Wireless Innovation Slows, And That's A Good Thing
Apple's incremental iPhone updates aren't slowing sales, and they're allowing us to plan more rationally. How can that be bad?
iPhone 5's 10 Best Features
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Last year's announcement of the iPhone 4S was viewed by almost everyone as a disappointment. It was pretty much a warmed-over iPhone 4 with the clever but not overly useful Siri voice command system and a few other minor improvements. No LTE. Same screen. I described it as a rare swing-and-a-miss from what is otherwise the best marketing organization on the planet. Of course, Apple sold zillions of them. The rollout might have been disappointing, but the outcome was never in doubt.
Apple has now made another incremental hop ("leap," I believe, would go much too far here) with the iPhone 5, which does indeed have a larger screen, better battery life, a faster processor, and, most importantly LTE, which I'll return to shortly. And yet, if you look closely, we still see only relatively minor incremental enhancements over the 4S. Really, is the iPhone 5 something to get wait-all-night-for-one excited about? And so to the key question for today: are the days of radical improvements, enhancements, and innovation in wireless and mobile technologies behind us? Well, no, not as such--but the rate of innovation is slowing, and--this is indeed surprising--that's truly a good thing.
Wait a minute there, I can here you saying--this is an industry that has practically been defined by weekly (or so it seems) leaps (and not mere hops) in capability, be that in throughput, price/performance, packaging and industrial design, software (both systems and applications), management, and much, much more. Is it really time to close the patent office here? Can it be that the handsets, wireless LANs, and wireless networks of today will pretty much remain as they are from this point forward?
Well, no, I'd never argue that innovation is dead, but it is slowing. Case in point number one, as already noted, is iPhone 5. There's not much new here--it represents a nice upgrade for current users whose wireless contracts are up for renewal, and that's about it. As is the case with a minor change in your eyeglass prescription, there's no urgent reason beyond, perhaps, the need to make a fashion statement, to run out and buy a new pair. Apple will regardless sell zillions of these, too.
And, to be fair, what else might they have done with this product? Customers love the iPhone, and there's really nothing here to dislike. Even the new connector has an adapter for old accessories. But there's no radical innovation, and no departure from what we think of as a contemporary smartphone. After all, remember the original iPhone? Hot debate, and far from universal accolades. Bottom line: radical and new lead to questions. Slow and steady lead to orders.
And what about LTE 4G? I'm convinced that Apple held off on LTE this long (remember, there are lots of other LTE handsets on the market today) because the carriers simply were not ready--and, gulp, might still not be ready--for the onslaught of demand that an LTE-based iPhone is sure to generate. But we've had another year of network buildout since the 4S, and the situation today is likely to be at least manageable.
Still, LTE is going to get drowned in demand. The shift to metered data will mitigate this some degree (that's why we got it in the first place, after all), but the only real hope for the near term is workable Wi-Fi offload. Why? Because the follow-on to LTE, LTE Advanced, is many, many years off, primarily for economic but also for logistical reasons. More spectrum? Maybe, but, again, such is not imminent.
And let's shift over to Wi-Fi. I've been running tests on the first pre-standard three-stream 802.11ac products, and I'm seeing essentially double the performance of three-stream 802.11n-based products--approaching, no kidding, 500 Mbps. That's amazing by any standard, but what's next after that?
While I expect some power users will see multi-gigabit Layer-7 performance from products based on 802.11ad, and possibly some advanced 802.11ac systems (the .11ac standard approaches 7 Gbps in a full-blown implementation), most of us will be very content with that 500 Mbps or so and will have little incentive to upgrade beyond that for quite some time, if ever.
So--why is all of this good news? Because IT managers--and, to a great degree, even consumers--will now be able to plan operations and purchases more rationally, without fear of obsolescence before full depreciation occurs. We will have sufficiency--enough in terms of handsets, wide-area wireless services (assuming, again, Wi-Fi offload where possible), and wireless LANs, to do essentially anything we need to do, and to do so cost-effectively and with the reliability and management essential to success. So, then, a slowing rate of innovation may not be good for us in the analyst community, but it's terrific for customers and real users everywhere. Expect explosive growth across all of these domains over the next few years--there's no longer any reason to wait for what's next.
And the iPhone 6? Trust me, it'll be really, really boring.