Where to next for smartphone innovation?

The wave of disruption kick-started by Apple and Google has seemingly hit a wall and the next phase of the journey won't be defined by one single device.

The Mobile World Congress has come and gone, and for an event usually dominated by big smartphone launches it was somewhat of a damp squib.

Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of smartphone launches -- Samsung busted out the latest iteration of its premium Galaxy Line; HTC, LG and Sony all put their latest devices on display -- but there was precious little to turn many heads.

Instead, it was Samsung’s wearables that garnered the most attention.

It’s tempting to assume that the key appeal here for the 80,000 or so visitors in Barcelona was the innovation potential of wearables, but MWC 2014 was more about incremental improvements than true innovation.

The wearables story is compelling simply because it’s still in a relatively nascent state, where use cases are still in a state of flux.

Forrester Research analyst Dan Bieler reckons MWC just isn’t about revolutionary innovation anymore, with none of the devices unveiled this year designed to trigger a tectonic shift in the device and OS space.

Bieler has a point and his observations are reflective of what’s happening in the devices and platform space, where true innovation is hard to come by.

The wave of disruption kick-started by Apple and Google has seemingly hit a wall, weighed down by an inevitable inertia as ecosystems dig deeper and growth in the mature markets becomes a question of getting existing customers to update their devices.

The one clear message for device makers is that the action is moving to emerging markets and that means smartphones at lower price points with just enough specifications to keep the consumers happy.

But where does that leave premium players like Apple?

Apple’s CarPlay -- maximising the premium cache

Apple -- which predictably steered clear of the MWC -- chose an altogether different event to showcase its latest ware, the CarPlay, which is again designed to squeeze the most out of its premium cache in mature markets.

Given Siri’s importance in making CarPlay effective, the move could be a signal that the next iteration of the iPhone will boast substantially improved voice capabilities.

For many iPhone users this could well be the upgrade incentive they need. The CarPlay interface won’t be available to anyone with an iPhone 4s or earlier, as well as anyone using another smartphone interface.

By attaching itself to the likes of Mercedes-Benz and Ferrari, Apple is staying on top of the premium market. CarPlay may not be as innovative as some would imagine but it allows Apple to take a significant step in the impending battle for dashboard superiority. More importantly, it gives Apple another avenue to lock customers into its ecosystem.

Innovation crawl -- what’s the next stop?

It’s innovation in inches and it’s unlikely that the next big thing is going to come in the form of a singular device.

The incremental approach of device makers suggests that the innovation trajectory will take myriad forms. For the likes of Samsung and LG, their traditional hardware competency will be articulated in wearables and curved-screen form-factors. Meanwhile, the innovation engine for Apple will probably be less hardware-based and more focused on creating compelling services like mobile payments.

Wearables will also be in the picture, but perhaps not in the way we expect them to. Samsung’s current devices may be handy additions to its Galaxy range but if I am happy with my Fitbit it’s going to take some strenuous encouragement from Samsung to compel me to ditch it for the Gear Fit.

Building that right pitch is still a work in progress for Samsung and the bevy of other entrants in the wearables space, and Apple’s reticence with the iWatch is probably a sign that it isn’t an easy equation to solve.

Meanwhile, the eternal quest for better battery life will always keep device makers busy, with wearables adding an extra degree of difficulty.