Diminishing returns in mobile technology

My home PC, almost five years old, still performs all required tasks quite well (I don’t do gaming). While there’s been plenty of technological progress in the past years, a new PC bought today would not accomplish anything fundamentally different – it’d just be a bit faster. It seems to me that the development of mobile devices – smartphones in particular – are reaching a similar point of diminishing returns. Let’s look at some of the key metrics companies often compete on:

  • Display size: the practical maximum size of a mobile display is about 4-4.5″, which many phones already sport. Any bigger than that and the device becomes annoying to carry around – and unpocketable.

  • Screen resolution: accuracy of over 300ppi is over the human eye resolution, so it makes no sense to go beyond that. E.g. the iPhone 4 is already there.

  • Camera resolution: for photos, the Nokia N8 has a 12MP camera, which is already in “overshoot” considering hard optical limits will start playing a role in such miniscule lenses before that. For video, many phones shoot video at 1080p – as very few people have anything that can display resolutions above that, it makes little sense to improve that anymore. It will take at least 10-20 years before 4K displays become common, if even then. Pay some attention to the optics and good-quality sensors and you can have a decent point-and-shoot-camera in a phone; no more, no less.

  • CPU speeds: current dual-core CPUs are often more than capable of handling what we typically throw at our mobile devices; the upcoming Nvidia Tegra 3 chips should provide enough processing power for almost any imaginable mobile use case.

  • Memory: With 16-64GB of on-device memory, I find few people are materially limited by memory capacity on their mobiles even today; the increasing usage of cloud-based services should further alleviate this concern as less data will be stored (only) on the device.

  • Location: Practically all devices already have GPS, and there is no imminently viable alternative to that in sight.

  • NFC/Payments: NFC is one important enabler for many services, but it’s already there in many devices. What’s more, it’s subject to Amara’s Law and will not be as revolutionary in the short term as people think. The first physical thing it can replace is your public transport ticket. For payments, you’re going to need to have your credit card with you for the next 10-15 years anyway, in addition to having it in your phone.

  • Battery technologies: these are sorely in need of a breakthrough for many different areas; however, for mobile devices, even a 100% improvement would not make a huge difference – the battery typically lasts a day today, and having it last two days does not dramatically improve the experience. An order-of-magnitude improvement would change things (a little) more, but no such improvement is in sight in the near-to-medium term.

  • Apps: there’s definitely room for innovation in terms of what apps are out there. Platforms, however, can’t compete on the number of apps anymore – the most popular/useful apps are available for most platforms. Many specialist-apps are in the Apple ecosystem only (which is why 80% of US hospitals are using or trialing iPads, an astonishing take-up rate), but to attract the general public the app ecosystem is less of a competitive advantage as it used to be.

So what does one conclude from here? Am I saying that mobile development will slow down or stop? The former, I hope so. The latter, of course not. I would really like to see a return to quality and the end of planned obsolescence – so that people could have a high-end device they use happily for longer than a year or two.

All of the above features will continue to evolve, albeit at a slower pace. This should be seen as a good thing. Unfortunately, it’s likely that companies will continue to compete over these increasingly meaningless metrics. Many of the important features are already “there” in terms of being good enough, and more competition over, say, megapixels will just result in a feature overshoot; not just diminishing returns but actually worsening experience, as happened with the point-and-shoot cameras.

So what could the next revolutionary thing be then? Apple’s Siri, the natural-language voice assist system, could be the beginning of something relatively revolutionary. I don’t like the robotic voice it talks with, but the recognition part is an impressive start. Novel form factors, such as device modularization or rollable / bendable displays can be useful in some cases. Further down the road, we’ll have brain-device integration so that we can, for example, control our devices by merely thinking – don’t hold your breath on that becoming available before iPhone 15, however.

Part of me hopes someone will prove me wrong here, but I don’t see any revolutionary breakthroughs coming to the mobile business in the following few years. That’s not to say it is a boring business to be in, but it does mean there’s going to be a limited amount of technological development taking place. Which, incidentally, should give industry participants time to focus on other areas of development that in turn could be combined with mobiles in one way or another to breed the Next Big Thing. Which is where the real innovation is hopefully going to be.

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3 Responses to Diminishing returns in mobile technology

  1. Markus Böhm says:

    +1 and BR
    BTW: Siri seems to be a Wolfram Alpha “clone” with a voice recognition frontend?

  2. Andrew says:

    Ah, you cynic. 🙂

    I can imagine someone writing almost exactly the same blog post, right before Apple announced the iPhone. And while you might claim that there was nothing novel about the iPhone, it has certainly demonstrated innovation.

    If innovation is equated with game changing or disruptive, it is very difficult to spot before it’s appeared. So, I would be less likely than you to write off the chance any more innovation on the mobile platform. Historically, it has been the focus for much innovation. I don’t see why that should end now.

  3. sim says:

    Andrew, you may have missed the point. About iPhone innovations, I readily admitted Siri might be one of the next big things (but I really do want improved speech synthesis on it! :)).

    Also, if you look at the past few years, “innovation” in the mobile space has mostly taken place by evolutionary improvements in the above categories – this is still where many companies focus the competition on; e.g. on the CPU speeds, screen size, resolution etc. And there’s nothing wrong with that – up to a point. But beyond some point the features go from “not good enough” through “good enough” to “great”, which is where it should stop, because “overdeveloping” typically has more drawbacks than benefits – of course, it rarely does, just like P&S camera manufacturers went far too far in the megapixel-race.

    So rather than writing off innovation in the mobile platform, I want to refocus it to stuff that actually would be innovative rather than delivering more of the same.

    Markus, I believe Siri integrates to Wolfram Alpha, along with the phone services & some other services – with many more to come, I hope.

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