Why innovation in consumer technology does not always work

What makes a worthwhile advance?
Product plug: Apple chief executive Tim Cook launches the jack-free iPhone 7 in September © AP

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When Samsung recalled some 2.5m new Galaxy Note 7 smartphones in early September, it was a stark reminder of how difficult it is to differentiate a product, however good, in a crowded marketplace.

The Note 7 is undoubtedly a good device, with its octa-core processor, 4GB of RAM and its sparklingly clear 5.7in display. But it is the exploding batteries that people will remember the device for, not those top-of-the-range specs.

Similarly, the iPhone 7, which launched a few days later, is not sparking discussion about its A10 processor, dual camera or “taptic” home button, which vibrates to alert you that it has been pressed; it is the fact that Apple ditched the analogue headphone jack that piqued people’s interest.

Apple has long been revered as an innovator and previous bold decisions to dispense with hardware features that we take for granted have eventually been accepted after the initial outcry: nobody misses the floppy disk drive or the optical drive now. So perhaps this “innovation” will eventually cease to feel like the big deal it did when Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, unveiled the jack-free iPhone to scepticism and outright derision.

So what exactly is “innovation”? What drives it and when and why should you innovate?

Smartphones have become increasingly uninspiring in the past few years, since the hardware-makers moved away from the flip-phones, circular phones, swivel phones and other curious-looking devices that characterised the first wave of mobiles and settled on the wide and rectangular form. There is some variation in size and materials, you can choose between a plastic or metal body, but these days the mobile phone is a slim rectangular slab with more or less rounded corners and a shiny touchscreen.

All the innovation now takes place inside the device, in the hardware and software that provides an increasingly dizzying range of functions: we use smartphones to guide us to a meeting, to pay for a coffee, to go on a date. We can even have conversations with our smartphones thanks to Siri, Cortana and OK Google, yet pundits grumble about Apple having lost its way since the death of Steve Jobs and about lacklustre hardware offerings from other manufacturers.

The point is that innovation is hard to convey to would-be customers when so much of it goes on behind the scenes, as it were, and it is therefore difficult for companies to make their product stand out.

Hot issue: people will remember the exploding battery of the Samsung Note 7 rather than its new features © AFP/Getty

This is true for other hardware, too: the trusty laptop is a case in point.

Your 2016 laptop probably does not look very different to the one you had five or 10 years ago, yet what it can do has come on by leaps and bounds in that time.

What should drive innovation is identifying a new market and developing a product to fill that. However, it is probably not too cynical to note that what has tended to drive innovative hardware designs has been the need of manufacturers to come up with new products to sell into increasingly saturated markets. The boom in tablet purchases since 2012 has matched the ongoing decline in PC sales as buyers put off buying a PC and turned to tablets instead.

Tablets, however, have driven a fresh wave of innovation, with hybrid and convertible devices, such as Microsoft’s range of Surface PCs and Apple’s iPad Pro, that aim to combine the convenience of a tablet with the function of a more powerful device. Suddenly there is a much bigger range of devices to choose from: you can have a tablet that turns into a laptop, a tablet you can write and draw on with a “pen”, or a cover for your tablet that becomes a keyboard.

Right now on my desk I have the laptop I am writing this column on, a solid and respectable Lenovo Thinkpad, and two Android tablets: a Google Pixel C and a Lenovo Yoga Book.

All three offer more or less the same functions. I have Office 365 installed on each of them, they are all good for watching a film and they have all got decent battery life. The Pixel C is a high-end 10in tablet well suited as a device to take on a short work trip thanks to a separate keyboard that snaps firmly to the tablet to provide a solid and functional base on which to type (and also acts as a cover).

The Yoga Book is probably the most interesting of the three devices. Launched in September at the IFA technology show in Berlin, it is a 10in Android tablet (with a Windows version coming soon) that folds open like a laptop.

Stretched: Yoga Book is an interesting development of a familiar device

The panel where you would expect to find a keyboard is flat and lights up with a virtual keyboard when summoned, but turn this off and whip out the “pen” and you can write on the panel and watch your scribbles appear on the screen, saving your handwritten notes in digital form. Swap the pen’s nib to a ballpoint and add paper and you can have both analogue handwritten notes and their digital equivalent captured on to a device that is thin and light enough to throw in a bag.

It is not perfect — there is no built-in way to turn those digitised scribbles into type that you can import into, say, a Word document, and it is in the same price range as a capable laptop — but it is a thoughtful take on familiar devices.

I think the Yoga Book is an excellent example of what the best innovations really are — and they are not the flashiest or the most radical paradigm shifts.

The best and most useful innovations build thoughtfully on what has gone before to deliver functions — such as paying for coffee with a wave of your smartphone or using your tablet to scribble down notes and sketches — that you did not know you wanted or needed.

Data breaches highlight the importance of password managers

Lastpass
iOS, Android, Windows Phone, free (in-app purchases), lastpass.com

If you are not using a password manager, you should be. Data breaches happen every day and the recent dump of Dropbox passwords online is a sharp lesson in how you cannot rely on services to protect your passwords. There are several to choose from but I like Lastpass: it has apps for every platform as well as extensions for most of the big browsers, including Microsoft Edge. It generates strong passwords and stores them securely while being straightforward to use. Pay the $12 a year to go premium and use it on a huge range of devices and platforms, and make sure you choose a strong password (or passphrase) to protect the password vault it creates.

Forest
iOS ($1.99); Android (free, in-app purchases), Windows Phone (99c), forestapp.cc

This is for those who need to put their phone down and concentrate on other things from time to time. It is a simple idea, nicely designed: you choose how long you want to be banned from using your phone, then plant a tree. If you return to your phone during the time you have set, the tree dies. Save your trees to grow a virtual forest as a reminder of how much better you have got at putting your phone to one side. Well, that is the idea: the app was actually very prone to crashing on my Android tablet, and other Android users report other rough edges, such as trees being killed by incoming notifications. These grumbles might not apply on other platforms. It is a lovely idea and the graphic design is charming, so hopefully later versions will address the niggles.

Prisma
iOS, Android, free, prisma-ai.com

If you have spent any time on social media lately, you have probably seen friends’ photographs transformed by this app into something that ranges from interesting to downright terrifying. It is straightforward in its concept: take a photo, choose your filter, apply. The filters are in the style of well-known artists and artworks, so there is a Scream filter, for example, and a Mondrian filter. The results range from surprisingly charming — I love the Wave filter — to decidedly nightmarish: the Paper Art filter turned a photo of my cat into a cross between a bad migraine and a psychedelic nightmare. A nice touch is that some of the filters are linked to charities so that when you choose one, it throws up a pop-up asking if you would like to donate. While there are dozens of photo-filter apps in the various app stores, this one is particularly nicely done, which is why it has caught on.

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