Apple's latest iPhone was introduced last week with only incremental changes. It seemed to signal that the industry has entered an era of technological bunny hops.
The arrival of the original iPhone in 2007 was a quantum leap for cellphones. Phones had never worked or looked like that.
The iPhone 5 that Apple introduced last week with only incremental changes seemed to signal that the industry had entered an era of technological bunny hops.
Faster chips, bigger screens and speedier wireless Internet connections are among the refinements smartphone users can count on year after year in new models, most of them in familiar rectangular packages. They are improvements, to be sure, but they lack the breathtaking impact the first iPhone had, with its pioneering fusion of software and touch screens.
"Since then, it has been kind of incremental," said Chetan Sharma, an independent mobile analyst. "It does not feel like there is a big shift."
But big innovations in smartphones are not a thing of the past. Incremental improvements can add up over a span of years, providing the computing horsepower to enable big advances in software. Breakthroughs in smartphone materials, software and even batteries could lead to substantial changes in the way phones look and function in the years ahead.
One of Apple's most intriguing recent efforts to redefine the iPhone is Siri, the voice-activated virtual assistant that it introduced in October with the iPhone 4S. The feature has the potential to change the way consumers retrieve information on their iPhones, enabling them to find information on the Web with natural voice commands and to perform other tasks. The product, though, has been criticized for its inaccuracies.
As Apple continues to improve Siri, Google, the maker of the Android phone operating system, improves on its voice search products. Google and some of its mobile phone partners have also moved toward replacing the credit card with the smartphone, using a technology called near-field communications that lets people make payments wirelessly at cash registers.
That system has been slow to take off because most merchants do not yet support it. Apple is taking a more cautious approach to new mobile payment systems, offering a feature in its new iPhone software called Passbook for storing electronic versions of store payment, gift and loyalty cards.
Technology analysts say smartphones could again see big changes akin to the one Apple introduced in 2007. Wearable computers are a source of fascination at many Silicon Valley companies, especially Google. The company has put tremendous effort behind Project Glass, eyeglasslike frames that can display texts, e-mails and other information from a smartphone on a miniature screen in front of the wearer's eye.
Google has said that it plans to release a version of the technology for developers that would cost $1,500 in the first half of next year and a consumer version sometime after that.
Although it could take years of work before the technology reaches mass market prices, researchers and some intrepid technology companies said that they believed wearable computers could be important in unlocking a new category of applications called "augmented reality." Virtual objects and information could be overlaid on the real world.
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