iPhone vs Innovation

Four years ago I was involved in the launch of a new mobile device, now being recognised as the truly revolutionary machine that it was. Sadly it didn’t have Apple’s brand or marketing muscle (money) behind it, but we still did a pretty good job on the launch. The story and accompanying photos reached a variety of national papers, most of the tech journals and even GQ’s annual ‘most wanted’ list.

I came across some references to this device again recently when researching a newsletter for a client. I was a bit disappointed to hear the fanfare we created around the launch described as ‘little’ by this blogger, but then I guess the correspondent was in the US, and there was barely a budget for the UK launch, let alone crossing the pond.

Anyway, the blogger in question points out the renewed relevance of the MyDevice in the context of Apple’s iPhone. And he’s right. Here was an entirely touchscreen device that used haptic feedback to make it feel like you were actually pressing a key when touching the (completely fixed) screen. Even more innovative was the gyroscopic control system, that allowed you to browse a webpage by ‘mirroring’ — tilting the device around to view different parts of the page. You could even use ‘gravity’ to slide the page down as you tilted it. The fact that the iPhone appeared four whole years later makes it look positively archaic in comparison, and has driven great demand for the technologies behind the MyDevice from other manufacturers.

In spite of all this innovation, and all the press clamour around the device (the PR team still gets enquiries from journalists about the product today), the MyDevice never made it to the shelves. The reason why provides a very interesting comparison of where the fixed line and mobile worlds are today, and the difference between creating a disruptive software product, and disruptive hardware device.

Manufacturing a mobile device at a price point that consumers can accept — whether it is with an operator subsidy in Europe or full price elsewhere — means volume. A small manufacturer cannot get volume manufacturing started without demand. Demand means a deal with an operator to distribute the device. Getting this requires all sorts of testing to ensure the device plays nicely with the network. This takes a lot of time, often more time than the start-up manufacturer can afford.

If the product was software, the developer could just stick it on the Web and watch it fly (Skype). Wireline hardware like VoIP phones require no lengthy testing before they can appear on the shelves, hence the variety available and the falling cost.

The point? Big businesses no longer do the innovating, in either hardware or software. But they need to get their antennae up for the opportunities out there. Nokia could have launched its iPhone killer three years ago, instead of scrabbling around for an advantage now that the hype machine has finally arrived.

This post forms part of my Future of Technology series. For more posts on this subject, visit the Future of Technology page.

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Tom Cheesewright