The new iPhone launch shows an industry struggling to differentiate

The new iPhone launch shows an industry struggling to differentiate

September has become the annual date for announcements from Apple, particularly around new iPhone launches.  Regular as clockwork my Twitter timeline filled up in early September with people excitedly waiting for the latest ‘innovation’ from the company.


Nothing to see here

Except there was not anything innovative.  As reported by Stuff (below) and multiple other news sites, the Apple launch was a little bit ‘meh’.

In an article for the BBC website, North America Technology Correspondent James Clayton comments: “Apple has a reputation for innovation. But if this launch was anything to go by, that reputation is outdated.  Nothing especially new or visionary was announced here. The updates to its iPhone, Apple Watch and iPad feel conservative, uninspired, safe.”  Regardless of whether you believe Apple has a reputation for innovation (I would argue not – preferring to see Apple as a specialist in usability), this is not the position the brand wants to be familiar with.

Apple is not alone here.  Other launches from competitors have been treated in a similar way.  So why is the smartphone industry struggling to innovate?  I think there are likely three reasons.


Argument one: the industry is growing up

It is almost impossible now to remember life before smartphones, never mind life before mobile phones.  I got my first (a People’s Phone P800) in around 1995.  And I was an early adopter.  In 25 years, we have gone from a position where nobody had a mobile to everyone having a smartphone.  Of course, as margins narrow and investment reduces, less innovation takes place.  Most people now have a device that does almost everything they need it to.  So why would new smartphones feature lots of innovation?


Argument two: the industry is struggling to find something new and meaningfully different

Smartphones have come a long way.  Perhaps we are reaching the limits of what we can achieve in a mini-computer that fits into the palm of a hand.  Touch screen technology took the industry forward a decade overnight but improvements now in cameras, processors, battery life and other key features are marginal.  Each new smartphone might be a little bit better but that is not enough to make the difference that the BBC considers “innovative”.


Argument three: the industry is rubbish at showing people why the product is different

The mobile industry has traditionally been terrible at articulating the difference between different brands, preferring instead to focus on things like product specifications.  We have come to believe that 48 megapixels is obviously better than 32 megapixels – because that is what the industry has told us.  What has been more difficult is to understand is the difference between each smartphone brand, particularly when every manufacturer is trying to compete across the entire market.  Unlike other industries there is not a natural market leader in the ‘budget smartphone’ market or the ‘high end’ market.

This must change to sustain the industry’s huge growth and I can see one of two things coming.  The first will be more niche brands aiming to steal market share from the traditional brands in a similar way that traditional airlines were marginalised by the luxury and budget brands in the 2000s.  The second might be a game changing new combination of technologies that rewrites the industry – much as Apple did with the iPhone in 2007.

I once worked for a smart guy that said, “it’s our job to make our products redundant – otherwise someone else will”.  The challenge for smartphone manufacturers is to break the mould that has been feeding them for a decade.

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