The real problem with cell phones

 Mobile & Wireless, Apple, cell phones

As I was considering what to write about today, I started looking around my office. Over in the corner, I noticed a cell phone that dates back at least five years. It features a backlit keyboard, address book, memory dialing, and a few other extras we thought were great back then.

After that, I found the cell phone that replace it and realized that it was pretty much the same – it had a backlit keyboard, address book, and memory dialing – and even looked quite similar to the device I purchased a few years prior.

Finally, I looked at the phones I have now – a Palm Treo 700p and an iPhone. When I realized that the Treo 700p offered the exact same functionality as my older phones, but added the ability to surf online, check email, and capture video, I was stuck by something that amazed me: where's the innovation?

I witnessed innovation in my iPhone. That device features a touch screen, a unique UI, Visual Voicemail, and easily the best Web surfing experience offered natively on a smartphone today. But it also lacks many of the features I can find in most other smartphones.

What is going on here?

Is it just me or has the cell phone industry jumped the shark? Years ago, it was the bastion of innovation and the place where you could find something new and neat at every turn. Today, it's nothing more than a derivative market that's ruled by a couple major players that are copied by the rest.

Allow me to illustrate.

Before the iPhone was released, the very thought of a touch screen smartphone was unbeknownst to the vast majority of people. Back then, we thought it was cool to add music to our phones or capture video. But in one fell swoop Steve Jobs changed all that.

And by doing so, he literally changed the cell phone industry forever. Now, companies like Samsung, LG, HTC, and others are jumping on the touch screen bandwagon and even Google is trying to get in on the mix with its Android platform. And while each purportedly offer something new and exciting, the truth is, not one is unique.

But why should any device be unique? For the past few years, the strategy set forth by all cell phone vendors has been the same: let the competitors spend all the money on research and development, let them be the first to release an innovative product, and we'll come in later to mop up whatever market is left.

Can you imagine that policy working in any other industry? In the desktop space, that company would have gone out of business years ago. If Norton played by those rules, that company wouldn't even exist. But in the cell phone industry, it has become commonplace.

And perhaps that's why Apple has been such a success. Unlike most other tech companies that don't want to spend the cash on an unproven technology, Apple was ready and willing to do just that. And in the end, it paid off.

But do you know what the worst part is? These companies don't care. They'll keep plugging along, trying desperately to ride the coattails of Apple until something new comes along. And why shouldn't they? In an environment where technology takes a backseat to affordability and design, there's no impetus on the part of these companies to go above and beyond the call of duty.

It's a sad state of affairs, but unfortunately, there isn't an end in sight.

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