The Smart Phone
Let’s be clear: The shift from the rotary dial phone to the first generation of cell phones was clearly innovative. There were majors changes to the form, the fit and the function. There was a clear forward impact, arguably the most important characteristic of innovation. While innovation (in products) is about the product, I am arguing that the forward impact or the impacts on the societal and technological matrix in which the innovation happens is equally or more important. Innovation is always measured against a known matrix of societal and technological factors. Innovation is recognized as a change from this matrix with a forward impact. Changes to the matrix, even significant changes, are not innovative unless they project forward into the future paving the way for a a different matrix.
What about the move from the earlier iterations of the cellular phone to the “smart” phone? Is this shift innovative? The smart phone is just about everywhere you find a cellular phone user. Cultural and technological holdouts, with their flip and candy bar phones, bask in their claims that they are fine with a phone that makes and receives phone calls. After all, it is a phone and only a phone. Perhaps this is true but for many a cell phone (or a tablet) is the hub around which their world revolves.
What makes a phone smart? There is no innate or intrinsic smartness in a smart phone. The smarts, as in computers, lies in the operating system and the multitude of functionality or feature add-ons. The smartness is not in the phone (as a piece of hardware) but in the functions (or features available) that a smart phone can perform. It takes a user with a specific need (or needs) that can be met by a smart phone for smartness. A smart phone lying in the street and not being put to use is not very smart.
Smart phones have a different form and fit from their predecessors. Functionality may differ. Is this mix of changes enough for the smart phone to be innovative? Innovation, I have argued, is not just a collection of changes to form, fit and function but has a societal impact – a forward impact. This forward impact opens a new societal and technological setting and often creates opportunities for “novel” (compared to the previous setting) opportunities for new products. I believe the smart phone is not innovative. While this phone provides technological changes to previous iterations of phones, the forward impact of the cell phone lies in that earliest generation of cell phones. The smart phone is an expansion of the product category of cell phones and not innovative as I am defining innovation. Significant enhancements in smart phones only expand without forward impact existing phones. Significant enhancements to function (or features) may occur without being innovative.
Let me explain my reasoning (hopefully not too repetitively). Neither products nor innovation occur in a vacuum. Both operate in a matrix of societal and technological factors. Innovation is measured against this matrix. The characteristics of the innovative product must be such that it provides forward impact. Forward impact, while hard to define is clear in retrospect. In a practical sense forward impacting matrix changes or more properly the consequences of the matrix changes have such an impact that reversion is “impossible”. The removable type press made books for the masses possible and shifted, ultimately, the power of knowledge from the privileged to the masses. The collective efforts resulting in the horseless carriage, aka the automobile, created a whole model for work and living not to mention traffic jams and suburban sprawl. Powered flight, the Wright brothers and others, opened up a whole new perspective on travel and downsized our world. The transistor giving rise to the personal computing revolution, AI and machine learning and vistas yet unknown has shaped our world in unimagined ways. The cotton gin, the mold board plow and the whole mechanization of agriculture allows the possibility of feeding a world with billions of people.
Some will argue, what about “smart watches and wearable technology are innovations based on a smart phone. Once you have a smart watch or wearable technology where do you go in terms of shifting the societal and technological matrix? How much forward impact is present in these two products? As I see things, there is not much forward impact and as I am defining innovation, no innovation.