The Innovation Asymptote

on January 7, 2014

One of the most common complaints heard around the Consumer Electronics Show these days is that the pace of innovation seems to be slowing, particularly in the world of hardware. For years, we seem to have been treated with amazing new products or capabilities on a frequent basis and somehow got tricked into believing that this pace of change could continue ad infinitum. Of course, the reality isn’t quite that clear—yes, we saw a number of important new categories get created over the past 10 years or so, but in many cases, they were really incremental changes over existing devices: iPods updating Walkmans, flat-panel HDTVs replacing standard definition CRTs, touch screen smartphones taking over from candy-bar style mobile phones, etc. Those same kind of innovations continue today with touch-based 2-in-1 PCs outpacing traditional notebooks, curved OLED 4K TVs outdoing flat-panel LCD HDTVs, and so on.

The difference now is that the improvements versus previous generations are arguably smaller—in large part because the previous generation products were (are) pretty good. As a result, the new products aren’t necessarily as compelling—as must have—as those previous generation products. In general, I believe you could argue that we are seeing an innovation curve that appears to be asymptotically approaching zero—at least when it comes to hardware—hence the title of this week’s column. Now, to be clear, I’m not arguing that innovations are stopping—obviously, that would be ridiculous. But I do think the extent of traditional hardware innovations is slowing. For example, if you look at the transitions between recent generations of popular products—iPad Mini to iPad Mini with Retina, Galaxy S3 to Galaxy S4, etc., the actual feature improvements were relatively modest. And, I think some of the products we’ll see this year will show even more modest changes—what is the second generation iPad Air really going to offer over the first (other than a fingerprint reader of course…)? Most of the new innovation is happening around software and connectivity options—things that don’t necessarily have an impact on the physical form factor of the device. Right or wrong, that’s how many people view or expect innovations in the hardware world to present themselves.

If you think about it, most of the more interesting device categories are all moving to the same basic archetypal shape: an increasingly thin piece of glass sitting on top of a circuit board. Whether you’re talking about wearables, smartphones, tablets, PCs or TVs, they’re all moving towards variations of smart glass. Now, I think we all like sleek, sexy touchscreens of various sizes, but the logical end to these types of advancements seems to be in sight.

But of course, innovation (even in hardware) isn’t really ending. So, what’s going on? Well, it’s not entirely clear yet, but I believe the traditional mechanisms of measuring innovation may indeed be moving to zero. However, I also think we’re on the verge of some major shifts in the shape of the innovation curve. I believe some of the more interesting innovations that we may start to see this year (but certainly next year) will be more orthogonal developments that aren’t necessarily thinner or sleeker, but just different—in some cases maybe very different. These could be driven by the kind of funky world view of the SteamPunk movement or intensive customization enabled by the availability of low-cost 3D printers, or other things that we haven’t thought of yet. I also believe major developments in bendable and eventually foldable displays will drive some dramatic innovations, but despite the early hype around some of these technologies, mass production is still a long way off.

So, in the meantime, I’m going to be on the lookout for things that either take a dramatically different twist on an existing design, or even better, put together combinations of capabilities we haven’t considered before. It’s here that I believe we’ll free ourselves from the slowly declining innovation asymptote and start to move in some very different directions. Should be fun to watch….