry OS has graduated from being DOS-like to Windows 2.0-like, while the iPhone, Android, and WebOS are in Windows 95-equivalent territory. Microsoft's Windows Mobile has been moribund, with no significant innovations in years and stuck in the mobile equivalent of Windows 3.0 territory. Nokia's Symbian OS has been even more static in a Windows 2.0-like world like the BlackBerry, and now the company says it will phase out Symbian in favor of a Linux-derived OS called Maemo -- but only over the next several years. It's an aging tortoise choosing to race in the mud.

Is there no more innovation to be had in mobile? Has mobile matched the PC in becoming a stable platform where innovation happens slowly and mainly around the edges? After all, what does a PC in 2009 do that a PC in 2000 couldn't do -- even if not as fast -- beyond using different ports?

Refinements: lots more would be welcome
Sure, there's plenty more to be done in terms of refinements. Faster processors, better battery life, and better 3G networks -- especially from AT&T -- are all needed, but these always need improvement. Enterprise-class security should be standard in all of these platforms, as should over-the-air management using standard management tools. (Making these capabilities standard would also enable mobile banking, not just satisfy security-conscious IT people.) Many could use sharper, larger screens, as well as better physical or virtual keyboards.

All should support more wireless capabilities, such as use with Bluetooth keyboards and file syncing and support for wireless-enabled projectors and printers. Voice commands should be integrated across the device's OS and the carrier's phone capabilities; right now, the voice control for dialing can't deal with the smartphone's other apps, making it very hard to use these devices hands-free while driving.

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