Calling the end of innovation in mobile computers

People are lining up to call the market for mobile phones. Analysts and amateurs alike are connecting points on charts and predicting with confidence the future of mobile platforms. Consensus is forming that there is no future but a quiescent state. By the acclamation of pundits, the survivors are declared to be iOS and Android. They are also predictably arranged in a way similar to OS X and Windows. End of story.

Except for one thing.

3.5 years ago neither of these platforms existed.  In fact, it was only two and a half years ago, in mid 2008, that one of the finalists even became a platform with the launch of an app store. The other “winner” only launched in a handset later that year and had no significant volumes until a year ago. In other words, these suddenly predictable platforms have been in existence for less than the life span of one device that runs them.

To point out how extraordinary this claim is, if we look back to the history of computing, could we have declared the PC industry future cut and dried in 1978, two years after the founding of Apple? What about 1983, two years after the emergence of the IBM PC? What about 1986, two years after the Mac? Or maybe 1990, after Windows was born? Maybe the writing was on the wall in 1997, two years after Windows 95 caught up with the Mac’s UX. That would be 21 years after Apple’s founding. Some would argue that even today the story of desktop or portable computing is far from over.

Sure, times have changed. Things move much faster now. But markets are also much bigger and take a long time to penetrate. Mobile channels are bounded by provincialism and parochialism.

What’s more, it’s not like there haven’t been platforms before these two upstarts came along. I’ve seen 9 mobile platforms in 9 years (PalmOS, Windows Mobile, Symbian, Java, WebOS, Windows Phone, iOS, Android, RIM Blackberry). New platforms are still emerging and evolving (e.g. MeeGo, Bada, LiMo, QNX and Tapas).

So the existential question is this: If you were to draw a time line, would a mark in early 2011 signify the end of mobile platform history? The point in time when unforeseeable change will cease to happen?

Let me offer a hint as to why not: every major platform battle has been sparked by an innovation built around a new input method. The keyboard integrated into a personal computer in the 1970s, the mouse in the 1980s, the stylus in the 1990s and the fingertip in the 2000s. Each of these input methods created new platforms (DOS/Apple ][, MacOS/Windows, PalmOS/Windows CE, iOS/Android), new ecosystems, new industries, new competitors and new platform battles designed to enrich forecasting pundits. I won’t even try to go back to the changed in the half century of computing prior to the PC.

So here’s my challenge to the prognosticators: If you are willing to draw a line in the calendar now and say that no input methods will ever emerge in mobile computing after this point in time I’ll buy the thesis that it’s over and we can count our chips.

If you think that out of the hundreds of user experience patents being filed, and hundreds of prototypes being slaved over in labs throughout the world, not a single new product will emerge with a new way of interacting with a computing device, then it’s time to move on to something other than what can be declared a commodity market.

But if you believe that, as happened four years ago, a new input method, previously only in the realm of mockups and movie magic, suddenly was shown, in a working product, on stage, then this business still has a chance of staying interesting.