Technology Column

Smartphone innovation isn’t dead yet, it’s on hiatus

/ The Daily Orange

This month in mobile tech has been defined by missing headphone jacks and exploding batteries, so it’s hard to not feel nostalgic for the old days of anticipation for innovation.

And yet smartphones aren’t as exciting anymore, as seen by a fairly under-the-radar September report from Reuters: Google has “suspended” its experimental mobile phone prototype Project Ara. The smartphone model was poised to be one of the most revolutionary phones in the mobile tech realm since the iPhone. Its basic concept was to become the first “modular” smartphone, meaning standard cell phone parts like displays, batteries, cameras and processors could be swapped out for newer or better parts.

It’s unfair to say that true smartphone innovation is dead, as concepts like Project Ara are living proof that there’s still room for improvement. But with what seems like slower movement than ever in mobile tech, it might be awhile before we see something as distinct as Project Ara becoming a reality.

Project Ara was the last gasp of an era of sweeping innovation in the world of smartphones when it first came to light in late 2013. Concerns about Ara’s practicality came up early on, as the phone would be thick and blocky by the nature of its swappable components, along with ongoing struggles over making the phone cost-effective for some of the lower-income consumers it initially targeted.

This stagnation has even affected the iPhone versus Android smartphone wars, as both hardware and software between the two don’t have substantial differences like they used to. Just in the last five or six years, major differences like notification centers, multitasking capabilities, app folders and capturing screenshots were some of the biggest contrasts between the two. Now, they’ve largely caught up to each other, and the most noteworthy improvements on their latest versions are minor in comparison.

Doug Taber, a mainframe computing expert at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies, witnessed the rapid evolution and eventual maturity of that mainframe technology. Much like what we’re seeing now in smartphones, Taber believes that the best indicators in the maturity of mainframe computers has been a steady sense of “stability and reliability.”

He added that, much like mobile technology, computers’ slowing development led to greater stability down the line.

“Developers have spent literally billions of dollars building reliability into their computers,” Taber said. “The demand that they have and the fact so many companies have embraced it shows us that it’s matured in a very, very short amount of time.”

Taber noted that smartphones have evolved and become bigger than mainframe computers, and their faster adoption and consumer-friendly nature has allowed them to mature quicker than most other technologies.

There is this growing sense that tech developers might be approaching a point of developmental stagnation. When the major year-to-year improvements on phones are only slight changes to battery life, processors and the camera, fewer people are going to be excited about them.

But right now, consumers are still in denial over the smartphone’s maturity. We still let ourselves get excited for new announcements, even though the updated features aren’t nearly as exciting as they used to be. As smartphone users, we still accept minor upgrades for every new year’s models. So for now, the groundbreaking Project Ara has been put aside for Google’s more traditional smartphone projects,= because we just aren’t ready for it yet.

Ara joins other projects that have come and gone, like the ambitious social network Google Wave and wearable eye-computer Google Glass — not to mention a number of other forgotten ventures. But in a lot of cases, the tech company’s best ideas have been integrated into other products.

The Wave’s real-time document peer editing lives on Google Docs’ current live collaboration features and while Google Glass’s future is uncertain, its legacy can be seen in Google Wear smartwatches and Google Cardboard’s virtual reality platform. Set to announce its new Pixel smartphones in a conference early next month, Google may follow its past pattern by incorporating elements of Ara in the Pixel smartphone.

Google is still open to licensing out the technology to third parties interested in bringing the device to the market. With a concept as fresh as Project Ara, it would be surprising to not see its innovations implemented into the smartphones of the near future. And if there’s anything we can learn from Ara for now, it’s that there’s still room for innovation in mobile technology. Until then, we should strive to live on the cutting edge.

Brett Weiser-Schlesinger is junior newspaper and online journalism major. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bweisers@syr.edu.

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