Scot Finnie: A call for mobile innovation

I first heard the phrase "the year of mobile" in 1999. If you had told me then that companies like Microsoft, Motorola and Nokia would be lesser lights on the mobile stage by 2012 (the actual year of mobile, by the way), I would have laughed. That's why I love this industry: It changes while you watch, with new developments snicking into place like the next frame of a slide deck.

In this slide: The term PC industry has been rendered obsolete by the dramatically slowing growth of PC sales and the rapid adoption of mobile technologies. Gartner reports that at the end of 2012, the worldwide installed base of notebook, desktop and tablet PCs was over 1.75 billion. In October of last year, Strategy Analytics tagged the number of smartphones currently in use at over 1 billion globally, and it projects that the installed base of tablets will surpass 780 million in 2016. But wait, shouldn't tablet numbers and smartphone numbers be rolled up? I don't think so.

The tablet phenomenon is separate from, and less mobile-specific than, the smartphone phenomenon. It's easy to think of smartphones and tablets as the fraternal twins of mobile computing. They aren't. The tablet is less the newest mobile device than it is a thinner, lighter incarnation of the PC. The tablet will heavily influence both smartphones and PCs, but it is transitional. Smartphones are much better adapted to mobile. The smartphone is a game-changer that has had a profound effect on lifestyles and workstyles.

The cliche about tablets is that they're media-consumption devices, not content-creation devices. But that argument ignores the facts. Why? Because despite what the pundits opine, it's human nature to create content, and all forms of computing require input of at least short strings of text. It's easier to do that on the go with a smaller, hand-size smartphone than it is with a larger tablet. Touchscreen user interfaces spur you to hold the device with one hand and tap, scroll and swipe the screen with the other. But to use a tablet's virtual keyboard efficiently -- with two hands -- you need to prop a 9- or 10-inch device on a table or your lap. And it's awkward to use a two-thumb typing approach on larger tablets. The transition from touch manipulation of the screen to entering text is fairly natural with a smartphone. With a tablet, it can be tiresome.

The tablet is a very immature device, with a user interface designed for a much smaller form factor. That may be why tablets are shrinking to 7 inches and smartphones are expanding to 5 inches. Somewhere in that middle ground there may be a happy medium. We just don't know. A lot more innovation is desperately needed for mobile hardware design and platforms. Are Apple, Google, Samsung and Microsoft up to the task?

Some people question, for example, whether Apple has lost its innovation mojo. I think we're going to find out, but I wouldn't bet against Cupertino just yet. Some think Google is losing interest in Android. Samsung is merely adding the latest available technologies with every product release; that's not innovation. As for Microsoft, its Surface Pro is a surprisingly thoughtful hardware design, but Windows 8 was hustled out the door, and it shows.

Just at the moment when mobile innovation is most needed, the market leaders may have taken their eyes off the road. Perhaps that slide deck is about to advance another frame.

Scot Finnie is Computerworld's editor in chief. You can contact him at sfinnie@computerworld.com and follow him on Twitter (@ScotFinnie).

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