Moving beyond incremental innovation in mobile

Today’s WWDC marks the 7 year anniversary of the original iPhone’s AppStore – albeit Safari web apps only – and is undoubtedly an important moment in the iPhone’s 7 1/2 year history. And whether one is a user of Apple, Android, Windows, Symbian, Palm, Tizen, Blackberry, or any other Smartphone, it is unequivocally an important milestone in the launch of the Smartphone revolution we are all part of today.

This year’s WWDC announcement has an added degree of significance as it likely to shed valuable insight on where Apple’s new management sees the future of the iPhone, mobility and Apple as a whole.

In order to continue driving mobile innovation forward and not fall into the trap of mere incremental improvements, it is worth imagining how a Smartphone would be developed in today’s technological environment if there were no iPhones or Android Smartphone’s in existence to cloud our thinking.

The original iPhone was inspired by various halting attempts to create a combination device of the many products from the period that were trying to make their way into the market, such as phone and PDA combinations from Palm, MP3 players from both Apple and competitors, messaging from Blackberry, GPS from Garmin and TomTom and what was at the time being termed UMPC’s, which were meant to be a bridge between the iPad and a Netbook.

The Smartphone’s that resulted from the culmination of these efforts invariably led to a product which acted as a miniature mobile computer that combined many of those functions, along with new and creative means such as added sensors and features that took advantage of the nature of mobile devices. The result was a very self-centered product model which was all about turning itself into the center of the consumers digital lifestyle, resulting in the requirement of downloaded apps for nearly any type of activity.

Fast forward a few years and we find ourselves in a new and very different technical reality, which now includes; modules such as fitness, connected devices, the connected home and/or some of its components, presence awareness, and just an overall plethora of new devices and sensors which overwhelm today’s Smartphone’s and makes it appear unsuited to the new task.

If a Smartphone were to be redesigned from the ground up it would look very different, although like past efforts it would be inspired by the technologies which surround us today and the expectations they are generating.

A new mobile operating system would shift its emphasis from apps to experiences and be a device less focused on itself and the apps within it and more aware of its surroundings and gracefully interact with it. This in effect morphs the Smartphone into a users personal and contextually aware dynamic remote control.

In order to enable these capabilities, the mobile operating system would need to develop a set of friction-less capabilities to better interact with these new surroundings. The surroundings include physical items such as fitness modules as well as means to interact with the surrounding physical spaces.

For physical items the need to download a companion app is a step backward from the PC where drivers are automatically loaded for a detected module and peripheral, and it would be fairly simple to auto download companion applications in a mobile environment in a similar manner.

Interacting with the surrounding physical spaces presents an entirely different challenge for which an app as we currently know them is not the answer, as there will usually not be an installed app for the given environment and users are unlikely to go through the effort to download apps, nor does every space have the wherewithal to create apps. Physical spaces include dynamically triggered based on mere presence or where a sensor such as a Bluetooth beacon are present to denote and trigger a given capability.

These spaces require the ability to trigger and load pre-defined elements that can be laid out in accordance with a fairly basic HTML like style sheet such as CSS. These elements can include a basic set of elements built into the operating system, but can also include the ability to load a unique or third party element on the fly without requiring an app installation.

A retail environment is a perfect example of how this would work. When a user enters a merchant their phone prompts them whether they’d like to interact with a store, and if they say yes a light version of an app would be loaded that allows them to search for items or interact with a web based shopping list, and even go as far as self checkout. The capabilities can include indoor positioning to leverage in-store maps to find items which would require the loading of an indoor positioning element.

The same applies for connected devices in a smart home. Individual devices can announce their presence and automatically be displayed and organized based on where you are and what capabilities are available to the user at the given moment. This also holds true for apps which can be hidden or surfaced based on the current context.

Hints of these concepts can already be found in some Android self organizing home apps like Cover, as well as iOS’s Passbook and iBeacon as well as the rumored Healthkit and Homekit or Android’s Google now which can easily form the basis for this vision of mobile’s next generation.

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