Obstacles To Innovation

Reading all the 2006 recaps and 2007 predictions (and writing my own) has put me in something of a big-picture frame of mind lately. It’s far easier to focus on the things the mobile industry tosses up each day, like a new device or service, rather than keep the bigger picture in mind. This all sort of started back at the Nokia World event in Amsterdam in October. Sitting around for a couple of days listening to Nokia and many of its partners describe their vision for the future of the industry, followed by a few days of hanging out in the city, got me thinking about some things, or one big thing in particular: innovation.

On the face of it, there’s no shortage of innovation in the mobile industry. That’s one of the reason it’s held my interest for so long — it’s exciting to be surrounded by smart, creative people doing all sorts of cool things. The problem, though, is that too often they’re doing these cool things in spite of the industry, not because of it. Probably the biggest thing I took away from Nokia World was a sense that the company’s realized that mobile can’t be isolated from the internet, and that its biggest challenge will be in melding the two together, and doing so will give it the chance to deliver all sorts of new and innovative devices and services.

For some of the company’s thoughts on this, check out the videos that were part of design chief Alastair Curtis’ closing presentations. They’re certainly just pipe dreams, but reveal some of the boundless imagination this industry’s capable of at the best of times. Of course, despite the optimism watching these videos (and indeed, Curtis’ whole presentation) evoked, I couldn’t help some feelings of cynicism (surprise, surprise) as well. “Oh, pssh, like we’ll ever see that” — that sort of thing. I’ve always felt that having a good bullshit detector is a valuable asset in the mobile industry, but at the same time, my cynicism isn’t purely a facet of my personality. I’ve seen too many good ideas and cool things submarined because they undermine some entrenched, although flawed, business model. Too many good ideas fail because of the obtuseness of some unrelated player in the industry. Too many good people’s projects ruined because of the hoops they’ve had to jump through to bring them to market. Too many companies fail because they couldn’t find a market for their services, not because of poor focus or execution, but because established players simply wouldn’t let them.

There are so many people, so many companies, that are capable of great things with mobile devices, applications and services. It’s too bad that the obstacles they must surmount are so great as well. That’s the biggest problem facing the mobile industry. It’s not technological issues like slow networks or small screens on handsets; it’s the ridiculous obstacles to innovation faced by both tiny developers and behemoths like Nokia. It’s the obstacles that keep great ideas out of the market, that keep small companies from making a big impact.

So consider this a call to arms (albeit one from a pretty small platform). The first step towards eliminating these obstacles is calling them out. What do you see — as a developer, content provider, marketer, vendor, even as a consumer — as the obstacles to innovation in the mobile industry? What’s really holding things back?

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