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Why innovation in consumer technology does not always wo

(2016-10-24 10:02:07)
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Why innovation in consumer technology does not always work 
                                                              By Kate Bevan
      When Samsung recalled some 2.5m new Galaxy Note 7 smartphones in early September, it was a stark reminder of how difficult it is to differentiate a product, however good, in a crowded marketplace.

The Note 7 is undoubtedly a good device, with its octa-core processor, 4GB of RAM and its sparklingly clear 5.7in display. But it is the exploding batteries that people will remember the device for, not those top-of-the-range specs.

Similarly, the iPhone 7, which launched a few days later, is not sparking discussion about its A10 processor, dual camera or “taptic” home button, which vibrates to alert you that it has been pressed; it is the fact that Apple ditched the analogue headphone jack that piqued people’s interest.

Apple has long been revered as an innovator and previous bold decisions to dispense with hardware features that we take for granted have eventually been accepted after the initial outcry: nobody misses the floppy disk drive or the optical drive now. So perhaps this “innovation” will eventually cease to feel like the big deal it did when Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, unveiled the jack-free iPhone to scepticism and outright derision.

So what exactly is “innovation”? What drives it and when and why should you innovate?

Smartphones have become increasingly uninspiring in the past few years, since the hardware-makers moved away from the flip-phones, circular phones, swivel phones and other curious-looking devices that characterised the first wave of mobiles and settled on the wide and rectangular form. There is some variation in size and materials, you can choose between a plastic or metal body, but these days the mobile phone is a slim rectangular slab with more or less rounded corners and a shiny touchscreen.

All the innovation now takes place inside the device, in the hardware and software that provides an increasingly dizzying range of functions: we use smartphones to guide us to a meeting, to pay for a coffee, to go on a date. We can even have conversations with our smartphones thanks to Siri, Cortana and OK Google, yet pundits grumble about Apple having lost its way since the death of Steve Jobs and about lacklustre hardware offerings from other manufacturers.

The point is that innovation is hard to convey to would-be customers when so much of it goes on behind the scenes, as it were, and it is therefore difficult for companies to make their product stand out.

This is true for other hardware, too: the trusty laptop is a case in point.

Your 2016 laptop probably does not look very different to the one you had five or 10 years ago, yet what it can do has come on by leaps and bounds in that time.

What should drive innovation is identifying a new market and developing a product to fill that. However, it is probably not too cynical to note that what has tended to drive innovative hardware designs has been the need of manufacturers to come up with new products to sell into increasingly saturated markets. The boom in tablet purchases since 2012 has matched the ongoing decline in PC sales as buyers put off buying a PC and turned to tablets instead.

Tablets, however, have driven a fresh wave of innovation, with hybrid and convertible devices, such as Microsoft’s range of Surface PCs and Apple’s iPad Pro, that aim to combine the convenience of a tablet with the function of a more powerful device. Suddenly there is a much bigger range of devices to choose from: you can have a tablet that turns into a laptop, a tablet you can write and draw on with a “pen”, or a cover for your tablet that becomes a keyboard.

Right now on my desk I have the laptop I am writing this column on, a solid and respectable Lenovo Thinkpad, and two Android tablets: a Google Pixel C and a Lenovo Yoga Book.

The Yoga Book is probably the most interesting of the three devices. Launched in September at the IFA technology show in Berlin, it is a 10in Android tablet (with a Windows version coming soon) that folds open like a laptop.

The panel where you would expect to find a keyboard is flat and lights up with a virtual keyboard when summoned, but turn this off and whip out the “pen” and you can write on the panel and watch your scribbles appear on the screen, saving your handwritten notes in digital form. Swap the pen’s nib to a ballpoint and add paper and you can have both analogue handwritten notes and their digital equivalent captured on to a device that is thin and light enough to throw in a bag.

It is not perfect — there is no built-in way to turn those digitised scribbles into type that you can import into, say, a Word document, and it is in the same price range as a capable laptop — but it is a thoughtful take on familiar devices.

I think the Yoga Book is an excellent example of what the best innovations really are — and they are not the flashiest or the most radical paradigm shifts.

The best and most useful innovations build thoughtfully on what has gone before to deliver functions — such as paying for coffee with a wave of your smartphone or using your tablet to scribble down notes and sketches — that you did not know you wanted or needed.


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