Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Mobile Stagnation

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, October 30, 2012 --  

Innovation in mobile computing is nearing the end of the road.

The rapid-fire announcement of countless new gadgets before this year's holiday season suggests a mobile computing industry going gangbusters on innovation. The past few months has seen the launch of the new iPad Mini, a full-sized Google Nexus 10 tablet, a Windows Surface tablet, a new generation iPhone, and several other tablets and phones running the Android and Windows Mobile operating systems.

But beyond the marketing hype, there is a stunning similarity between these products that indicates convergence. In a side-by-side comparison between the iPad and the Google Nexus 10 shows almost identical features. Same goes for the iPad Mini and the Amazon Kindle Fire (or the Google Nexus 7). And the defining factor of Apple's newest generation phone has been that it increased its screen size to catch up with similar Android phones made by competitor Samsung.

This echo chamber of product design is reminiscent of competing desktop computer models in the 1990s, or competing laptops in the 2000s. During this era of the PC, a range of hardware manufacturers competed with each other based on price and minute differences in design. Throughout the era, Microsoft and Intel ("Wintel") enjoyed virtual monopolies over software and microprocessors, and fought court battles for decades to maintain their dominance. Apple had to make do with a profitable a niche market for computers targeted at educators, artists and designers.

The market for mobile devices is starting to look remarkably similar to that of the PC era. Innovation is becoming increasingly rare as mimicking, price competition, and lawsuits become the path to profits. Today, Apple is the market leader, especially with tablet computers, and spends even more time in court defending its position than Microsoft did in the late 1990s.

The dominance of Google's open-source Android software on smaller handheld computers and smart phones makes today's equation a bit more complex. Because today's hardware manufacturers can power their devices with this widely-adopted software for fee, it virtually ensures that Apple will never be able to dominate the market in the same way that Microsoft did. Apple's best hope is to maintain its perception as a premium brand. If it can do so, it can retain a large chunk of the market for mobile devices for a decade or more, even as Android grows its tablet presence and prices for all kinds of mobile devices fall.

Comparisons to Microsoft in the 1990s and 2000s would be incomplete without noting the stunning fact that Microsoft is nearly shut out of the mobile equation. Its Windows phones have gained no traction in the market, and its new surface tablet computers have probably come too late to go anywhere. What was once the world's largest software company is now a distant second to Apple by market capitalization, and has periodically fallen behind the value of both IBM and Google. The company is destined for a long and slow decline.

The most likely scenario is that the mobile computing market will see stable boundary lines for the rest of the decade. In 2020, like today, you will probably be using an Apple or Google-powered tablet or phone that are more like their competitors than they are different. They will be faster, smaller, thinner and lighter. They will be incrementally better, but not fundamentally different than the devices you use today.

Why is this news? Because the past decade has seen such a rapid advance in mobile computing technologies that people have come to expect that the pace of change will continue indefinitely. But there are limits. For example, once tablet displays all have "retina" quality -- with resolutions so high that the eye can no longer see the pixels -- what is the point of further increases in resolution?

All new technologies on day reach maturity. For mobile devices, that day looks an awful lot like today.

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