Mobile Device Ennui

By my reckoning, the era of the modern smartphone began in 2007 with the introduction of the first iPhone, and launched what has been one of the most dramatic periods in modern consumer marketing. That market was reenergized roughly three years later in 2010 with the iPad launch. Where the iPhone essentially took the smartphone concept to the next level, the iPad introduced a whole new type of computer platform, or at least delivered it in a format that people wanted to spend money on. Along the way, the idea of camping out in front of the Apple store to be the first to lay your hands on the next generation of these iconic products seemed to be "normal"--at least to some.

Now 6+ years into this adventure, it seems to me that the excitement surrounding all of this has dropped a few octaves. This is more than understandable given the fact that "excitement" can only be sustained for so long (at least at my age), but more importantly, there simply aren't that many earth-shattering advances in each new wave of smart devices. Also, people have more or less figured out what these things can do, where they fit in their lives, and they've essentially become part of the landscape.

I recall when iPads first appeared, sales executives were falling over themselves trying to figure out how they could get them into their salespeople's hands to use for product demos. High-end hotels were planning to put them in all the guest rooms to allow guests to make reservations at a restaurant or the spa, order room service, and in one case, even open and close the drapes. I thought it was funny because everyone was drawn to the "cool factor", but anyone with a memory knows "cool" only lasts for so long. Now whipping out an iPad (or an Android or Windows Phone tablet) is "about as 'cool' as your mom!"

And so this is the environment into which Apple, Nokia, and HTC all launched their next round of tablets, phablets, and smart phones. Apple introduced its newest tablet, the iPad Air, which is 20% thinner and 28% lighter than the previous version, weighing a mere one pound. The company also announced an iPad mini with Retina display that will be available in November. All will feature the Apple-designed A7 chip with 64-bit architecture, M7 motion coprocessor, and expanded LTE connectivity. Like the iPhone 5s and 5c, the iPad Air will be available in some new colors (silver and gray in this case), so it looks like a lot of Apple's "innovations" are coming down at the paint shop.

On the same day, Nokia introduced its first Windows tablet, the Lumia 2520, in bright red, blue and other colors. Despite Microsoft's planned purchase of Nokia, the two are obviously not working in lock step at this point, as the Lumina went on sale the same day as Microsoft's new tablet, the Surface 2. Nokia also announced a phablet called the Lumina 1520 featuring a 6-inch screen. It will be interesting to see if and where Microsoft maintains the Nokia brand after the acquisition closes, as Nokia is still widely recognized around the world.

Just prior to the Apple and Nokia announcements, troubled Taiwanese handset manufacturer HTC announced the aluminum-encased Android-based One Max, featuring a 5.9-inch screen, and featuring a fingerprint scanner. Unlike the fingerprint reader on Apple's iPhone 5s, HTC's will launch one of three applications based on which finger you use to unlock it. In any event, Engadget wasn't impressed.

A little bigger, a little lighter, a few more colors, but frankly, the mobile device market is on a technological plateau, though the market shares, at least in the tablet segment, are shifting. IDC published its tally on tablet shipments for 2Q13, and Apple's share dropped to 32.4% from 60.3% in 2Q12. Given Windows' relatively small share of the tablet market, this means that Android has surpassed Apple in the tablet segment much as it did in the smart phone segment; Apple doesn't make a phablet, so Android clearly leads in that area as well.

While mobile hardware is getting boring, mobile apps and peripherals are picking up the slack. Users don't live-and-die for the next super-cool smartphone, but they haven't abandoned the one they've got, and are finding lots of fun things to do with them. Instagram is moving into its corporate parent Facebook's space, Candy Crush has pushed Angry Birds out of the catbird seat for games, and we're all sizing up the smart watch and activity monitor spaces--Google Glass, not so much. When you think about it, the smartphone is becoming our on-the-go computing hub linking to an ever-expanding range of wearables and devices/services in our environment, as well as serving as our personal mobile hot spot.

So when someone asks you what's going on in mobile devices, the appropriate answer may be, "Eh, not so much."

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