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Smartphone innovation is slowing, so what's next?

Matt Hamblen | March 25, 2014
Improvements are less significant, leading makers to explore wearables and connected 'things.'

In the last year or so, there has been a noticeable slowdown in innovations in new smartphones -- with both hardware and software.

In a five-year smartphone forecast through 2018 released last week, analyst firm IDC noted: "It has been widely acknowledged that the pace of innovation on smartphones has slowed down, even reached a plateau. Indeed, many of the new innovations launched in 2013 appeared to be incremental improvements on a theme, and it was questionable whether many of them would have lasting value."

With smartphone innovation flattening, the next direction seems to be making the smartphone the hub -- connected via Bluetooth, primarily -- to emerging technologies. These technologies including the whole range of smartwatches, wearable devices and the much larger ecosystem of home appliances, cars and other devices that would be connected in an Internet of Things scenario.

While this slowdown in innovation has been widely perceived, marketers for smartphone vendors still trumpet the latest improvements with large-scale events announcing new devices that overstate the new features. Samsung, for example, provided a live orchestra and elaborate staging at the launch of its Galaxy S5 smartphone. The event was attended by thousands at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona in late February. That phone will ship April 11.

Tuesday's launch of the expected HTC One M8 has been preceded by online videos and plenty of hype that describe a phone with a 5-in., full HD screen that's larger than last year's HTC One release, has two rear camera sensors for taking better photos, a Snapdragon 801 processor and 3GB of RAM for greater speed.

The day before its release, some analysts questioned whether those improvements are enough to have much of a market impact, even if HTC is able to put the new smartphone on sale this week in advance of the Galaxy S5's sales.

Many analysts are now asking, in a version similar to an old Wendy's hamburger ad, "Where's the beef?"

IDC called for making the smartphone the "center of innovation to other devices and not necessarily [maintaining] the smartphone as the end itself." In that world, smartphones act as remote controls to appliances, products and services including security systems. "This is only the beginning of how innovation can and will evolve further," the IDC report concluded.

Ramon Llamas, one of the IDC report's authors, said in an interview Monday that slowing innovation is affecting every smartphone OS. "The iPhone 5S had a 64-bit processor and a re-skinning with iOS 7, which sets a tone. Everybody likes a new engine. But are those new features on par with Apple's earlier Facetime or Siri? I would say no."


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