Has Apple put mobile innovation back at least 10 years?

Take yourself back to the days of the Nokia N95 8GB. It was a terrific handset: An excellent camera, super form factor, nice keypad — a true ‘Multimedia computer’.

Perhaps the best thing about those Symbian devices was that they could multitask properly. Hardcore Symbian developers could access almost every inch of the operating system’s plumbing to bring phenomenally useful services to users.

My most frequently used function on my Nokia Symbian devices was ShoZu. I wouldn’t shut up about it. This was (and still is!) a service that ran in the background on-demand. ShoZu would get your images off your Nokia really quickly. Many of my mobile friends had ShoZu doing an automatic upload. Snap a photo and boom, you’d see the little data indicator briefly switch on and off as the service sent your photo up to the ShoZu servers and then on to whatever services you’d configured (Flickr being a popular one). I opted for a little bit more control — so whenever I took a photo, ShoZu would immediately ask if I wanted the photo sent up to the internet. Again, if you pressed ‘yes’, that was it. Job done. Everything happened in the background.

You could get on with your day. I loved it.

Back at this point — 2005/2006, the mobile industry was looking incredibly exciting. There were considerable frustrations, particularly around the distribution of third party applications. The successful install attrition rate for developers was appalling. Discovering apps was quite a challenge. The whole process of developing an app/service was highly complicated and pretty expensive.

The answer from the operating systems was ‘yes’, though.

There wasn’t much you couldn’t do with a Nokia. You could seriously kit out your phone with some brilliant features and services.

The industry was heading in the right direction — albeit slowly. Too slowly, actually.

Today we live in an iPhone world and that’s bad news for innovation.

Let’s be clear: Apple’s done a brilliant job. This is undeniable. My issue is that much of the planet’s mobile mindshare is wedded to the single-app ecosystem.

There’s *so much* you can do with your iPhone. My frustration is that you have to do it sequentially. You can’t touch anything or change anything about the device experience. This ensures a familiar user experience for everyone. It also means nothing changes unless Apple says so.

Witness, for example, the basic swipe-to-unlock feature. I’d like to replace it. Well I can’t. Job done. That’s it. If you’ve got an iPhone, you have to swipe. You can’t change that because Apple says so.

Sit back and consider precisely what you can’t do: You can’t get rid of the ‘official’ icons. You can’t add a screensaver. You can’t add widgets. You can’t… you can’t… the list is endless.

Where’s the innovation going to come from?

Well, Apple.

The company has configured the iOS experience to ensure that the only people who can do anything really are the boffins at Apple. The only way you can deliver or configure a mobile service on an iPhone is through a third-party app. You can’t do ANYTHING to the phone’s actual operating mode. You can’t, for example, install a persistent little triangle at the top of your screen that you can tap to reveal your precise GPS co-ordinates. You can’t add a swipe-from-left function on any screen that will automatically take you into camera mode.

You can’t have your iPhone switch into ‘work mode’ at 9am on Monday with an automatically established VPN back to the office network. You can’t integrate home appliances or anything else into the user interface.

Everything — absolutely EVERYTHING — you want to do with an iPhone has to be delivered via a little square app icon. And whatever you’re doing, it cannot be persistent. The device does one thing at a time. That’s the rule.

This is a significant problem because it’s raised a generation of mobile minds who are only thinking in terms of single apps. They can’t think any other way. There’s no point.

Witness, for example, the talented chaps who brought us Cloud Photos. It’s an app that automatically sends photos that you snap up to DropBox, rather than storing them on the iPhone. Especially useful if you’re short on disk space.

Let me stop you there though. Any semi-geek will have wondered, “How does that work?”

For a moment your heart will have jumped with excitement: Have they figured out a way of doing it automatically? Surely not? But…yeah. No. Of course not. Because you can’t do ANYTHING with the standard camera app, Cloud Photos has to run as a stand-alone app. You need to REMEMBER to use it. You can’t just say, “Right, every time I take a photo, I want it backed up using this service.”

Unfortunately you need to remember now to stop using the standard Camera app and start tapping on Cloud Photos. Every time. Every single time. You have to do this because Apple doesn’t want you messing around with their user experience (for perfectly understandable reasons).

Can you imagine how cool it would be to simply be able to install an ‘app’ or ‘service’ that did precisely as Cloud Photos does, but without having to fit the whole experience into the app silo model?

And by silo I mean that all apps are completely separate. They can’t easily talk to each other. So everything’s highly limited.

Many will comment that this hasn’t stopped Instagram from being successful. You need to run their app in order to experience it and 30-odd million folk seem to have managed that. That’s not the point. The point is that there’s a veritable wealth of service and application possibilities waiting for us all: But we’re not able to manifest them yet. Not on the iOS platform.

Android is a different story of course. RIM too. You can hook your software or service into an Android phone relatively easily. This is fine. However Android doesn’t have the zeitgeist. The attention is with iOS first. iOS is the attention-leader. You launch first on iOS. Which means you configure your concepts to deal with the limitations imposed on you from Apple.

It bothers me that because certain concepts and services aren’t *possible* on iOS right now, we’ll never see them. Or we’ll see half-baked possibilities that languish away in the background on screen 8 of your iPhone having been used once.

I’ll give you an example of what we’re missing. On the BlackBerry there’s an excellent little app called I Love BlackBerry. It sits in the background with very low overhead and records what you do with your BlackBerry. By the end of the day, it’ll be able to tell you how many times you’ve picked up your Blackberry and used it and how many hours of continuous use you’ve spent BBMing folk. Across a week, the stats begin to get rather interesting. Across a month you can really start to see just how addicted you are. It’s a super little app — and it’s next to impossible on iOS. Because you just can’t get that data easily. You can’t have stuff like this running in the background watching.

There are so many amazing applications and services waiting for us as an industry. How many are being held back? What will it take for the damn to break?

It’s going to be incredibly difficult for Apple to part itself from the single-silo app ecosystem. Will you ever be able to customise your home screen or swipe-to-unlock screen beyond changing a photo? I wonder.

And what about the general experience of using iOS? The faster chip in the iPhone 4S hides the fact that it’s an utter pain switching between apps. Instant messaging in particular is highly frustrating when you keep on having to ‘load’ up the app every time you get a new message.

Since Apple is so dominant at the moment, I’ve resigned myself to expecting nothing significantly cool in terms of user interface and experience customisation for at least 5 years. This whole thing has to play out. (I fully expect to be ‘wowed’ by some more inventions from Apple in that time though — a la Siri!)

There’s an opportunity here for the other platforms to seriously step up and show the way. I suppose Android is already well on it’s way. Any HTC One X user will gladly show you their raft of customisable (and rather powerful!) widgets that enable them to access information immediately on-demand. So I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to see brilliantly smart customisations, extensions and modifications on Android that really begin to push the boundaries of what we understand by ‘apps’ and ‘services’.

I’m particularly interested to see what RIM does with BlackBerry 10. Despite the apparent malaise around the company, there’s no denying the company’s capabilities when it comes to delivering robust, scalable services on handsets. One report I read today — I’ll need to find the link — suggested that the company could, for example, easily integrate DropBox or Box into every part of the new operating system. RIM’s “BlackBerry Balance” features already separate out your work data from your personal data. Plus the pretty extensive hooks built right into the OS make it reasonably straight forward for developers to start to think outside the standard app framework. Even today the messaging capabilities of a BlackBerry (SMS, email, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, GoogleTalk and of course BBM) are second to none. If you haven’t seen a proper BlackBerry running messaging in anger, I strongly, strongly recommend you experience it — even the cheapest £100 Curve 8520 will do. When I’m having a busy day with a LOT going on, the BlackBerry’s messaging services make my iPhone feel last century.

There’s hope with Nokia too. Windows Mobile 8 could change the game. I’ve also got my eye on Nokia delivering something entirely new to the marketplace at some point.

Still. I am certainly thankful for Apple’s efforts over the years. It was really needed. The mobile industry has moved forward in dramatic steps thanks to their participation. Perhaps in future releases of iOS we’ll begin to see more APIs and a different basic OS framework that would enable (for example) the team at Cloud Photos to add their wares into the standard camera flow.

So: Has Apple put mobile innovation back 10 years? Well, however much you argue that this could be the case, you can’t argue with the millions of people they’ve brought into the ecosystem, or the far-reaching influence of everything from the App Store to the iPad. The industry is immeasurably more exciting than it was back in 2006 pre-iPhone.

I think it’s fair to say we’re stuck now with the single silo app approach from an iOS standpoint for some time — and that Apple is likely to remain the dominant influencer for mobile developers on-going.

Will we ever be able to customise our iPhones beyond a wallpaper graphic? I wonder.

How long will we be stuck with swipe-to-unlock?

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