Friday, 21 November 2014

Innovation for the sake of Innovation

The digital era is amazing. We can contact one another from anywhere, at any time. We can make high quality film from our smartphones. And we can even interact with computers via our voices. This unbelievable advancement has happened in a relatively short space of time too. From 2007 to around about this year are debatably the golden years of technological innovation for commercial use. However, in an industry with an estimated yearly value of approximately £60bn in the UK alone, it’s hard to pretend that it’s not about the money. Intuitive innovations and sales figures go hand in hand. So why is Apple guilty for forcing U2’s ‘Songs of Innocence’ upon all of their customers in iOS8 and why do some Android devices come preloaded with third party apps such as ‘Trip Adviser’? Are technology companies running out of revolutions?

The graph below shows the amount of innovation since 2010 on iOS and Android. I’ve split the types of innovation into three categories… ‘New Native Apps’ - which are exactly like what it says on the tin; new apps developed by the company. ‘Main features’ covers completely new features or settings which are unique, new or significant. And ‘Secondary features’ are updates to native apps and smaller updates to settings (for accuracy, they only count as half an innovation).

Source: and Wikipedia – because Apple doesn't keep OS version history on their website.

(Inaccuracies in the graph have occurred as new apps have been hard to date as Google services operate all year round – updating their own apps and adding new ones any time during the year whereas native iOS apps are updated once a year when the latest version of iOS is released. This makes the Google innovations hard to track. Also, to a degree, the ‘Main features’ and ‘secondary features’ is down to personal opinion. Individuals may gauge one change in settings as a major improvement however some might not even notice it at all, so the graph attempts to show a general consensus of how consumers view new features.)

Innovation on a steady decline.
Although it’s not a steep decline in innovation as a whole, main features and new apps have definitely become less common. It seems companies have opted to improve upon the apps and settings they already have rather than coming up with something new completely. Why do they keep improving things that are pretty close to perfect already? For the sake of it – and fundamentally, to make more money.

So where have the big ideas gone? It’s not like the companies don’t have the money.

Android has been worse than Apple, Android stopped major innovation in 2012. Since then they've made the materialistic decision to focus on making Android more widely available and earlier this year they redrew Android but with material design all the way through.

Since 2011, a number of intelligent personal assistants with voice-recognition have appeared on the scene. If you’ve bought a smartphone this year you won’t have been able to escape Siri’s soft sound, Cortana’s concise call or Google Now’s unnamed woman. Apart from a few exceptions, I cannot see the point of intelligent personal assistants apart from to fulfill our wildest dreams of being able to have conversations with robots and computers like what we see in the movies.

Also, in the past year, Apple, Google, Samsung, and Microsoft have all invested in launching some form of health tracker. There are literally thousands of health and fitness tracking apps available so all four of these tech companies have launched a service that third party applications can plug into. These have the potential to give users extremely precise analytics about their personal health.

One year ago, these services were unheard of yet all of a sudden – as is the case regularly in technological innovations – it seems all the major technology companies have jumped on the bandwagon. This is either because everyone has recently had the epiphany that health is important causing this huge trend, or, the more likely reason, these large technology companies have ran out of inspiration and are clutching at straws. There is practical use for one central health app that other apps feed data to however smartphones have existed without them for seven years so are they really needed now? This might be another case of innovation for the sake of innovation.

Don’t even get me started on smartwatches.

This shortage of big ideas - like what were seen only a few years ago such as iOS 5’s ‘Newsstand’ app, ‘People Hub’ in Windows Phone, and ‘Google Now’ in Android Jellybean - might not even be a crisis, it simply means than this industry has worked efficiently to launch essential services and features. I suspect a slight loss of direction has occurred now because all the single-purpose objects such as alarm clocks, catalogs and photo editing software have all migrated onto smartphones, computers and tablets. Possibly, there are no practical innovations left to do.

From a hardware perspective, we have reached the climax of innovation too. Smartphone cameras are on par with expensive point-and-shoot cameras, mobile internet connection is speedy (some of the time anyway), and there are tons of sensors to monitor our every movement. Admittedly, battery life on most mobile devices could ideally be improved… and they would be if people weren't obsessed with having ridiculously thin smartphones. I would rather have a slightly thicker smartphone in my pocket if it meant getting another day’s worth of battery life. The innovations have been made already, they just need to be executed properly.

No matter what, innovation must continue, even if it is for a perpetuating reason - and for the sake of innovation. Consumer innovation is not so important, but in fields of medical science and astronomy, there is a lot of innovations to be made; endless possibilities.

Innovation in consumer products is slowing down and there is a rise in unnecessary features and OS redesigns (iOS 7 and Android Lollipop). Despite this, it is worth bearing in mind that nobody knew that they wanted a smartphone until they magically appeared in 2007, same story with tablets and, well, the whole internet. So maybe, whilst intelligent personal assistants and health tracking apps might seem like small innovations now, they might be paramount features in a decade from now in iOS 18 and Android V (possibly Viennetta?). I’m keen to observe what the technology industry will throw at us next.