When the new iPhones were unveiled on 12 September, the presses stopped in anticipation of a moment like those Steve Jobs used to deliver, long ago, when a new Apple product meant a new way of life; a change in the order of society, culture, and commerce.
This was not that.
Sure, people got very excited about the host of flashy new gimmicks on offer, but for the most part gimmicks they remain. Whether I unlock my phone with a code or with facial recognition, the difference is marginal. Whether an emoji copies my expression or I choose an expression from a menu the message I’m sending is the same. And whether an AR engine is built directly into my phone or imported on an app, its utility remains as limited as it ever has done (revisit the hysteria following Pokemon Go if you don't agree with that one).
What’s missing here is innovation. By which I mean real innovation, the kind that changes people’s lives and society at large, the way the original iPhone did back in 2007. We’re constantly told that we’re living in an age of unstoppable technological progress, but if we compare that watershed moment to the news yesterday we might question that. It feels more like we hit a plateau 10 years ago, and have merely tinkered ever since. It’s like the TV. When that first emerged it was a Big Deal. But since then its fundamentals remain the same - making it bigger, thinner, and with more channels hasn’t changed that. We now deal in better, not different. A bold new dawn is always around the corner we’re told, be it in the form of wearables, AI, biotech, you name it. And yet still we wait.
This smells an awful lot like the fallacy people fell for in the 1950s, where they too made the mistake of believing that the radical progress of the previous decade would inevitably continue at the same pace into the future. But progress doesn’t work like that. It comes in fits and starts, and sometimes you sit through long periods without much happening at all. And despite it sounding ridiculous amid the breathless utopian predictions we hear every day, we could be entering such a period now.
Why might we think this?
Naturally we face practical limitations, like those that saw Moore’s Law unexpectedly shudder to a halt in 2016. But more limiting than that, believe it or not, is marketing. Quite simply we reach a point where something is “good enough”, and you just can’t sell the next generation, even if it’s technically possible.
Think about window blinds. In 1950s visions of the future, it went without saying that in 2017 all window blinds would be controlled with a remote. That would be the inevitable zenith of window blind technology. But how many remote-powered window blinds have you ever seen? Certainly they exist, and have been possible for more than 40 years. But they never really caught on. Why? Because they’re pointless.
Fundamentally the analog window blinds tech – developed much longer ago – is “good enough”. That neat system where you pull the string one way and it moves, the other way and it sticks? That’s as advanced as things really need to be us. Any fancier and the juice isn’t worth the squeeze; the market won’t support it. We are satisfied, and anything more would be dismissed as gimmick.
This is exactly what’s happening with smartphones. The “satisfaction threshold” was hit by the original iPhone, and since then we deal only in gimmicks. Nothing changes its fundamentals: a pocketable device that allows us to access information on demand wherever we are. How do you improve on that in a game-changing way?
Google tried with Glass, others tried with smart watches, but none of these innovations have really stuck because they all offered only marginal benefits. The difference between accessing internet on-the-go versus not was huge; but being able to have that information laid over my eyes versus having to reach into my pocket for it? Meh. It’s like remote control blinds. I get that it’s a step forward, but not such a big one I’m prepared to change my behaviour for it.
Thus we should ask the question: how many of these other innovations that we’re getting exciting about - on this new iPhone or otherwise - might fail this test?
Of course some would be genuinely revolutionary. True AI for instance. However the catch with many such innovations is that we have to get there first. And that often requires the market to want not only want the dream, but also all the intermediary steps in-between.
People no doubt thought Concorde was merely a step along an inevitable path to 20-minute transatlantic crossings. But they had to want Concorde first. They didn’t, and so that dream disappeared, with air travel speeds seemingly destined to remain at one level forever. Is Siri - on paper bigger news than any of the latest iPhone updates - merely the Concorde of AI?
Ultimately these are the tests any innovation has to pass to deliver real change: the electric blind test and the Concorde test. Is the benefit 10 times bigger than the status quo? Or is it just a tweak? Nobody shakes up their life to save two seconds. And can you deliver a big win immediately? Or are you going to try and make the public patronise poor value beta versions in the hope of something worthwhile years down the line?
Using this model, it’s clear why things like the iPhone, Airbnb, Uber, and I guess fundamentally “the internet” caught on. They changed the game, and were easy to sell pretty much from version one.
How many other recent “innovations” can say that? We may find the future is a more familiar place than we’re expecting….