It’s been just 6 years since the iPhone was unveiled. The App Store was only months old when Barack Obama was elected. We’ve done a mobile version of the 386 to x86-64 evolution in that time. In a weird coincidence, hitting the 64bit era probably means we’ll see more evolution than revolution in our phones. I guess that’s why everyone is looking for a new hardware device from Apple (or anyone) to shake things up.

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around why the tech press speculation about watches, TVs, etc bothers me, because it really does. Looking for industrial design or microprocessor updates or whatever really isn’t anything but incremental evolution. Similarly, a watch (or whatever) that does the same thing as my phone doesn’t really matter.

To understand why, just take a look at what happened to Blackberry. If you haven’t read the Globe & Mail’s history of Blackberry’s decline, you should. It’s fascinating.

There are a lot of little insights, including this one:

To Mr. Lazaridis … the iPhone was a device that broke all the rules. … Unlike the BlackBerry, the iPhone had a fully Internet-capable browser. That meant it would strain the networks of wireless companies like AT&T Inc., something those carriers hadn’t previously allowed. RIM by contrast used a rudimentary browser that limited data usage.

“I said, ‘How did they get AT&T to allow [that]?’ Mr. Lazaridis recalled in the interview at his Waterloo office. “‘It’s going to collapse the network.’ And in fact, some time later it did.”

Even beyond the Blackberry, this goes to how we as a tech observing public get distracted. The iPhone was sexy, beautiful and great industrial design. But, it was also much more than that.

Think about life in 2007, pre-iPhone. We were all clamoring for this. Every person I know that had a phone, whether it was a Blackberry or a Palm or even a candybar/flip phone with “Internet” access hated two things about their phone:

  1. They only let you browse the “internet” instead of the Internet.
  2. Our data plans were stupid expensive with stupid small caps.

Everyone  with a smartphone hated these things. Every single person with a phone that touched the “mobile internet” hated these things. These problems were obvious.

So, along comes Apple with the iPhone. It shipped with a real browser and offered an unlimited data plan (and Wi-Fi).1. We all got it immediately, because we all wanted it for so long. It was obvious:

The iPhone let me surf the web, from anywhere, more or less as if I were sitting at my desk. I actually had the Internet in my pocket, and it was amazing.

It’s the breakthrough that’s obvious in hindsight that really disrupts markets. It’s obvious in hindsight because the demand is essentially pent up behind walls that the incumbents either can’t see or are afraid to dismantle. Solve the business problem, execute, and combine them with this kind of demand and you’ll have a revolutionary product.

Contrast this with the products our tech pundits are obsessed with. I can’t see, for example, what the smart watch products solve that’s an obvious problem for a lot of people. What will it let me do that I obviously want to do, that I can’t do today?

I’m coming up empty. That’s not to say I can’t see how having a nice screen on my wrist wouldn’t be convenient, but I’ve got no frustrations that a watch-like thing would seem to fix.

That’s ultimately what we should be looking for: the limitations that annoys a lot of us that don’t necessarily involve breakthrough science to solve but where there’s a business problem in the way.

One other thought: I was looking at a list of Apple’s disruptions and spent some time thinking about how the iPad measures up against this criteria. Obvious ahead of time: our laptops were too heavy, getting too powerful for the types of things most people do at work, didn’t have the battery life we wanted, and didn’t have the Internet connectivity we wanted when traveling.

The iPad solved all of those things, killed netbooks as a thing, and brought flat rate (at the time), no contract data to a mass market product. Maybe it isn’t as purely disruptive as the iPhone, but it’s up there.

PS. Coincidently, Ben Thompson posted on a very similar idea this weekend. I like his concept of “obsoletive” vs. “disruptive.” I apologize in advance of running afoul of his definition of disruption. :)

I disagree with his point that the iPhone was not disruptive because it was obsoletive. First, that doesn’t capture the business side of the iPhone which was, IMHO, truly disruptive2. Second, the iPhone was demonstrably worse at mail and phone calls than contemporary Blackberries, Nokias, etc – 2G only data connection, no keyboard, and limited mail integration & power user functionality. In other words, “worse on the vectors” that the existing business focused on but way “better on other vectors” (yay, real Internet!).

I’d go so far to suggest that truly revolutionary products exhibit both characteristics, which is why tech writing gets so confused. I can make the same argument about iPad, I think.

  1. I still wish I knew what those conversations were like. The unlimited data thing was just the start, too. Soon after, Apple got the carriers to let folks install apps that could access the data connection on the iPhone without going through costly certification. Another under-appreciated change…

    Classic Steve, persistent until he got results, so I’ve been told.

  2. maybe it’s sustaining in Thompson’s definition? or is the business change another obsoletive move? The data plan was the same price as a Blackberry, if I remember correctly, but the phones came with no subsidies (so likely the carriers thought they could be in front of adoption). A topic for further research. I don’t think it changes my thoughts that the iPhone is both disruptive & obsoletive, at least for now.

  • ME

    My theories on the next revolutionary product are in regards to the internet being accessible without the use of external components. In my opinion we NEED this slow, incremental evolution of microprocessors until we have one capable of achieving this. I’ve thought it for a long time, and I know I’m not the only one. Google glass is the first step (and I truly believe it is just a step)in integrating mankind with the internet in a way that the iphone or smartphones could never allow.

    have you put any thought into this? i’m sure there are a plethora of moral and political problems that arise with the idea, but i’m curious to know what an intelligent person, such as yourself, has to say about it.