Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Unlocking the Future-Cellphone companies fight innovation

The world moves pretty fast, the great philosopher John Hughes once wrote. If you don’t stop and take a look around once and awhile you're going to miss it. This maybe true of life but it isn’t true of technology. And for many in the tech world if you don’t keep moving, you die, like a shark or a relationship. Innovation is the only way to move a company forward, which is difficult nowadays because discovering the next new thing is getting tough. There is so little left to discover. But there are some companies that are still raking in the cash even though they not only haven’t moved an inch, but are actively putting their fingers in their ears and humming until innovation goes away.

Cellphone carriers you would think would be at the forefront of innovation. Cell phones are the most tech heavy but easily discarded items in our current society. Most people can upgrade every two years looking for faster easier ways to stay connected while not making eye contact with anyone on public transport. Their business is inherently innovative, giving them a huge test market that can show them almost in real time what is good and bad about their products. Then customers simply trade out to something better for next time. But no company seems to want to take advantage of this unique opportunity.  Cell companies are only interested in recreating the wheel instead of building jetpacks.

This has gotten so bad that companies making innovative tech in the cell phone fields are doing it without any backing from actual cell phone companies. Google, Microsoft and others are creating whole new systems without having a carrier ready for their products. Hoping to stop Apple’s take over of the Earth. But at every turn they have been thwarted or downgraded due to cell phone companies fears of the new.

Because of the cell companies fears, the real innovators in any industry, the boutique companies are being squeezed out.  They just can’t afford to play with the big boys without any guarantees of at least recouping their losses. The don’t fear innovation because if the cell phone thing doesn’t work out they can always go back to Pizza Hut. But Verizon and the like feel like they can be destroyed by one popular twitter hashtag.

In the early years Steve Jobs personally had to beg AT&T to back the IPhone. The phone that helped change cell phones forever was even seen as a non-starter by these companies. Even when the things flew off the shelves it still took Verizon years to get on board, sure that the IPhone was just a fad, like shoes or the horseless carriage.

Or is there another nefarious reason at work? Much like the electric car, big business is wary of anything that might change the way people use a companies’ products. What if there was a phone that could pull Wifi from anywhere? Would this be the end of minute plans? What if there was a phone that never needed to be charged? That would spell the end of the lucrative picking up a charger at your local gas station! What would then keep the gas station going? These questions maybe the issue that are really at the almost still beating heart of cellphone innovation.  The fear that they would innovate themselves right of usefulness.